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.