Learning project management

Learning Project Management

In my previous blog I introduced to you a concept on learning project management. I think this could turn around the way in which we are training our project managers and in which we are trying to improve our project management maturity.

Exchange between the senior and the junior project manager.

The first two components secure the flow of available experience in any organization. The first thing you need to do is:

  1. Set up on-the-job exchange networks between junior and senior

Senior and junior can learn from each other, it is a two-way feedback loop. The senior brings the enormous experience he or she has accumulated over the years. Gives mental support to the junior when confronted with the power plays and politics.

But the exchange doesn’t stop here, the junior is learning the senior too. The new language that every new generation has developed needs to be a part of the senior’s vocabulary too. This language contains new words, ideas, world views, mentality, and attitude. The senior gets a linguistic face-lift by this process. Both will learn.

The zone of proximal development

Learning occurs in social settings. Together people experiment and learn new things. The zone of proximal development is a wonderful concept that will help us here. Some things are done easier together with a senior. Let me give you an example.

When you start to learn skiing there comes a moment that you want to descent more steeper slopes. This can be very intimidating. But when you are with a more experienced skier you can follow his tracks, which makes it much easier. The funny thing is, when you are at the bottom of the slope, you have done all the skiing yourself so you had already some skills without being aware of it. The more you practice with the senior the more your confidence in your own capability will grow. At some point in time you will be able to do it on your own. Now what about doing a difficult discussion with the senior backing you.

The difference between what you can with a more experienced person but not yet alone, is the zone of proximal development. This term was coined by Lev Vygotski. This is where the exchange should take place. Both will learn, and both will teach, that’s the whole idea. In this process the knowledge and experience for both individuals will increase.

Existing theory as baseline

This is not enough, because before the junior and the senior can start the exchange they need to talk the same language. This is where theory comes in.

Discipline, questions, experience, language

The theory of project management (whatever this is) is used to discipline the new project manager. We tell them what he needs to do at the start of a program, project, phase, and sprint. How he needs to do his risk and stakeholder management and many other topics that you find in each project management book. Often we could place the actions into a table with columns, that represent the timing and rows that represent the things you should do. These tables are coined by Foucault as disciplinary tables. They are there to discipline you. They serve a useful purpose, but they can become a pitfall. When the table is read as a checklist, the learning stops, we need to remain as pragmatic as we were before the theory came on the scene.


Here you find a part of the PRINCE2 disciplinary table.

Appoint Executive and PM.

Capture previous lessons.

Design and appoint the team.

Prepare outline business case.

Select project approach.

Assemble project brief.

Plan initation stage

Prep. risk management.

Prep. configuration management.

Prep. quality management.

Prep. communication.

Set up project controls.

Refine business case.

Assemble PID.

Don’t be angry on me that I did not use the correct lines. It is just there to prove a point.

The disciplinarian

Each disciplinary table that is used by organizations has its own disciplinarian. You might be wondering how you can recognize them. That’s easy.

The trainer as disciplinarian

They are the trainers, either internal or external. They will tell you how to conduct according to the prevailing theory.

Two Razors

I already warned you that the disciplinary tables (read project management methodology) can become a pitfall. We need some instruments to protect us from following them blindly. The so called razors are very powerful instruments designed for that purpose. We already have seen the razor ‘Experience’ of the senior, that can tell you if it works. You can’t depend on the trainers, because their job is to sell you the table. But the senior can tell you if it works or not.

When you look at the diagram you’ll see an arrow from the junior to the theory with ‘questions’ alongside. This is the second razor, Ockham’s razor. William of Ockham was a philosopher in the Middle-Ages and he gave us a powerful tool to guard ourselves for the disciplinary tables that are imposed on us.

Only do something when:

  1. It’s compulsory.
  2. It’s logical.
  3. It works.

The first one is simple. The second one implies that when the theory is not logical, when it doesn’t make any sense at all, don’t do it. Use your critical abilities, be skeptical to any solution. When it seems logical, but it doesn’t work, stop using it. Never, do something just because it is a method.

An emerging model

As you can see the model is emerging: Learning project management is a social action between the junior and the more senior. In order to talk the same language, to be disciplined, we have the disciplinary tables that are imposed on us by the trainers. But they are there to guide us, the experience of the senior and the effective use of Ockham’s Razor are safeguards not to follow them blindly.

In the next blog I will discuss the connection between the senior and the theory to complete the top of the model, but that’s not all, there is a bottom part too.

Project Management Maturity

The first step in learning project management maturity

In my previous blog (link>>) I mentioned the resistance to learn. This resistant to learn has several causes and several consequences on which I want to build up a conceptual model that will enable us to create organizations with the ability to learn from their mistakes. Organizations that will become more capable in managing their projects. The model I will lay down for you will boost your project management maturity.

The first major obstacle

Often we see, the more senior people become, the less they want to change their world view. This is one of the reasons that some of them resist the powerful change that the Agile movement is bringing to project management. Some of the seniors are still very skeptical. What they fail to see is that project management throughout its history has always adapted to new situations. There used to be a time that the Master Builder and the Project Manager were one and the same person. Therefore I made the statement that we have never been classical and always been agile.

This lack of agility in learning has a severe negative effect on the development of project management. The problem with becoming more experienced, more senior, is that ‘you know’ more. Through trial and error you have learned, and you have succeeded. You have invested a lot of your effort into becoming a successful project manager, not without sacrifice. You have built up a self-image.  In the meantime the world around you is slowly changing and the effectiveness of ‘your ways’ is slowly diminishing. But whatever happens, you feel the need to defend your self-image. It is hard to admit that your way is not any longer the way.

A new generation of project managers

New people, with different ideas are now entering the project management scene. Suddenly we have program managers, portfolio managers, project support officers and scrum masters. It seems that they preach a different gospel. The senior feels uncomfortable and tells it is old wine in new wineskins. Perhaps he’s right, but nobody believes him anymore. The momentum of the new ways can be overwhelming, the senior is in denial. This psychological process is called cognitive dissonance and it prevents us from learning. Every human being is subjected to it, and it increases the older you become. That’s why a lot of elderly people are so conservative. But take care the transformation is inevitable, and at some point in time the senior becomes obsolete. Because the language he speaks isn’t spoken any longer, and with it the communication stops.

The problem with this, is that valuable lessons learned are not transferred from one generation project managers to the next. The ‘youngsters’ will have to reinvent solutions for problems that were solved long time ago. Also there is a new generation of decision makers that are facing these issues. Both become vulnerable to the guru or the account manager of the training institute that is selling some ‘disruptive’ new methodology. The oldies in our profession mumble that there is nothing new, and partially they are right, but nobody is really paying attention to them anymore. Just because they don’t speak the new language.

I have been more than 30 years active in project management. I’m an addictive reader about project management. I have studied many of the old ways. I’m amazed by the number of solutions I have seen that were found during the history of project management, and our failing to harvest what’s already available.

The old generation of project managers

When the senior resists the new ways of thinking he stops communicating. At a personal level this can become disastrous, but he alone is the one that has to face these consequences. It bothers me more that the old and the young don’t communicating any more. The transfer of experience will stop, and this should be a major concern of any organization, because this destroys the investment that was made in development of the senior.

We need to set up programs in which experience is exchanged. The seniors will coach the junior in becoming strong and stable personalities to withstand the powers that are exerted on them. The young will teach the senior to understand the new language. This needs in a new type of training program, which focusses more on exchange that on knowledge. On learning to learn project management from your peers, but it supersedes the traditional peer-to-peer exchanges. Exchange is just a part of it.

In my own experience one of the most rewarding experiences in becoming more senior is to pass it on to the next generation of project managers. That’s why I became trainer, and started to write books. Just to secure the flow of exchange. The assumption that a 50-year-old project manager doesn’t have to learn or to develop is an egoistic attitude. We all stand on the shoulders of those that have shown us the path. The senior need to take on responsibility to take care that the old ways are integrated into the new. This is true innovation.

Experience echange between senior and junior project managers will enhance the project management maturity in your organization.

This idea can be applied on each organizational level. In the organization as a whole, and in a specific project for which you are the project management. The first step is identify the seniors and the juniors, and bring them together and facilitate the learning process.

You need to be aware that this is the first part of a learning concept. The next components will be exposed in the following blogs.

About learning, projects and project managers

Learning to manage the project for project managers

This is the third blog that originated from my learning experience during the Zurich Expert Seminar on 18 and 19 February 2016. You can find the previous blog over here Is Agile the holy grail?. In that blog I proposed a different way of looking at projects. This is a continuation of that topic. I think that to manage a project is a learning experience.

Projects are foremost learning opportunities. At some point in time the leadership has developed a vision for the organization. When the organization is not capable to achieve this vision change is needed, often projects and programs are started for this. The projects as well as the vision is uncertain, we still need to learn how to adapt to the future. The more uncertainty there is, the more there is to learn.

The discourse on projects

When we talk about successful projects we feel a need to define a project, and what we consider to be successful. Scholars, gurus, trainers and consultants compete about these definitions. For the scholar the definition is the starting point of her research, for the guru the emphasis of his geniality, for the trainer his competence of teaching and for the consultant the height of his hourly fee.

For me the discussion is more important than the definition. Because a project is that what we call a project. You don’t need a definition to be able to manage a project! Tell me what needs to be managed that is not business as usual and I will tell you whether I’m competent enough to manage it. Managing the project is more about have we already learned how to manage a project like this and are we able to learn what we don’t know when we’re executing the project?

For long time now, the way of training project managers is by telling them that a project is something with a beginning and an end, with limited budget and resources, a multi-disciplinary team that delivers a set of predefined deliverables with the agreed upon quality criteria. Then we start with defining processes and call them best-practice. By this we have converted learning into rules.

The definition of projects and of project success covers many other non-project activities too. My point here is that from definition alone, from tables with best-practices, you cannot learn what we mean with the concept project. Better would be that we look at activities that people call projects and study what they are actually practicing.

And to be honest, those people that are doing it according to the book, are not that good project managers as they want us to believe. Often they are rigid, followers of the ‘one size fits all’ sect. Failure will disappear when you follow them, at least that’s their promise. With hindsight bias they select successful projects and attribute this to their method.

To fail is to learn

One of the hurdles we face in the development of projects is the way we frame our learning experience. We talk about disappointing project results as if they are failures. But a child that is learning to walk isn’t failing when its falls on its nose, it is learning. Our projects have become more complex than ever before in the history of mankind. Therefore, each comparison of failing projects now, with those in the past doesn’t tell us how well we have actually progressed in the last 100 years. We have learned, and each so called failure has been the seed for a new improvement.

Now imagine what would happen if we would view a project like this, think about how much more engaging this is. We no longer want to control, but we want to learn. When we do, we probably would experience that in the learning the control is found. It’s like the skier that is in control of the slope, because he has learned to ski in different circumstances. The only way he learned was by failing (and falling).

To learn is to achieve

In order to learn we need to be open. Framing the project as a learning opportunity creates such an atmosphere one that is open, communicative, non-blaming, motivating, and many more of these positive attributes. It is now focused on learning more, instead of failing less.

It starts with wat we used to call the business case. The learning case becomes: Can we learn, with this project, how to succeed in the future? And if so, is it worth the price? This is the sole purpose of learning, to equip us for the future. By the way that’s the sole purpose of any project we have ever started. What failing used to be, becomes another exercise to learn.

Lets view the budget. When exceeding the budget becomes a criterion for failure than we focus on meeting the budget, or exceeding it only with a small amount. When keeping the budget is a learning goal, our focus will be to work more efficiently and cheaper than the budget set. Our capability of meeting the budget will increase, and the knowledge acquired will be transferred to the next project.

This learning perspective makes us to reconsider the way we deliver quality. Not any longer what we agreed upon at the start, but on that what is needed when we deliver. This adds a whole new dimension to scope and change control.

Learning is always out of the box

Instead of inventing the next method, or proselyting followers for Agile, we need to learn to think out of the box. This should be a next step. Learning to free yourself from your strong convictions, but open yourself to unlimited opportunities of tackling the problem at hand. Sometimes a project doesn’t need a principal, sometimes we do not need a budget, and sometimes we deliver less, sometimes more, and sometimes we don’t have to make a business case. As long as we add value to our lives, our neighbors, our colleagues and our organizations.

Learning is not doing something we already know, that’s not learning, by definition you only learn things you have no experience with. The paradox here is that this is not possible without any experience. Think about how you learned to read, it started with some simple words, then more complex, the more words you learned the better you became. With about 3,000 words you are able to effectively hold a conversation in English. Should you stop there, no, there are more than 1,000,000 words to learn, just imagine how much more there is to know.

This brings me to another topic on which I want to elaborate in my next blog: the resistance to study. Whenever I travel over the world there are two types of people, some really want to learn, and to study, some think they know it all. Unfortunately this last group often forms the opinion leaders. They think they know it, and they don’t want to learn. They keep on repeating the same old story over and over again. In the next blog I shall propose a third way.