PM Notebook
A Method of Developing Your Project Management Skills
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Project managers are expected to have satisfactory project results through the use of proper project management tools & techniques, knowing how to best approach the job, and exercising good judgment in evaluating and responding to project situations.  So how do you become a project manager who can fulfill those lofty expectations?   Think of your professional development in Scrum terms – at the conclusion of each iteration you have a shippable product: you, with a set of improved project management capabilities.  Here’s the cycle:

  1. Create your personalized, annotated Project Management Competency Framework.  Confirm that Project Management really is your chosen career:  How do you feel about being a project manager?  Look at your company's definition of project management and the corresponding responsibilities - does this align with what you want to be doing?  Review a Project Management Competency Framework and update the list of areas where you have development needs.
  2. Plan your next iteration of professional development.    Using your annotated PM Competency Framework that shows your prioritized areas for professional development, create a viable short term plan to build up your expertise.
  3. Execute the sprint.  Periodically evaluate your progress in following your plan.  As well, find ways to share your newfound skills with others.  Adjust your plan if it is not working well for you. 

 

Introduction - Articles on Professional Development

This is the second of a three-article series for project managers on the topic of professional development:

  1. My Skills Gap Caused a Longer, Costlier Project describes why professional development is valuable for all project managers
  2. This article, An Approach to Becoming a Project Management Expert, outlines an iterative process for professional development.
  3. 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.

 

Professional Development is Such a Struggle!

When I ask colleagues about their plans for training, just about every one of them acknowledges the importance of training just before giving one of these responses:

  • "I'm too busy now for training."
  • "The tuition fee and other costs for that project management class would never get approved."

The ever increasing pressures on our project teams to deliver more/faster/for less are preventing most project managers from regularly focusing on their own professional development.  In those atypical circumstances in which training activities actually are initiated, it is usually in response to an external influences (e.g., renewal of a project management certification).

Professional development is easy to defer because it isn't urgently demanding your attention (like so many of the items in your inbox) - although it is important.  It isn't regularly performed; it's mostly treated as an infrequent "big bang" it's-time-to-get-trained activity.  It can be confusing because there's no well-understood, easy-to-follow process to use - you have to spend some time figuring out what to do.  Often a company has no established curriculum for project management training, so coming up with the right training activities on which to focus can be either overwhelming or, at the other end of the spectrum, performed superficially (e.g., randomly selecting an available project management class, or taking a class based upon the needs of the moment).  Training is generally assumed to be costly, thus the struggle to get budget approval isn't enticing.

In short, professional development is often skipped because so many factors make it far too difficult.

Because professional development is important, you'll need an approach that will eliminate some of the typically encounter problems.  This article outlines an overall structure for your professional development based upon the principles of Scrum.  An iterative approach to professional development can keep training and other developmental activities on your radar - smaller increments are less intimidating and a frequently executed process can become quite familiar and enjoyable to use.

 

Three Steps for Developing Competence and Expertise in Project Management

Project managers are expected to have satisfactory project results through the use of proper project management tools & techniques, knowing how to best approach the job, and exercising good judgment in evaluating and responding to project situations.  So how do you become a project manager who can fulfill those lofty expectations?


Some approaches to become well-skilled in project management may focus on only one aspect of professional development.  For example, a vendor that provides project management training might emphasize the importance of formal classroom education in your professional development, while a completing vendor may focus only on professional certification & recertification.   Of course, any reasonable plan for enhancing and refining your project management skills would include classroom training, but only as one component of a broader developmental program. 
Fortifying your project management skills
Becoming an expert project manager is an ever continuing process, with no final concluding step that signals the end of your professional development.  Think of your professional development in Scrum terms – at the conclusion of each iteration you have a shippable product: you, with a set of improved project management capabilities.  Give some thought to these simple three steps and make adjustments so they comfortable to you and something you could go through (willingly and with enthusiasm) a few dozen times:

First, Create Your Personalized, Annotated Project Management Competency Framework. 

Confirm that Project Management really is your chosen career.  Some easy indicators are in how you feel about being a project manager.  Are the responsibilities attractive to you?  Is the job of being a project management enjoyable?  Do you have an intuitive feel for the tasks of a project manager?  Are you good at being a project manager?  Is it fun?  In going through this confirmation, you may find my article Career Planning - A Guide to Getting Started to be helpful.  

Refresh your definition of Project Manager and the job of a Project Manager.  Understand the role as defined for your project or organization – this is project management as implemented in your company.  In particular, you’ll want to know how your company views project managers; is the preference towards traditional project managers, Scrum Masters, project trackers, project controllers or project facilitators?  As well, research the current thinking on project management and definitions as implied by popular reference standards (PMP certification, Prince2, Scrum Master).  Understanding these two views (inside your company and outside of your company) of project management can help you in deciding if project managment is your thing.

Review a Project Management Competency Framework and update the list of areas where you have development needs. Your method of selecting development focus areas might be rigorous (e.g., based upon a formal assessment that identifies your skills gaps) or more ad hoc (e.g., based upon your own informal or casual assessment).  Your output from this analysis is an annotated Project Management Competency Framework that highlights the prioritized areas where you could benefit from improved knowledge, skills or experience.  (This is your product backlog). 

 

Then, plan your next iteration of professional development. 

Create a viable short term plan to build up your project management expertise. You'll select the highest priority areas on your annotated Project Management Competency Framework.  Select a few areas in which you will focus, along with a variety of development methods.  (This is your sprint backlog).

In keeping with Scrum practices, I’d recommend aiming for a duration of two to four weeks for each iteration.   Although your training activities could be continuous throughout the year, that probably isn't practical.  Set a target of executing at least three sprints per year.  You’ll surely want to take into account your work load and personal commitments when creating your your sprint backlog.  Particularly for your first-ever iteration, you should probably create a plan that is easily achievable and is fun; a good first experience will help motivate you to continue this process.    

For each iteration:

  1. Identify developmental activities for at least two different areas in your annotated PM Competency Framework.  This will add a bit of variety to your training during this sprint. 
  2. Choose multiple development methods that you'll use during this sprint.  Be imaginative when selecting your means of developing your abilities – don’t fall into the trap of thinking that (expensive) classroom training is your only available method.   Here are some techniques that I use: 
    • listening to a webinar or podcast,
    • actively participating in a classroom course,
    • attending a professional seminar or symposium,
    • reading a text book (purchased, from your local library, or available for no fee through your company or through the PMI),
    • comprehensively researching and studying one project management specialty area,
    • creating a training course on a specific knowledge area or skill area,
    • writing a paper on a relevant project management topic,
    • organizing and participating in a mini project management seminar (e.g., brown bag workshop) and
    • reading current and back issues of respected publications (e.g., PM Journal, Harvard Business Review).  Many large companies have subscriptions that allow access by employees to electronic editions of leading industry publications.

 

Finally, Execute the Sprint. 

Carry out those tasks in your professional development plan and periodically evaluate your progress in following your plan.

Here’s a kicker that can boost the effectiveness of your professional development: along with your own growth activities, seek or create an opportunity to contribute to the project management community.  This could be huge and very public (e.g., presenting at a major project management conference), small and private (e.g., individual mentoring of a novice project management in a specific project management technique) or anything in-between.  I’ve found that my biggest strides in developing expertise have been when I coach, present or teach, and that makes this type of activity win-win: your own skills are reinforced and you are helping others in developing their project management capabilities.  There are hundreds of possible ways to contribute to the field of project management – consider making this an annual habit.

What’s Next?

If you want to proceed down the path of becoming (or continuing to be) an expert project manager, you’ll need to regularly put some effort into your own professional development. 

Even if you are a great project manager, you could benefit from making an assumption that there are gaps in your project management knowledge and skills; with this mindset, commitment (to yourself) to discovering those gaps and then finding a way to close them.  The competency framework in the next article of this series can help spot areas where professional development could be valuable.

You can start your education planning based upon information on a training provider’s curriculum of project management courses, discussions with colleagues, or on a training regimen that prepares students for a project management certification.