Project Practitioners > New project managers: The fastest way to competence, judgment, and confidence

New project managers: The fastest way to competence, judgment, and confidence

By Cinda Voegtli


Project Lessons from a Hurricane – Part 2

    Remember what it feels like to not know (or at least not be SURE you know) the right way to do something - how to get started, how to use the tools, how to deal with issues that arise?   I’ll bet new project managers often feel that way; I know I did.   Are we helping them get started effectively in their new roles?  Not always.   I recently experienced anew what it feels like to be totally new and uncertain at something, and I didn’t like it – until I unexpectedly got the chance to get better fast just because of how someone worked with me.   


I flew home last month to Louisiana to help my parents deal with the overwhelm of disruption and details from damage their home received from Hurricane Gustav over Labor Day weekend.  The first major chore when I got there was to help my dad build a wall in front of his garage – the garage door had been mangled by the 100 mile an hour winds and removed.  Now Hurricane Ike was about to come through, and the opening had to be boarded up fast.   It was to be a simple wall of a 2x4 base plate, 2x4 top plate, and 2x4 studs set perpendicularly… then big sheets of plywood nailed up onto the studs. 


Although everything we did was simple conceptually and common sense, I immediately experienced the angst of doing something new (and in a time-pressured, stressful situation to boot!).   My dad, on the other hand, has been building things his whole life.  He knew exactly how to go about it, had all the tools at his disposal, got to work.  But I sat there waiting for instructions, feeling unsure of myself.  Although I’ve used a drill to hang curtain rods and other such isolated tasks, I had never built a wall.   I was not sure how to deploy the simple tools of drill, nails, hammer, etc. to “do this right”.   So I did nothing until instructed.   And when I did each thing he asked for, like using the drill and screwdriver attachment to set my first stud, I felt like a slow, butter-fingered idiot.


But over time an interesting thing happened.  I watched my dad work.   I saw how he measured the pieces and how tight the tolerances needed to be to fit.  I saw him have to shave a bit more once or twice to get a stud to fit the way he wanted.   He demonstrated the angle at which he inserted the screws from stud to base plate.  He showed me exactly how to handle the electric screwdriver attachment to get a good seating.   I saw him use the hammer to tap studs to exactly where he wanted them. 


And I continued to do the things he asked, using what I learned from observing him.  After a while I got a feel for handling the drill and it felt much better.  I was still slow, but better, and getting faster the longer I did it.  I asked questions and got more comfortable with his overall approach to building the wall, what he was doing first and why.   I suddenly realized we needed to check the stud alignment and grabbed the level before he even said anything, and I did that part for the rest of the job.   I got a feel for how level a reading was “good enough.”  I caught potential problems and made suggestions.   I started to relax and have a really good time.     I had developed some new skills, some judgment, and some confidence in myself and from there it was easier, more pleasant, more rewarding -  and WAY less stressful - and I made a real contribution to the project. 


I remember having crises of confidence about taking on new issues when I was first a PM. For example, I saw tools (charters, project plans, etc.) that I had not used much or at all, and I understood what they were for, but I didn’t have much hands-on experience using them in the exact situation at hand, and I felt awkward making decisions about how to do so.    I felt too slow and too tentative, and had trouble confidently leading the charge.  Now, years later, I’m like my dad:  comfortable selecting and adapting items from my toolkit, knowing I’ve got good judgment for figuring out the next situation and doing what makes sense.  But I got there in large degree through hard-won experience over a very long time.  Do we really have time for that on our projects?  Do our new PMs really have time (and the stamina) to learn that way?  Should they have to?


At a recent project management symposium, when I asked a couple of Directors of Project Management Offices about the biggest challenges they face with new project managers, one was “developing their judgment”  - including around how to use their our project management “toolkit” on very different projects.    I thought about that as I built the wall with my dad, and in 3 hours went from awkward tool-handler to comfortable improviser.  All because I watched a master builder, asked a few questions, tried out new tools under a little supervision, and got enough practice in a concentrated time to make fast leaps in my confidence and judgment.


Here are some things I’ve observed in the realm of project management, as fodder for how we might add this kind of faster know-how building opportunity to how we develop PMs:


-       Companies with a project coordinator role typically have a less experienced person work alongside a more experienced project manager, helping with various aspects of the project such as schedule and action item tracking.  This is how some project coordinators gain experience for a move into full-blown project management roles over time.    (But do those coordinators get to participate in the nuanced ‘wisdom’ areas of managing projects?  Do they get to sit in on the sticky meeting with the project sponsor? The resource negotiation with the time-strapped functional manager?   A good area to examine for maximum learning opportunity!)   


-       I knew a company who set up ‘co-management’ arrangements for new PMs in IT, where a senior PM managed the project with the new PM side-by-side.   The senior PM coached and  demonstrated, and truly shared the work and the experiences dealing with real-world issues.


-       I’ve seen experienced project managers facilitate project kickoff meetings as part of coaching brand new PMs.  This is just one part of a project – but a critical part, a tricky, fuzzy time early on, with lots for a new PM to learn about how to most effectively get the ball rolling in different project situations.  Watching someone facilitate an effective kickoff “working session” can be a great way to start learning by observing and practicing. 


-       The first time I consulted in the biotech sphere, I worked with a very experienced biotech colleague.   I was ‘second chair’, working more in the background, helping create and deploy a new project management process (something  I did have a lot of experience with).   Thankfully, though I was not a biotech expert, I was NOT relegated to the closet.   I attended team and sub-team meetings.  I helped run the project kickoff meeting.  I watched her run the portfolio committee meetings and prepped with her ahead of time where she explained the political project-selection issues she expected to hit and how she was going to deal with them.  I worked essentially under her supervision, with lots of “what and why” interaction and opportunities to practice myself.   Tips and tricks and political nuances and industry oddities were relayed to me on the side to inform my work and get me more comfortable with applying PM in this realm.    


So I’m thinking we could serve our new project managers well by not just sending them to training and coaching them on their own projects.  Those are both helpful, of course, both important parts of the development effort for new PMs.  But my hurricane-driven crash course in wall-building brought home the  benefits of adding another item to our development arsenal --- providing new project managers with ample and varied opportunities for observing, questioning, and assisting experienced project managers in action on different projects.    Let’s find ways to help them more quickly gain their own direct “know-how”,    I think we’ll see their resulting growth in competence, confidence, and judgment benefit their own projects (and accelerate their career development as well!)


Cinda Voegtli


Related Links
Managers interested in better developing their PMs can get a lot of mileage out of setting up a coaching arrangement with them. If you need to keep track of who needs help in wht areas, this one-page PM Development Profile form can help. Project managers have many ways to gain PM skills and experience without waiting for help from on high or decades of on-the-job training.

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