On-the-job Learning Isn't Enough. Knowledge, Training and Experience are all Needed
Bill Hoberecht -
My dryer broke and I performed the repair myself. I’m no repair expert, so my efforts took far too long and included the purchase and installation of one unneeded part (causing my repair costs to grow). This, too, is the result when a project manager is not adequately skilled or experienced to run a project: schedules can lengthen and costs increase. Are you truly prepared to manage your projects effectively? You have a better chance of responding in the affirmative if you are following a plan for developing your own project management competency and expertise.
Introduction - Articles on Professional Development
This is the first of a three-article series for project managers on the topic of professional development:
- This article, My Skills Gap Caused a Longer, Costlier Project, describes why professional development is valuable for all project managers
- An Approach to Becoming a Project Management Expert, outlines an iterative process for professional development.
- A Simple Project Management Competency Framework describes key knowledge and performance areas in successfully managing projects - this is used when assessing project management skill competency, identifying skill gaps and prioritizing areas for development.
Repair Expert Not Needed - I Can Fix the Dryer!
It was time to address that problem in the laundry room. My clothes dryer had developed an ailment and wasn’t generating any heat to dry the wet laundry. This wasn’t the first time either; this very dryer suffered the same problem about two years ago. The repair bill that time was $70 for parts and $140 for one hour of labor. Since today’s was the same problem, I figured that I could replace that same part and save the $140 in labor; as a bonus, the problem would be fixed today (rather than awaiting a scheduled repair visit).
It turns out that my diagnosis of the failing part was correct. However, that was about the only thing I did correctly that afternoon. In a comedy of errors lasting the entire afternoon, I struggled with a worn out socket wrench that plotted to strip the dryer’s bolts, had to make some investigative guesses when an ohmmeter would have given the sure answer, unnecessarily dismantled the back of the dryer when only the front needed removal, and mistakenly disconnected an important wire.
Two hours into this project I had installed the newly purchased replacement part and it was time to run a quick test. Success! The heat came on right away and I was proud as a peacock. Turned the dryer off and reassembled everything. Time for one last test: on came the heat and then, 60 seconds later, calamity! The dryer shut down and flashed an error message – something about a “cut off” not being connected. I guessed this was because of a second part that could have been faulty.
Off to the store to purchase a second part; installed that part and . . . still the same error message. Hmm, let’s look at that error code once again: indicates a disconnected wire. Maybe I should look for loose wires. Sure enough, that was the problem. After reconnecting the wire I ran a few tests and everything worked properly. Glancing at my watch I noticed that I had been at this for five hours! My wallet was a bit lighter as well – that second part (costing $20) really wasn’t faulty.
Lessons Learned: Suppose I had Contacted a Dryer Repair Expert
That evening I gave some thought to this experience. Going into this repair task, I was confident that I knew what was wrong and that I could figure out how to fix it, and was pretty sure that my parts cost would be the same as for the prior repair. I also guessed that this would be a two to three hour job (including a trip to the parts store). I missed on 50% of these four points – not a very good performance!
Suppose, instead, I had gone to an expert and asked them to perform the diagnosis and repair. Here’s what that expert would have been able to offer:
- Proper tools. Outfitted with the necessary equipment for each step of the repair. The tools would no doubt have been in good working order as well.
- Know how to best approach the job. Would know the right steps to take in diagnosing and solving the problem. Surely would have known to take off only the front panel of the dryer to perform the repair (and not waste time by removing the back panel).
- Good judgment in evaluating the situation. Would pay attention to the indicators in selecting the next steps to take; certainly would have had a better response to the dryer’s ‘cut off disconnected’ error message.
What does an Expert Project Manager Bring to the Job?
After a moment’s thought, I was struck by the realization that my description of a dryer repair expert is no different from some qualifications we might have of a capable project manager – here’s what I’d want a professional project manager to bring to the job:
- Proper tools. Has used a variety of tools and techniques, developing expertise in many of them. Is able to select from the available tools to manage a project. Better yet: has assembled a set of tools (e.g., templates, processes, checklists, spreadsheets) and is adept at using them.
- Know how to best approach the job. Knows and has used many project management procedures/methods. Understands the strengths or deficiencies with various methods, and considers these factors when selecting a procedure or method to use on a project. Keeps current on evolving project management methods and emerging techniques.
- Good judgment in evaluating the situation. Has good insight into situations, having already encountered and resolved many typical project situations. Has built up a repository of lessons learned.
A project manager who can do all of this surely is enjoying their work, is making good decisions on the job, and is able to drive projects to a successful completion.
Look at any Standish report in the past decade and you’ll see that projects are failing because of factors relating to how the project is managed (incomplete requirements, lack of user input, changing requirements, lack of resources, unrealistic expectations, lack of executive support, unclear objectives, unrealistic time frames and several specific to technology competence). An expert project manager will rarely let themselves be a victim of poor project circumstances – indeed, this project manager would reach into their deep reserve of skills, methods, techniques and experience to lead their projects in resolving such serious issues. It's more than being smart enough to continually learn on-the-job how to work through a project problem; it is essential to possess an in-depth comprehension of project management along with the insight to know how to best apply this knowledge.
Are You on a Path to Become an Expert Project Manager?
Project management can be a rewarding and fulfilling for those who are well-equipped to lead projects. Project managers have a greater chance of project and career success if they are familiar with fundamental project management methods, properly apply project management techniques and take on responsibility for those projects that are a match for their level of expertise.
However, the job of project manager can be very frustrating for those who are not sufficiently skilled or are otherwise unprepared. In such situations, the project manager probably uses their time (and the time of the project team) inefficiently – long hours are worked by all, but the results often are disappointing. Indeed, the project probably has a greater risk of failure.
The path to becoming an expert project manager is not well travelled. Some who start as project managers are not suited for this line of work – they lack the interest, intuition and abilities. Others will develop a core set of project management skills, but will not feel the need to advance beyond this comfortable set of capabilities.
The third cluster of project managers is perhaps the most motivated – this consists of individuals who want to build up a deep level of project management expertise, apply their talent to projects, and contribute to the community of project managers. These project managers are continually expanding their base of project management knowledge, have greater success in leading projects, and deliver a superior level of performance.
Here's one view of the journey towards project management excellence:
- When first starting in project management, you'll experience a rapid ramp-up in learning and use of some key project management methods, techniques and tools.
- Eventually, the arrival of fresh information about project management methods will slow. You are now in a period of repeatedly using their familiar methods. There will probably jump in skills and knowledge when you acquire a project management certification and perhaps a slight bump every few years when this certification is renewed.
- At some point, you'll have a "Eureka!" moment when you recognize that the field of project management is far broader (and perhaps far more interesting) than you have understood thus far.
- This begins your journey of self-motivated learning and application of that knowledge. This professional development is virtually continuous and persists for many years (perhaps even decades).
- The result of this continuous professional development is ever increasing levels of performance, which eventually could be characterized as superior performance.
I think the case for having a burning desire to develop into an expert project manager is compelling. Look at the key benefits for you: the job will be more enjoyable and fulfilling. You’ll be better equipped to handle difficult project situations, your overall level of a project management performance will be enhanced, and your projects will enjoy a greater success rate.
Are you interested in becoming an expert project manager? If so, then the next article in this series, An Approach to Becoming a Project Management Expert, may be of interest to you. This article outlines a simple iterative process that can help drive your professional development.