Practice makes perfect
BY SARAH FISTER GALE
Project managers who want to hang on to fragile, newly learned skills must seek avenues outside the workplace where they can practice and reinforce what they've learned.
most project managers quickly learn that the best educational opportunities happen outside of a classroom. While classroom training is an integral part of project management preparation, studies have shown that students forget 50 to 80 percent of what they learn if the content isn't immediately put into action.
Unfortunately for most professionals, projects where they can apply their advanced skills aren't always available, and when opportunities arise, they may not be selected for key roles because they lack practical experience.
“The best way to get that experience is to seek projects outside of the workplace,” says Kim Liegel, PMP, senior project management consultant and trainer for Advisicon, a technical project management and software development company in Portland, Ore., USA, and the vice chair of communications of the PMI Education and Training Specific Interest Group Board.
Project managers who lead projects in a volunteer capacity can take basic concepts and apply them without the constraints of the corporate hierarchy. “If you are developing skills you've never used before, taking on a project in the company can be risky,” Ms. Liegel says. As a volunteer, however, you often are more appreciated and given greater responsibility than you would be on a workplace project. “It's an opportunity free of workplace stresses where you can test your ability while you learn.”
Early in Ms. Liegel's career as a project manager at Fred Meyer, a department store based in Portland, Ore., USA, she had the chance to manage a United Way fundraiser. The annual event was co-sponsored by several corporations, including Fred Meyer, who donated the services of one employee every year to run the campaign. “It was a political move,” Ms. Liegel says of her push to be chosen for the position. “And it gave me the opportunity to take what I learned in the classroom and apply it in a microcosm.”
When she won the role, she was given four months and a car full of office supplies to raise $400,000 from a list of 40 corporate sponsors in Portland. Because she was largely on her own, Ms. Liegel got to try different techniques with different sponsors, who ranged from corporate giants, such as JCPenney department store, to universities, elementary schools and small shops. She ran every aspect of the campaign and took on all the responsibilities for its success, making the four-month effort a crash course in project management.
“Sponsors had their own way of doing things. It forced me to take everything I learned and figure out how to apply it in certain situations,” she says. “I learned a lot about simple organization, communication and how to rely on basic project management methods.”
Through much trial and error, she raised $420,000 for United Way, surpassing her goal by $20,000. She won appreciation from the charity and the respect of the Fred Meyer executive team. The project also taught her lessons she's used throughout her career. “I learned great methods and how they compliment each other,” she says. “I still take what I learned at United Way and apply those learnings to different projects.”
Of course, not every project manager has the opportunity to take on such an important and high-profile volunteer role, but they don't have to. PMI Chapters actively seek volunteers to run fundraisers, events or discussion groups, while local schools, neighborhood programs and political parties all need help.
Even novice project managers bring a valuable skill set to the table, notes Joanne Gumaer, PMP, president of IlliniaQ a project management, facilitating and training firm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “There are opportunities everywhere to volunteer,” she says, “and it's a great place to practice skills until you can garner a high degree of competency.”
Talk About It
Besides volunteering, project managers at all degrees of competency find discussion groups to be a great follow-up source of information, support and learning. PMI Specific Interest Groups often host chat boards or listservs, but the opportunities don't stop there, Ms. Gumaer says. Whenever she learns a new skill or starts researching a new project, she performs an Internet search on the topic looking for a conversation to join.
When she began work as a facilitator, she joined a listserv through the International Association of Facilitators that became one of her most valuable learning resources. “I got 40 e-mails a day from people doing exactly what I was doing,” she says. Not only was it a great place to go when she had questions, it also tuned her into industry issues she wasn't aware of. “When I did run into problems, at least I was prepared for them because of what others had been talking about.”
Along with associations, Internet sites such as Yahoo! groups are an excellent starting point to search for an ongoing discussion topic, she says, as well as teaming up with fellow students during or after a training course. But, she warns, if you are going to start a new group, it's important to have a moderator who can facilitate the discussion and steer the conversation toward constructive brainstorming. “Otherwise it can quickly turn into a big gripe session.”
Learning While Doing
When they are not honing their skills outside of work, many project managers find the best learning opportunities happen on the job. For project managers like Rick Baker, PMP, learning-while-doing is a mandatory part of his project process.
Anatomy of a Simulation
Project management simulation can be a valuable way for novice project managers to practice their skills in a controlled environment, but they also can be a colossal waste of time. The key is to make the simulation as realistic as possible, says Marty Wartenberg, an adjunct professor at the University of California Irvine and San Diego. “It should involve a relevant job and be laid out in a realistic fashion.”
For example, most project managers begin planning with tree structures that they migrate to Microsoft Project instead of using the formal list-based work breakdown structure in the program, because the list is harder to visualize. “That's realistic even if it's not what you did in the classroom.”
He's also found that computer-based simulations don't work at all. “You spend more time worrying about the software than the content,” he says, “and it's hard to make the environment realistic.”
If you are going to create a simulation, give project managers the tools they actually will use on the job, such as Microsoft Project, templates, status reports and change orders, and evaluate their progress at each phase of the project. If it's a longer project, Mr. Wartenberg suggests doing partial simulations, highlighting each phase of the project before it begins. “It's just-in-time learning,” he says. “It gives the project manager a chance to focus on the relevant tasks, instead of trying to rapidly run through an entire simulated project all at once.”
In 2003, when Mr. Baker was the project manager for Wind River, an engineering firm in Alemeda, Calif., USA, he was given control of a high-stakes high-risk project that he agreed to take on one condition—that his former professor, Marty Wartenberg, be embedded in the project as a facilitator and advisor.
The project, to build an ultra-sensitive camera durable enough to capture images during car crashes, had to be completed in six months for the client, Redlake, a high-speed camera manufacturer based in San Diego, Calif., USA, or the client would go out of business. “I knew the only way we could do this was if I had an advisor as part of the project,” says Mr. Baker, who currently is a consultant for Solekai, an engineering services firm in San Diego. “There were so many unknowns and risks, and there was no room for error.”
From the beginning, Mr. Wartenberg, an adjunct professor at the University of California Irvine and San Diego and chief inventor for Zero Boundary, a leadership management company in Irvine, Calif., USA, met with the team and spent several days planning the project with all stakeholders. In a formal kickoff, Mr. Baker and Mr. Wartenberg presented case studies of similar projects, showed videos, and discussed the goals and guidelines they had established.
Mr. Wartenberg also worked one-on-one with Mr. Baker and team members while others observed, and the initial kickoff sessions were taped for those who couldn't participate.
“They learned what they needed to learn while they did it,” says Mr. Wartenberg, who spent one day a week on site throughout the project. “When the kickoff session was over, they had the tools they needed to move forward on this project.”
Mr. Wartenberg worked full time for the first three weeks with the team, then continued to facilitate learning throughout the project and advise Mr. Baker whenever he needed support. As a result, the project was completed on time and won awards, including the PMI Orange Country Chapter's project of the year in 2003. “If you've got a do-or-die project, some new techniques you want to try and if a couple of mistakes in one day could kill you, you may need an outside project manager to be with you throughout the project,” he says. “I would recommend always having a line item in the project resource loading chart for this person.”
Since the Wind River experience, Mr. Wartenberg has based many of his classes at the University of California on the embedded learning-while-doing model, making learning an ongoing part of a project, to refresh existing skills and develop team members who have no formal project management experience. He urges companies to have a certified project manager—from within the project management office, a partner university or a local PMI chapter—deliver short training sessions at the different phases of the project and to offer follow-up sessions to track how the team is doing. “There is no sense in training if you are not going to apply the skills,” he says. “This model ties it all together.”
Finally, as Alexander Arefiev, PMP, managing partner of p.m.Office LLC and vice president of the PMI Moscow Chapter, Moscow, Russia, points out, life presents a multitude of opportunities to practice project management. “Consider all your life activities as projects,” he says. “It is not necessary to draw up a multi-page plan for a dog walk, but managing it as a project allows you at least to stop forgetting to do it.”
As you use your skills in your personal life, he suggests documenting your own lessons learned. “Write down your ‘heavy decisions’, blunders, brilliant ideas that worked or didn't work with your considerations why, and related facts to be able to recollect memory of the case much later,” he says.
And no matter what you are doing, consider the people around you as stakeholders of your projects. “Ask yourself how this person can influence my project and how he or she can benefit from the attained goals of the project. Finding answers to these eternal questions will hone your people skills in connection with your goals, and nurture your stakeholder management competency.
Sarah Fister Gale, a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based freelance writer, has written for Workforce Magazine, Training Magazine, Cleanrooms and Food Safety.
www.pmi.org << NOVEMBER 2005