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.