A specialist-generalist perspective of project management


By Alan Stretton

Sydney, Australia


This paper discusses some attributes of project management that derive from depicting the project manager as a ‘specialist-generalist’. The sense of this descriptor is that, although the project manager is operating in the ‘specialist’ domain of projects, he/she is commonly (although not always) applying a broad range of ‘generalist’ management skills to that specialist domain in the course of managing projects.

The framework for discussion comes from a section entitled “Areas of Expertise” in the 2004 PMBOK Guide. The discussion first focuses on components of project management which are predominately specialist to projects. These include CPM, WBS and Earned Value, together with many others, some of which are markedly application-area-specific. This is followed by discussing areas of project management which are a mixture of both specialist and generalist components. Prominent in these are elements of the PMBOK Guide, notably managing the project life cycle, the five PM process groups, and the ten knowledge areas. Also included are application knowledge areas, etc; and understanding the project environment. Finally, I discuss two specific areas which are predominately generalist, namely general management knowledge and skills, and interpersonal skills.

It is concluded that specialist-generalist perspectives on project management can help in clarifying its nature, particularly in recognising that a good deal of the knowledge associated with project management can be properly represented as knowledge of basic ‘generalist’ management and supporting disciplines being applied in the ‘specialist’ project context.


This paper discusses some materials from the project management literature which support the depiction of the project manager as a ‘specialist-generalist’.

We first look at definitions of ‘specialist’ and ‘generalist’ from two dictionaries.


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About the Author

alan-stretton-bioflag-australiaAlan Stretton, PhD    

Faculty Corps, University of Management

and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)

Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)

Alan Stretton is one of the pioneers of modern project management.  He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA.  In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects.  He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France).  Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992.  He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996.  He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management.  He has published over 120 professional articles and papers.  Alan can be contacted at [email protected].