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15 Vital Project Management Lessons I Needed to Learn from my Father

15 Vital Project Management Lessons I Needed to Learn from my Father

It’s been quite a while since my father died. But I have been thinking about him a lot lately. While many of us have learned valuable lessons from our parents, it is not a privilege we all share. However, my father taught me a lot. And here, I want to share 15 vital Project Management lessons he taught me.

This article is something of a re-print of a series of articles I wrote for my old blog site, over 10 years ago. They came shortly after my father’s sudden death.

15 Vital Project Management Lessons I Needed to Learn from my Father

Four Themes to the Project Management Lessons I Learned from my Father

I gathered the 15 lessons into four themes.

Intuitive Project Management Lessons

My father, Gerald Clayton, was not a Project Manager. Nor was he anything like it. 

He was, for most of his adult life, a shopkeeper.  Despite this, I realize I learned most of what is important to me about Project Management from him.

He wasn’t learned either.  Like many of his generation, he left school at 15.  But he was undoubtedly clever and, more important, wise.  Many people who knew him sought out his counsel and support. So, this article is a summation of the Project Management lessons I learned from dad.

The Other Project Management Triangle

Let’s not argue Time-Cost-Quality versus Time-Resources-Scope etc.  For me, the most fundamental PM triangle of all is the one that sets out the three components of what it takes to be a great Project Manager.

Project Management Triangle - 3 Domains of Professional Project Management

Delivering great projects requires three things:

  1. Processes, Systems, and Procedures
    The selection of appropriately robust yet flexible processes to impose good control and governance. This is where you choose the type of Project Management that suits a situation, and you apply the right level of rigor to delivering it.
  2. Tools, Techniques, and Methodologies
    Access to a big toolbox of techniques and methodologies, because, as previous owners of my house seem to have discovered, ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look a lot like a nail’. This is where you get things done efficiently and effectively, day-to-day.
  3. Attitudes, Values, and Approaches
    A set of attitudes, values, and approaches to project management that are compatible, not just with getting the job done, but with working well in the culture you find yourself in. This is where you bring your personal style to your Project Management practice.

The Third Corner of the Triangle

Project Management methodologies and formal training courses often focus on the first two of these corners.  Indeed, many of mine emphasise the tools and techniques corner, because that is what my clients want.

But I’ve heard it said that what makes the world champion golfer is not how they play golf, and the winner of tennis grand slams does not necessarily play the best tennis. 

Yes, they are world-class, but so are many of their peers. 

What marks them out as the best is what happens in their minds when they play.  Arguably, it is attitudes, values, and beliefs that distinguish the very best. It’s how they approach their discipline that makes the difference between the very best 4 or 5, and the 20 or so who, on paper, are at very much the same level of skill.

I don’t pretend to be in that class when it comes to Project Management. But I do want to say that we should all focus more on these aspects. That’s why so many of my articles and, in particular, videos are not about technical project management, but the other things we need to master.

Attitudes, Values, and Approaches

And, because he was not a Project manager, this is the corner where I learned most of my Project Management lessons from my dad.  I learned from other people too and maybe I will name them and share what they taught me some time soon.  But in this article, I will talk about what I learned from dad.

The ‘so what?’

What marks us out is not what we know – the formal processes and methodologies. It is how we use what we know.  nd it is our attitudes that ultimately leave a mark on the people around us, and on the wider world.

A Generous Way: Project Management Lessons from My Father’s Spirit

I think what most people thought of, when my father came to mind was his generosity of spirit. And there is a lot that it can teach us, as Project Managers.

Obliging

Being obliging and helping out when others need help is the ground zero of generosity. 

I do not see that as becoming a doormat to everyone’s needs and desires, but as a recognition that to help others is to enhance your own life. In the world of Positive Psychology, these choices are referred to as ‘Virtuous Practices’.

Some would see this as a cynical application of a reciprocation economy in which iI scratch your back” anticipates that you will scratch mine.  Some would see this as an idealistic philosophy from the movie, ‘Pay it Forward‘.

According to Wikipedia, the term ‘pay it forward’ was popularized, in Robert A. Heinlein’s book, ‘Between Planets’:

The banker reached into the folds of his gown, pulled out a single credit note. “But eat first — a full belly steadies the judgment. Do me the honor of accepting this as our welcome to the newcomer.”

His pride said no; his stomach said YES! Don took it and said, “Uh, thanks! That’s awfully kind of you. I’ll pay it back, first chance.”

“Instead, pay it forward to some other brother who needs it.”

I think the evidence is that, not only has the pay it forward movement had considerable success, but that it helps you create change in the world around you.

Supportive and Trusting

This may sound a bit like motherhood and apple pie… But how many of us are truly supportive of the people we work with and share our lives with, without being critical of them. 

As a Project Manager, you have to allocate work packages and team roles to get the job done. And how you manage your relationships with the people who work for you will massively affect their performance.

One boss of mine took me to task over my decision to ‘allow’ a team-member to go home at 5pm, our notional end time, despite working on a high-pressure project, against tight deadlines.  Yet that team-member and I had signed off a work plan for his workstream that showed him delivering his products on deadline, without staying late. 

I thought it a fair deal that, while he was delivering to schedule, he should go home on time to be with his young family. This was regardless of the custom and practice at our firm to stay to 6 pm, 7 pm, or later.

Develop People’s Skills

Perhaps the greatest gift my parents gave me was one hundred percent support of learning. 

When we invest our time in supporting other people’s learning and skills, we grow the team’s capability and its commitment to us and the project.  It is an investment. And, as Project Manager, you must put something in, in terms of your time and allowing others time away from delivery. But I firmly believe that a balanced portfolio of investments in people will create impressive returns.

Celebrate Others’ Successes

It takes a real generosity of spirit for you to truly celebrate my success over your own.

But, in a project environment, it is a critical motivating strategy to ensure that individuals’ successes are acknowledged and celebrated.  This gives them the confidence to strive harder and create more success: a true virtuous cycle!

Integrity

Doing the right things is more important than doing things right.

It is the choices you make that will determine your success – or not – as a professional Project Manager: 

  • Which project to work on
  • …and which to decline? 
  • What to do when we encounter problems
  • …and how to handle tough personal conflicts. 

Ultimately it is all about knowing that your decisions, while not easy, and maybe not even correct, were ones you could defend and will never regret.

The firm I used to work for had a number of tobacco companies as clients and I was offered the opportunity to lead an important and innovative project with one of them. 

I have never regretted for one minute that I said no, before even thinking about the potential consequences for my career. Thanks to the integrity of my boss at the time, I don’t believe my choice had any long-term consequences. He accepted my reasons and I was posted to an alternative project. But if it had had an effect, then I’d have had no regrets.

The ‘so what?’

A generosity of spirit is a huge asset to a Project Manager.  It won’t just make you popular (and may not even do that), but it will ensure that the people around you respect your decisions and feel able to rely upon your support when things go badly, as well as when they go well.

Five Project Management Lessons from my Father:

  1. Be obliging; help people out when you can.
  2. Trust and support the people around you. That way, you will earn their trust and support.
  3. Develop people’s skills, because investing in them is an investment in your project… as well as being the right thing to do.
  4. Celebrate others’ successes. It creates a virtuous cycle of success.
  5. Integrity should not be negotiable. A damaged reputation is hard to repair.

A Harmonious Way: Project Managememt Lessons for a Positive Mindset

Thinking back over how my father lived his life and how he came across to others, this is the area that has really grabbed me.  Over many years, I have been interested in the research field of Positive Psychology.  These five lessons could equally come from a book on that subject.

Accept what comes

My father was not a fatalist.  He had a very positive attitude to shaping his own future.  But he also knew when not to fight circumstances and to just get on with dealing with the world as it is. 

I have a strong recollection of being extremely disappointed at not getting the university place I had wanted, in my late teens.  My father’s response is that it may be for the best and that things would work out fine. They did. 

I don’t think this was some Panglossian fatalism:

in this best of all possible worlds, everything happens because no other course of events is possible and therefore everything happens for the best.

Dr Pangloss, in Candide
Voltaire

Rather, I think my father was teaching me that setbacks look like disasters when looking forward. But, when they are in the past, we’ll see all of the good things that follow from them – as long as we make the best of what we do have.

I like my life. Who knows how it would be different, for good or for ill, had that one event been different. But, I made the best of the opportunity I had. And so, I have no regrets.

Who knows what an alternative future may look like, but I am more than happy with the life I have.  Not because my father encouraged me to accept the failure, but because he taught me to move on and take the opportunities that were there for me.

Thankful

One lesson from positive psychology has always stood out for me.  It is one my father embodied. 

All research shows that we are at our happiest when we take time, regularly, to reflect upon and acknowledge what we have to be thankful for. It is all too easy to dwell on our sorrows.

So, I can wholly recommend the process, for anyone going through a particularly tough patch, of keeping a ‘gratitude journal’.

Gratitude Journal

A gratitude journal is a book in which you periodically record what you have to be grateful for. 

At a tricky time in my life, I started a notebook and, each evening, I disciplined myself to write at least one thing which, that day, I felt grateful for.  Sometimes its was a small or specific event, sometimes it was a wider reflection on one of the good things about my life.  Over the course of a couple of months, everything did seem enormously more positive.

Look forward to the future…

Philip Zimbardo is the Stamford psychologist who, famously, led the Stanford Prison Experiment.  His book, The Time Paradox: Using the New Psychology of Time to Your Advantage is about how we orient ourselves to time. In it, he and co-author, John Boyd, describe the Zimbardo Time Perception Inventory (ZTPI) and six psychological orientations that we have towards time. 

People with a future orientation readily delay gratification, putting off pleasure now to harvest a greater pleasure in the future.  My father was a planner – not in the sense of making grand plans, nor even documenting his plans as project managers do.  But his future orientation was clear in the way that he was always working towards a better future for himself and his family.

…and live in the present

Zimbardo and Boyd also identify three different orientations towards the present. They examine the shortcomings of a fatalistic and a hedonistic orientation:

  • Fatalistic Present Orientation
    You cannot change things, so you may as well accept them as they are. This time orientation robs you of your sense of agency – that is, your ability to take meaningful action.
  • Hedonistic Present Orientation
    At any moment in time, you have the choice to do whatever gives you the most immediate pleasure. This sounds great, until your choices rob you of the resources to make even the most basic of choices that will bring you comfort or even safety.

Zimbardo and Boyd then went on to look at how we can gain the benefits of a present orientation by living in each moment. This offers you the opportunity to savor what you have, and enjoy the life your choices and fortune have brought you.

The challenge for those of us with a strong future orientation (as I and many of my readers have) is that we often miss the joy of the present moment. When we get to the end of a day’s work early, many of us will see it as an opportunity to get a jump start on tomorrow’s work.

The danger with this is that, when we finish tomorrow’s work early, we will do the same, and so never harvest the benefits of our diligence.  My father knew how to stop and enjoy the moment. 

When your project is ahead of schedule, then use some of the time to celebrate that fact. The benefit of motivating your team and feeling mentally refreshed is enormous.

I know this: I wish I could act on it a little more often!

Know the value of things

Some people seem to know the cost of everything; yet the value of nothing. 

My father had a sharp sense of what was important and what was not. He knew when to spend money and when not to. One of the most important skills for a project manager is to know how to distinguish cost and value, and therefore make wise decisions when choosing what resources to deploy, to reach the end goal.

The ‘so what?’

Positive Psychology is a wonderful resource kit for Project Managers. I recommend you read Positive Psychology in Business – and have a review of it on this website.

Five Project Management Lessons from my Father:

  1. Take what life throws at you, and make the best of it. Fully acknowledge what is not going well and get on with fixing it. 
  2. But, at the same time, be thankful for what is going well.
  3. Invest time and effort now, to build for the future.
  4. But, when you are ahead of plan, take some time off to celebrate that, and re-charge your batteries. 
  5. Make your decisions based on cost and value.

A Careful Way: Project Management Lessons from my Father’s Aversion to Unnecessary risk

So far, I have focused on how my father’s:

  • Generosity of spirit can make for better projects, by treating people well and celebrating their successes
  • Attitudes to life and to time can make us better project managers. 

We would recognize most of those lessons as coming from the world of Positive Psychology. He would not have recognized the term and would probably just have called it optimism and a positive outlook.

Lessons from Business

But, in addition to this, my father was a careful person. So, now we can get to the basics as far as project management is concerned. These are the most obviously relevant Project Mangament lessons and most of them reflect how he did business.  Dad built his own business from nothing, and I think these lessons will serve anyone looking to do the same.

Control Risk

One of my favorite stories that my dad told me concerned the first days of running his shop.  I could argue that this represents a demonstration of the old standby of the self-help movement: ‘fake it ‘til you make it.’ In truth, I am sure this was not his intent.  What he was focused on was managing his risk in a time of uncertainty.

He opened his shop (a hardware store, which explains my abiding love of all wood, tools, fastenings, and ironmongery) with very little capital. And, I am sure, he also had a determination to take no unnecessary risks. So, he used only savings to fund it, and took no debt.

But, what he did do, was that he negotiated with his suppliers the absolute minimum stock levels of each item. This allowed him to maximize the range of goods he could open the shop with.  However, he also persuaded the suppliers to send him a load of empty boxes, which he used to fill his shelves and create the appearance of a well-stocked shop.

Measure twice; cut once

I think this phrase comes from the tailoring profession, but I learned it from my father.  He used to cut up plywood, blockboard, hardboard, chipboard, and asbestos (yes, you read that correctly) to size for his customers, using a circular saw that he had for over 25 years, and used every day.  ‘Measure twice; cut once’ – what a great rule for so many aspects of project planning and delivery.

I have made a video, reflecting on this:

Everything Orderly

I learned my sense of order from my father. 

Everything was always where it belonged in his shop.  Boxes of screws were stacked in order of size, and work tools were kept in the toolbox. Hardware was displayed in logical groupings and stored on shelves in labeled boxes.  Rarely was there ever a delay in finding what the customer wanted.

Maybe that is why I find the 5S approach so appealing!

The Power of Routine

One of my favorite things about working in the shop on a Saturday was doing the cash. Totaling the till, entering it into the daily record, and totaling the week. Record keeping like this is not a fun thing, but it is necessary – although it was a joy to me, that was because it symbolised my father’s trust.

For him, it was one more thing he had to do each day before he could go home. But, by staying on top of it, he maintained a good understanding of his business and never built up a foreboding stack of admin. This discipline served me well in managing large projects with complex financial administration. It also led me to one of my favorite Project Management rules (sadly missing from my article on 12 Project Management Rules):

Stay on top of your admin… or it will get on top of you.

Mark Milestones

My father was always concerned to mark milestones in his business and family life.  He understood the powerful motivating impact of celebrating successes. As a project manager, I was always keen to use more milestones, rather than fewer for that reason.

And this was a result that Teresa Amabile has found through structured research. People feel more positive and motivated when they can see progress.

The ‘so what?’

There is a place for risk-taking, but being cautious and steady will always remain in fashion when working on a project. With so many uncertainties, look for any opportunity to retain control and spread your risk.

Five Project Management Lessons from my Father:

  1. Control risk. There are times when you need to take risks, but when you don’t, then find a better way.
  2. Measure twice; cut once. Getting things right first time takes a little more effort, but saves a lot of subsequent time, cost, and frustration.
  3. Everything orderly. The 5S approach of Sort, Systematize, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain will make your project efficient.
  4. The power of routine will really help you with the discipline to stay on top of the less exciting aspects of your role.
  5. Mark milestones, so you and your team have a vivid sense of progress.
Gerald Clayton (L) and Mike Clayton (R)
Gerald Clayton (L) and Mike Clayton (R)

What Lessons Did You Learn, from your Father Mother, or Another Significant Figure in Your Life?

I’m especially interested to hear about lessons that, on reflection, have an impact on your approach to or understanding of Project management.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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