21 August, 2023

Ten Surprising Project Management Lessons I’ve Learned over the Years

Project Management is a ‘learning endeavor. That is, when you do it properly, you learn from every experience. And, I want to share ten of the most surprising – and valuable – Project Management lessons I have learned over the years.

These are:

  1. Trust the Process
  2. No-one Values Competence
  3. Self-control is the Master Skill for a Professional
  4. If You Choose the Right Work, it’s Mostly Fun
  5. The Basics of Agile
  6. When there are Two Competing Truths, Rarely is Either One ‘True’ 
  7. Stakeholder Engagement is how Sophisticated Adults do Project Management
  8. Sometimes all Your Stakeholders Need is a Damn Good Listening to
  9. Email is the Worst Form of Human Communication
  10. Governance is the Biggest Manageable Contributor to Project’s Success or Failure

‘Surprising’ Project Management Lessons?

When I describe these Project Management lessons as ‘surprising’, I am not expecting many of the insights to surprise most experienced Project Managers. I would, however, expect most of them to be insightful for less experienced PMs.

The reason I am using ‘surprising’ to describe these lessons is that I don’t think many of these are the Project Management lessons that most PMs would choose for themselves. Indeed, when you look around the inter-webs for Project Management lessons, I suspect that most of the lists you find will be somewhat more predictable!

So, let’s get started with my ten project management lessons…

Trust the Process

Ten Surprising Project Management Lessons I've Learned over the Years

Sometimes it’s hard to see how things are working out, while you are head-down and working on your project. Perhaps the single most important lesson I have learned in my working life is to trust the process.

By this, I mean that we need to start every piece of work by carefully preparing and planning. You need to select which process is right, to achieve the immediate goal you need to meet.

When you have done that, follow the process diligently.

Sometimes, it will not seem to be working. At those times, it can be tempting to stop work and start again. But, if you have chosen your process well, this may be a temporary setback.

The Satir Model of Change Applies

The Satir Model of Change | Dr Virginia Satir
The Satir Model of Change | Dr Virginia Satir

The chart above represents the Satir Model of Change. What you can naively expect, when you are working on a problem, is that it will start to get better as you work. And it will keep improving until you are finished.

This is rarely the case. Instead, what happens as you start to work the problem, is that things start to get worse. You’re kind of unraveling what was there and working, before you can start to put things back together.

Think about when you are making changes around your house like decorating or maintenance. Sometimes you have to strip down some good decoration or remove some sound woodwork, before you can start making improvements.

Does this mean we should never stop and review where we are at, and possibly change direction?

No, of course not. Sometimes we did choose the wrong process. And sometimes, the situation changes. But this Project Management lesson is about being patient. Sometimes no visible change is the outward appearance of subtle but important hidden progress.

Learn more about what project managers need to know about change management. And, if you don’t know why you should, watch Why You Need Change Management in Your Project Manager’s Toolset | Video.

It’s a Day One Thing…

Indeed, I used to run a very effective three-day Project Management training course in London for one client. I ran it once a month for several years. And, at the end of the first day, I’d usually go home thinking:

  • the group didn’t like me
  • they were not understanding the material
  • people weren’t learning
  • the course needs a re-design

In fact, it was nothing of the sort. At worst, they were just exhausted by a long and challenging day. I would always find, on day 2, that

  • the group did like me
  • they were understanding the material
  • people had learned
  • the course was working well

So, I wrote on the inside cover of my course folder…

It’s a Day One Thing…

Trust the Process

Project Management Checklists

Project Management Checklists Give You a Reliable Process

We have a set of over 60 Project Management Checklists. These encapsulate many of the detailed project management lessons I have learned, into a set of processes you can trust.

No-one Values Competence

I am not saying that competence is not valuable: it is. I’m simply saying that no one gives you any credit for it. This isn’t just a project management lesson; it’s true in many places.

What people value is the results you get.

They also value exceptional capabilities. But competence…

That’s just the price of entry; a hygiene factor. Without it, you have nothing to offer. If you want people to value you and the work you do, you have to work hard to:

  1. deliver results
  2. build your reputation

But what are the competencies you need? I answer that in:

Self-control is the Master Skill for a Professional

If you choose a demanding career like project management, you will have tough times. The work will demand a lot of you.

And, of all the project management lessons I have learned, perhaps the hardest is this one. Self-control is vital.

You need to develop the self-control to:

  • Manage your emotions when you just want to get angry
  • Maintain your energy and resilience in the face of constant set-backs
  • Stay motivated when you don’t seem to be making progress
  • Treat stakeholders with respect, when they treat you with anything but
  • Stay calm in a crisis, so you can continue to lead and work the problem
  • Keep your frustrations to yourself, when team members struggle with the work you need them to do
  • …and so much more

Doing this well goes way beyond competence. But if you can master self-control, you’ll be in a good position to tackle the biggest and most complex of projects.

If You Choose the Right Work, it’s Mostly Fun

I won’t say I have enjoyed every day of my working life. Who can?

But one of the most delightful project management lessons I have learned is that I do enjoy managing projects. And I do enjoy teaching others how to manage projects.

Yes, there are setbacks and difficult days. Every career has those.

But, particularly if you are at the start of your Project Management career, I would say this to you:

It’s a great career, and I think you’ll have a lot of fun along the way, as well as achieving great things.

The Basics of Agile

I grew up with what is often referred to as ‘Traditional Project Management’. I prefer the terms ‘Planned Project Management’ or ‘Predictive Project Management’. I suppose a simple Project Management lesson is that there are often many names for the same thing!

And I decry the term ‘Waterfall’, not because it’s wrong. It may not be very helpful, but I do get the metaphor. I decry it because so many Agilists (Agile practitioners) seem to use it as a term of mild abuse.

But in the last 24 months, I have been learning some of the basics of the Agile approach, and some of its methodologies. And I have learned these project management lessons not with the intention of running an Agile Project.

Rather, I don’t believe you can be a fully-formed project manager without understanding the basics of all of the different approaches that are around. Because, good project management means adapting yourself and your project process to the needs of each project you do. And, if you know more about a wider range of approaches, you will have more options.

More options mean more choice. And that means a better chance that you will be able to develop an effective approach to each project.

What is Agile

Everyone is talking about it. And lots of project managers are doing it. So, Agile is clearly important. So what is Agile Project Management?

Follow this up with: How to do a Basic Agile Project | Video

We have a load of other videos that will introduce you to Agile methodologies, frameworks, and toolkits like:

  • Scrum
  • Kanban
  • Scrumban
  • Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)
  • Disciplined Agile
  • Lean Project Management

You’ll find them in the Agile Methodologies course in our Free Academy of Project Management.

Agile Project Management

Agile Project Management Courses

We offer a wide variety of Agile Project Management training in association with the Agile Project Management Academy.

Project Management Certification Programs

Agile Project Management Qualifications

If you are ready to work towards an Agile Project Management qualification, we offer a range of high quality certification programs.

When there are Two Competing Truths, Rarely is Either One ‘True’ 

And the best example is the sometimes angry debate between Agile purists and Waterfall traditionalists. Is it plausible that one of these two world views can be ‘right‘ while the other is ‘wrong’?

Or even possible that one of them is even a little bit more ‘right’ than the other?

No. Both have their value and both are applicable in the right circumstances. But the reality is more complex. In the real world, what is usually best is some form of carefully constructed amalgam. This will take the parts from each that are most relevant to the current situation.

Here is an important point of view on this:

In their 2018 Pulse of the Profession report, the PMI found 23% of projects using a hybrid approach. As project management lessons go, this one is pretty powerful.

Stakeholder Engagement is how Sophisticated Adults do Project Management

Famously, Tim Lister says:

Risk Management is Project Management for Adults

Tim Lister, IEEE Software, May, 1997
Risk Management - Tim Lister

The project management lesson that I learned is that, while this is true, and I love the quote, there is more. Experienced Project Managers (‘adults’) manage projects through risk, because that’s what will go wrong. Their experience means that they have the basics locked and loaded (competence).

But where does much of your risk come from?

I would say a lot of your risk comes from insufficient attention to your stakeholders. All of the technical stuff is relatively easy. I say:

Stakeholder Engagement is Project Management for Sophisticated Adults

Dr Mike Clayton
Stakeholder Engagement - Mike Clayton

We have a huge number of articles and videos about stakeholders and stakeholder engagement. So, here is a short list of good examples to start with:

Sometimes all Your Stakeholders Need is a Damn Good Listening to

Apologies for the minor profanity, but ‘a damn good talking to’ is a common idiom that people often apply to intransigent children.

And sometimes, that is how our stakeholders can seem to us, isn’t it?

But just like children, one of the most powerful project management lessons I have learned is that talking to people who don’t want to hear, much less agree, rarely achieves much.

What does, is listening to them.

We all feel we need to be heard, and sometimes, just listening is enough.

Email is the Worst Form of Human Communication

Sometimes, email is just right. But often, we use it as a cheeky shortcut to doing the right thing.

If nothing else, you know that email is a medium that does not allow you to listen!

So, the very best form of human communication is a face-to-face conversation. But why is email the ‘worst’?

Mismatched Expectations

The simple answer is ‘mismatched expectations’. That is, the different expectations of the person who sends the email, and those of the person that receives it.

When you send an email, you usually think of it as a quick and informal medium. You rarely take a lot of care over how you word it, nor of proofreading for typos or careless comments.

Yet, when we receive an email, we implicitly assume that it has been written with care. We can readily take an unfortunate choice of words as a personal slight. Oops.

Governance is the Biggest Manageable Contributor to Project’s Success or Failure

Let’s end on a serious note: the importance of Project Governance.

As a young project manager, this was a lesson I had yet to learn. But once I had learned this valuable project management lesson, I have applied it to every project from day one. It’s also why I wrote the article: What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us? [Ans: A Lot].

Of all of these Project Management lessons, I think this is the one I’d pick for new project managers as the single most important. Please do take a look at the article.

What Project Management Lessons Have You Learned over the Years?

Please do tell us in the comments below. I’d love to have us share our learning and will respond to every comment.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

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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