Can you put a non-engineer to lead an IT development team? How effective would be a financial product development team when managed by someone who has no previous experience with financial systems? When looking for someone to fill an executive position in an aviation sales department, should you be looking for someone who has more experience with aviation, a better salesman or A BETTER MANAGER?
I think it’s easy to understand what I’m getting at: there is an eternal argument going on in every possible industry – when looking for Managers, should you prefer people from the same industry or people with good managerial skills but without any previous knowledge of the industry.
I’ll be frank with you – I’m a little bit biased on this issue 🙂 Through my career I worked in so many different industries that for me the ability of good Managers and PM’s to learn on the spot everything that’s needed to lead their Teams to success is taken for granted. However, what right would I have to preach to others about Life Without Biases, if I wasn’t able to fight my own? 🙂
Let’s try to analyze the issue through the framework of the Craftsman/Scientist/Artist distinction I written about before. The reason I think it would be most helpful in this case is the possibility to abstain from recommendations that would be relevant for some people, but completely useless for others, as I discussed when warning against blind faith in best practices. Knowing your own type and the types of others will allow you to choose the best path.
The first thing we should remember while discussing the subject is that the types of Expertise do not distribute evenly among the workforce population. Most people out there are proud Craftsmen who utilize the professional lore developed by others to produce the desired outcomes. A much smaller share of job market participants are inquisitive Scientists who invent new ways if doing things based on what they already know. And only a tiny proportion of workers are free-spirited Artists who move things forward by totally disregarding any boundaries.
Statistically, this situation invites bias, because it may induce us to apply the majority rule by turning most of our attention to Craftsmen. However, most people doesn’t necessarily mean all people, and in big companies there is a high chance to meet even someone who belongs to only 1% of the population (technically – “one in hundred”). Because in our case the proportions of the smaller groups are much more significant (about 20% for Scientists and about 5% for Artists), we should always mind the differences between the types while judging other’s abilities.
The influence of these differences on the ability of Managers to manage experts of domains where they have no previous experience themselves is pretty linear. Craftsmen shine through learning all the small details and keeping the traditions of their working process. This means that for them an abrupt change of environment would not be a smart decision as would not feel confident enough telling other people what to do if they are not fully updated about what’s going on. For Craftsmen changing a domain means starting completely from zero or even lower because the imminent loss of status comparing to their previous position would surely make things harder for them.
Scientists have better chances of switching domains due to their wider perspective however several important caveats should be minded in their regard. For one, they are very similar to Craftsmen in their desire to know as much as possible about their job, the main difference being that they learn both intensively and extensively, while Craftsmen tend to intensive focus only. This means that they also need to spend some time before they are confident enough to issue directions to others. The other caveat is that a good Scientist always expects to translate his or her knowledge into general universally applied principles, which also takes time, as those principles are best devised when knowledge is coupled with experience. This means that Scientist should abstain from drastic changes of professional fields, such as jumping from Banking to Construction, but they can confidently move through neighboring fields, such as IT and Hi-tech industry, Construction and Heavy Industry, Banking and Government, etc.
The ones who may change fields freely, not being worried about managing Experts without being an Expert are Artists. Being able instinctively understand how the system works without digging deep into its nuts and bolts, and being tied to much by their previous knowledge, they can look at the working process with a fresh eye and see problems and solutions, invisible to those who’re engaged in it for a long time. Of course, Artists are the rarest groups out of three, but finding 5 people out of 100 is not such a hard job, statistically, at least 🙂
After reviewing the three types of expertise, it’s easy for us to answer the question in the title of this article: the answer is that the ability of Non-Experts to manage Experts is directly dependent on their Expertise Type.
This practically means that the whole argument about this issue is actually devoid of content. Instead of arguing about the ability of a generic Manager to work outside his or her domain, we should focus on the specific Manager and his type of expertise. On the other hand, you can make a generalized statement: most Managers will have a serious difficulty entering a completely new domain after being engaged in a different one for a long time, but there is a significant proportion of Managers (about 25%!) who can do it with some degree of success.