Getting Started with Project Management (or: Bridging Theory and Practice)

Shameless plug: we have what I consider to be a pretty good class in project management for health and human services. (More here.)

As with other training in project management, there is a lot to absorb in a short time. In three days, we cover manytopics, and conduct individual and group exercises to help people understand and retain the material and see the real-world application of the techniques. This isn’t all that different from many seminars and classes out there. Sometimes, being in class is like drinking from a fire hose – it’s all coming at you very quickly, and you can’t swallow fast enough.

Usually, with all this new information, the student leaves the class energized, and looks forward to the application of new ideas to his or her work.

Then Monday morning arrives. And it’s more of the same – eight crises, twenty-eight phone calls, fifty-eight new messages with demands, and a partridge in a pear tree. (Maybe not the partridge.)

Quickly, it becomes Thursday, and the student has not yet applied the material learned in the previous week. It’s fast receding into the distance…

To use the project management training effectively, we have to overcome the barrier of trying something new, unfamiliar, and perhaps complex — and banish the fear of making mistakes. Guess what – it’s likely that we’ll make some. Maybe even a lot.

It’s natural to resist trying these new things, because we just don’t want to look like fools – particularly in front of our coworkers, and especially with our boss. However, one of the nice things about the project management training is that frequently our coworkers and sometimes our boss will have been in the same class. So – there is a shared experience and level of understanding regarding the new tools and techniques.

Here, then, is what I advise people in our class: don’t try to apply everything at once. It’s just too hard to remember, and you will need to practice each new technique a few times before it makes sense. Also, you might have to make some adaptations to the technique or tools to make it work really well for your environment. (Or just to simplify it so you can get started.)

Instead: when you’re faced with the situation where one idea seems applicable, use it. And doggedly pursue it, learning as you go.

Here’s an example: many organizations have problems with meetings – lack of focus, wrong attendees, no clear purpose, and no results. So we recommend creating an agenda, specifying the meeting objectives and attendees, defining the time limits for each topic, designating a leader, facilitator, timekeeper, and recorder, and conducting the meeting according to your plan and certain rules.

So, if your organization has problems with meetings – make that agenda, designate the roles, clarify the purpose, stick to the agenda. No one said it’s going to be easy. Likely, it will be hard – for four or five meetings, you will still have the individual who wants to ramble on regarding topics not on the agenda, or produce meeting minutes that did not capture critical action items. That’s just the nature of learning – you got the tools and ideas in the class, and you have to force yourself (and perhaps others) to apply them over and over until they become second nature.

Musicians have to contend with this constantly. I play a couple instruments – clarinet and guitar. Currently, I’m working on correcting some difficulties I have with playing in the third register of the clarinet – the altissimo -all the really high notes. (I’ve been referring to it as the peeling paint register.) It’s obnoxious, and I tend to resist doing it, because, at least at the moment, it’s not very much fun. More squeaks, out-of-tune notes, and general irritation.

But – when it’s working – it’s fabulous – and I can appreciate the new freedom and flexibility. The key is usually to break things down into small parts – “I’m going to work on only this group of six notes today” – and practice those over and over until they sound right.

The same can happen for project management and your work environment. You just have to insist – to yourself at first, and then to others – that you’re not going to continue the old habits.

Get started – by persistent application of one idea you’ve learned. Master it, then add another.

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