The fallacy of project management training
Training doesn’t work*
*This might seem like a rather strange statement for a consulting and training business to make. But there, we’ve said it, it doesn’t. Well at least not on its own.
We do not come across many organisations that have never made at least some effort to develop their project management capability. In fact, we find they have often made substantial investment over a number of years in sending their employees on workshop after workshop, in the hope that, eventually, something useful will stick. The truth is however, that this approach rarely, if ever, delivers measurable value for a business. It feels a long way from building, what we would call, a powerful and sustainable, organisational capability.
Blindly sending large numbers of employees on a training workshop, in the hope that they will all return to work and instantly adopt new techniques, is foolish. It is as true of project management training, as it is of any other key capability that you need to develop your people in. This doesn’t mean that training people is a bad thing. Far from it. Training people is absolutely critical. It just isn’t the whole story.
When it comes to projects, this failure to build an effective organisational capability becomes even more acute. Projects are typically the vehicle through which organisational change occurs; be it to develop new products, markets, assets, or systems, to name a few examples. With much of that change often being fundamental to the success of your strategy, a failure to develop this capability is almost guaranteed to inhibit achievement of your business goals.
What are we missing?
How many of us have been on a thoroughly enjoyable training workshop, returned to work highly enthused and three weeks later forgotten all about it? So here’s the big secret; businesses across the globe waste millions (if not billions) every year on this well intentioned, but poorly executed approach to people development.
The first thing we need to do is make a distinction between training people in concepts and tools, and training people in a project management process. A process can be easily repeated over and over, shared, coached and monitored. People can learn important concepts and tools because they are following a process. You wouldn’t dream of trying to make your products without some sort of process to maintain quality. Why then, would you want your business strategy executed with any less rigour?
However, if the process doesn’t help project managers to do their job more efficiently and effectively, it will never deliver the intended value. We’ve seen organisations attempt to implement incredibly wasteful processes that swamp good employees in useless documentation and bureaucracy. The result is a process that is ruthlessly discarded by the very people whose buy-in is critical to its success. It is something akin to organisational organ rejection. Therefore, to be effective, any process must meet two critical objectives; it must be lean and it must be powerful.
Designing a Lean and Powerful Project Management Process
In attempting to identify an effective project management approach, many organisations have adopted some version of the popular Stage-Gate process. Originally developed by Robert Cooper and Scott Edgett to enhance the product innovation process, the phased structure of Stage-Gate is finding use in a large number of project environments. State-Gate can offer sensible check points for leaders, as well as providing clarity to project teams on the critical deliverables that will encourage the right thinking & action to move to the next stage.
Too often however, in adopting this kind of approach, the stages, gates and deliverables are created & introduced to the organisation without adequate consideration of the intent. Worse still, over time, more and more deliverables tend to be added into the process, even if existing ones are not being executed correctly. The result is an ill thought through process that becomes increasingly cumbersome. Completion of stage-gate deliverables frequently becomes a box-ticking exercise that project teams have to pay lip-service to in order to obtain funding and approval. In doing so, the powerful thinking that should have been triggered via the stage-gate deliverables becomes lost.
We have found that leaders are often equally under-equipped to be the gatekeepers of the process, failing to ask the right questions that will positively challenge the thinking and rigour that has been undertaken by the project teams. The result is typically a project gate review that becomes a ceremonial nuisance, rather than a critical opportunity for leaders to reinforce important project management behaviours.
Therefore, before training your people in project management tools and concepts, consider the project management process in which they will be working. Typically resolving flaws in the intent, the flow and the governance of this process is an important pre-requisite to effective behavioural change.
Most organisations we come across do utilise systems in some way to track and manage at least some of the projects that they may be undertaking. When used correctly, systems can continuously reinforce a lean and powerful process, as well as providing leaders with the visibility they need to make effective decisions across the project portfolio.
However, all too often we find that the systems that have been deployed either do not match the intended process workflow, or they add to its burdensome nature. Like effective processes, the systems also have to consider the needs of all user groups. They should provide leaders with the visibility and control in real time, whilst also incorporating the tools required by project managers to undertake the right thinking and action at each stage in the process. Typically, this means a system that can allow for important stage deliverable templates to be uploaded and their progress effectively tracked. Systems that also incorporate project planning tools such as a Gantt chart and resourcing tools will also enable both efficient project reporting and effective oversight of resources across the project portfolio.
Technology has the power to make a process visible, scalable and effective across geographic boundaries. It also has the power to stifle an otherwise lean and powerful project management approach. Leaders must ensure that the system selected to enable the process is easy-to-use and accessible for all key project stakeholders. When both the process and the system are adding value for project teams, we have already overcome two major barriers to organisational behavioural change.
The role of leadership & coaching
The behaviour of leaders in planning and executing the change is perhaps the most significant determinant of success. Leaders must embrace the new process and systems, continuously role-model new behaviours, as well as set clear expectations for their teams. They must be sensitive and responsive to feedback and concerns, yet resolute in their convictions that this new approach is the only way forward. They must provide positive recognition to the early adopters and reinforce expectations with those that are slow to transition. They must remove any trace of the old way of working, in order to force the transition to a new and better way.
Leaders must also appoint process coaches who can give immediate and targeted feedback to project managers attempting to apply what they have learned for the first time. Unfortunately, the old adage of “practice makes perfect” is simply not true. Only practice + feedback makes perfect. If someone is repeating the wrong thing over and over again, they are unlikely to get any better. This explains why process coaches are so important. These individuals can reinforce the learning from the training, steer project managers in the right direction, and ensure they are getting the intended benefit from applying the new process. Effective coaches can act as front line change advocates, as well as providing easily accessible expertise in both the process and the selected system. Leaders must consider the appointment and development of these coaches as a key element of the overall change program.
Changing behaviours at an individual level is hard. When trying to transform the behaviours of a whole organisation, this challenge is increased by an order of magnitude. The old model of relying on the Learning & Development department to transform the behaviours of your people is outdated and ineffective. Training is a critical element of any behavioural change, but in isolation it very rarely delivers the intended outcomes.
To successfully overcome this, the project management process, system, training, coaching, and leadership behaviours must all be aligned. In addition, the project management process and system have got to be both lean and powerful. When you have a lean and powerful process & system, coached regularly & reinforced through effective leadership behaviours, you have systematically developed a culture for outstanding project management performance. In doing so, you will have invested in a capability that will vastly accelerate the successful execution of your strategy.
Why not contact us to find out more about how our project management training, software, and consulting support can help you to build a powerful and sustainable Organisational Project Management Capability that will accelerate positive change across your business.