Project Management Institute

Breaking with tradition


Project management training doesn't have to be boring.

Budgets, timelines and the dreaded scope creep are certainly very weighty matters worthy of study, but sometimes it helps to look at things through a different lens. Instead of heading off to a day-long lecture, project managers may want to mix things up a bit.

Gerald Haman uses everything from karaoke to an oxygen machine in his workshops. Yet he still manages to take his job seriously.

“Everything we do is focused on real business issues,” says Mr. Haman, president of SolutionPeople Innovation, a coaching and training company in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Project managers come to his sessions armed with questions about the projects they're working on and, hopefully, leave with new strategies for execution.

Applying a method based on the four quadrants of the brain, for instance, Mr. Haman has participants use flip cards to guide them as they transition from analyzing project needs to activating project plans. To complement this exercise, computer-simulated mind mapping helps people visualize a project from start to finish.

In other cases, a team might be tasked with rewriting the lyrics to a pop song so it's relevant to project budgeting.

It may not be as crazy as it sounds. And it actually may do the trick for project managers.

Unlike other corporate players, project managers require a different approach, says John Storm, president of BrainStorm Network LLC, Norman, Oklahoma, USA.

“Sometimes they get so deep in the details, they don't have the tools to see what they could have done better,” he says.

One look at the plethora of educational providers available for project managers is enough to prove that there's no shortage of training options out there. Still, there's a reason some trainers are turning away from the usual PowerPoint presentations to throw project managers as far outside their comfort zones as possible. The profession's heavy focus on planning, scheduling and other details may actually stifle the very communication skills that enable teams to function effectively in the first place.

“We tend to find the project management role forces you down the route of being a planner, a scheduler, where you're time-lining everything. That means you become quite a linear thinker,” says Melanie Franklin, CEO of Maven Training Ltd., London, England.

Although some people enter the profession with strong communication skills, they often end up overriding their better instincts.

“The biggest weapon project managers have is their interpersonal skills,” she says. “The human element is where innovative project management training is heading.”

managers look
to sharpen
their edge with
some rather

by Clare Curley


Project managers can
become very habitual
and process-oriented.
They need to be shaken
up every now and then
so they can take a look
at the bigger picture.

—Austin O’Sullivan, PMP, Walkinstown
Association, Dublin, Ireland

Because life on a real project can be a high-risk one, trainers at Maven first strive to create a risk-free environment. Before attempting role-play activities, for example, participants might first observe people interacting in a movie. That gets them to relax and focus on relationships other than the ones they face at work.

“As a project manager, you don't usually have a long-term history with your resources, so you don't have a chance to practice certain behaviors on your colleagues,” she explains. “If your team members mess up in training, it's a safe environment—but if you mess up on the job, it can cost the company a lot of money.”


Unconventional training methods don't necessarily have to be highly complicated or even all that inventive. Sometimes it's as simple as teaching people to move around some furniture.

Austin O’Sullivan, PMP, attended a people management course in which the trainer removed all the chairs from the room and made the participants stand for the entire session.

“At first it seemed bizarre, but there was no one dozing off and it encouraged people to take active participation,” says Mr. O’Sullivan, a program manager at Walkinstown Association, a Dublin, Ireland-based advocacy group for people with learning disabilities.

Ten years later, the technique has stuck with him.

“It really started a revolution in thinking, and I have kept many of these ideas going,” says Mr. O’Sullivan, who manages a range of people in engineering, architecture, drafting, administration, sales and accounting.

First, he began having people stand during meetings. Over time, meeting duration dropped from more than an hour to 20 minutes. “The staff spends less time shuffling paper and drinking coffee,” he says.

Off to Boot Camp

For some project managers, taking a break from textbooks can foster a new way of thinking.

Sapna Subramani, a system program quality manager at Nokia Siemens Networks in Bangalore, India, often undergoes training for her job as part of a transformation program related to agile. Among her most memorable experiences was an intensive boot camp that focused on role-playing exercises.

Throughout the three-day session, Ms. Subramani and other group members took turns acting out different types of behavior they might encounter while coaching colleagues in software development. Later, they critiqued each other based on their observations.

“These [activities] helped us refine our understanding of the subject and how to conduct future coaching sessions,” Ms. Subramani says.

Mr. O’Sullivan views creative training methods as an opportunity to transform people's mindset.

“It really livened things up,” he says. “It promoted a sense of urgency, and everyone had to be switched on.”

Creative learning approaches are now par for the course at Walkinstown Association. For example, the organization requires its project managers to read Six Thinking Hats [Back Bay Books, 1999] by Edward de Bono, which details a process for altering thinking patterns.

Ultimately, it comes back to helping project managers see things differently.

“We need to avoid doing the same old things project after project,” Mr. O’Sullivan says. “We need to encourage creativity, which is not something you see in many project management textbooks.”

Breaking from the standard training fare may carry a certain stigma, but he says the ROI is clear.

“Project managers can become very habitual and process-oriented,” Mr. O’Sullivan says. “They need to be shaken up every now and then so they can take a look at the bigger picture.” PM

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