Jag Venugopal's Blog

May 18, 2009

Project Management education: truth vs. fiction

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 6:54 pm

Most any course on project management can teach you the nine PMI knowledge areas and the five project management processes. In a five day course, I can virtually guarantee that there will be two days at the least on how to come up with network schedules and earned value. There might even be the lecture on time value of money and cash flows thrown in for good measure. But is all of this education relevant to managing projects in the real world?

I don’t think so. For one thing, most project management courses and books talk about project plans as if all the tasks were known beforehand, the network diagram was clean and well organized, all estimates were known and there was a clear path to the completion of the project. Virtually no project I have ever managed had these characteristics. Typically I count myself lucky if we are able to come up with a reliable work breakdown structure and network diagram of dependencies, never mind the estimates.

Furthermore, estimates in the real world are still “guesstimates” most of the time. Reams have been written about estimating methodologies. However again in my professional experience, it came down to not databases of past projects or old project plans, but to one expert thinking back to the last project and how long the corresponding task took. What’s probably needed here is to acknowledge that the estimation ideal is far removed from estimation practice, and come up with a middle ground that is rooted in reality.

A third area where project management education falls flat is the entire people aspect of project management. Most education would have you believe that team members and the project manager are rational beings, chomping at the bit to execute the first task assigned to them on the plan. No allowances are made for the human-ness of all players (most of all the customers), and the inevitable politics that come up.

I am convinced that the best way to be a project manager is to apprentice as one. Organizations that want to grow their project managers will identify their best candidates, give them some basic training (of the kind I have criticized above) and then put them through a period of apprenticeship under the oversight of talented and experienced project managers.

Of the PM books I’ve read, Bob Wysocki’s Effective Project Management (now in its 4th edition) comes closest. He talks about non-traditional proect management, such as adaptive and extreme methodologies. Does he have it perfectly right? No, but a sure beginning has been made.


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