Project management requires the combination of technical skills, people skills and industry-specific knowledge. It is a true hybrid environment. This knowledge and its application also forms a beautiful paradox. Our quest to gain skills is never complete and always expanding, but the most effective tools are usually the simplest. Smart people do very simple things to achieve desired outcomes. Yet, they probably considered fifty alternatives before choosing the most effective, simple approach. You must know a lot to be confident your choice is apt.
Knowledge and experience in project management follows the same pattern. Learning about project management, how to work effectively with people, and our industry domain is never complete. We then use this knowledge to choose the best action, which for ease of understanding and implementation, is usually a simple course of action. I call it Expansion and Contraction, but there is probably a simpler name I will learn about one day.
Learning as a Project Manager
One of the things I love about project management is the opportunity to expand our knowledge. There is so much to learn that is useful and applicable to projects. We also live in an age where there are more avenues for learning than ever before. Like a hungry kid in a candy store, the options seem endless and enticing.
But what should we learn next to make the biggest impact? We could learn techniques to make us more effective or alert us to risks earlier. While earned-value is widely used, earned-scheduling is just getting started but promises useful tools. Alternatively, we will never be done learning how to better work with people. Communication, collaboration and motivation skills are more important than ever now talent is so mobile. Likewise, expanding our industry and business skills are critical to build credibility with sponsors and useful collaborations with teams.
The PMI Talent Triangle nicely describes these connected but infinitely extending fields of study.
For learning purposes, the Strategic and Business Management segment includes all aspects of your industry. For example, if you work in IT, learning anything your team does or uses would be valuable.
Hybrid Learning Model
We should study topics from each of the Talent Triangle segments. However, it needs be fun to be sustainable. We learn best when we are interested and engaged, not when trying really hard to stay on topic or complete a task. Learning also needs to be balanced with other aspects of our lives. We need to look after ourselves and our relationships. We won’t perform or learn well if sick, depressed or lonely. (See the Project You post for more on this idea.)
When we get stuck, tired or burnt-out on one topic, switch to another after recording what is challenging. Our brains process things in the background. Often the simple act of recording that we are stuck on a topic yields an A-ha breakthrough days later in the shower or out on a walk.
In addition to a stuck list, recognize all the things already studied. The following Kanban board has columns for To Learn, Studying Now, Stuck On, and Studied Already.
Personally, I try to limit my studying to one topic per Talent Triangle segment at a time. That’s my mental capacity, but I might mix in some short articles alongside a book on a similar topic.
Line Chefs not Eggheads
Knowledge is only useful if we can apply it when necessary. We want people who are humble and smart with a bias for action. When presented with a problem, recalling potential fixes is only half the solution. We then have to select one and try it otherwise we have analysis paralysis. The selection might be done individually or through discussions with the team, but we need to go from many options to a preferred one.
Many people find having too many options with no clear preference overwhelming. Kicking around alternatives is good to select the best solution, but be aware of the anxiety this can cause. So keep it short. Power comes from agreeing and focussing effort on the selected approach. A 40 watt light bulb is barely enough to light a room. Yet a 40-watt laser beam will cut through cardboard and aluminum. It’s the same amount of light energy, just focussed in one direction.
For me, there is an analogy or parallel between learning multiple skills and navigating. Once we know our way around we can create new pathways and connections. I live near the Canmore Nordic Centre. It has> 100km of cross-country ski trails tightly winding through a heavily treed, mountainous park. It also has > 100 km of summer mountain biking trails in the same space.
People describe the trail network and map as confusing as a plate of spaghetti (summer trails) dumped on top of another plate of spaghetti (winter trails). It took me a couple of years of frequently getting lost to become comfortable navigating there. Now knowing both sets of trails allows me to create new loops by tagging trail segments together. It also allows me to get from point A to point B quickly or get back to the Day Lodge swiftly if needed. In short, learning where all the connections are allows us to link elements together for better flow and shortcuts.
Learning as much as we can about project management, emotional intelligence and leadership builds similar skills. It allows us to see connections between ideas, link concepts together like creating a common vision for a project through storytelling. Or, resolve conflict with empathy and appreciative inquiry.
If we can layer these skills with learning more about our industry, then in the eyes of our sponsors, we go from effective employees to trusted advisors.
When We Get it Wrong
This is all great in theory, but we will inevitably screw-up sometimes. We will assess the options and gallantly blaze our way forward into bigger problems and unintended consequences. This is when being humble and flexible pay dividends.
Just as a lack of direction in the face of uncertainty looks like fear or paralysis, then dogged adherence to a doomed plan looks like blind stupidity. By carefully framing decisions with qualifiers such as “Right now, our best course of action looks like X” or “We have decided to try Y for an iteration and evaluate the results” this way we reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than we were yesterday.
People are more likely to forgive a mistake and try another approach when it was originally positioned as today’s favoured strategy rather than our only hope. This is not to say we should get into the habit of failing and flip-flopping, just be smart enough not to get preachy about decisions in case the occasional one turns out to be a dud.
So, strive for clarity with options to change direction if needed. We can explain: Here is what we are going to do... but, if along the way we learn of a better approach we reserve the right to revaluate and change direction. In fact, we have a duty to our sponsors to change direction if there ever looks like a better option.
If we cast the net wide and learn all that we can about project management, leadership and our industries we will never be bored or lacking topics to explore. The beauty comes when topics connect and we make links between subjects. Like always wondering where that unfamiliar road goes only to emerge from it one day and suddenly realize where you are and make the new mental connection.
As we grow in our careers we see how management is really about leadership and leadership really starts with ourselves. Then a simple shift over here makes things go better over there. Project success is a hybrid of technical, leadership and strategic domains. As we grow we see more connections and then achieve more through doing less. It is great when it works but still uncomfortable when it fails so, follow the advice of Patrick Lencioni, and stay humble, hungry and smart.
[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagament.com first and it can be found here - membership required ]