7 Things They Don’t Teach You in Project Management School

I have a friend who just passed the PMP exam. Congratulations to her and all the recently certified project management professionals. Right now, you are walking encyclopedias of project management terms, tools, and techniques. You know the PMBOK by heart and have studied Agile, Scrum, Kanban, and even a little Six Sigma. You are primed with knowledge, confidence, and motivation – and ready to use your skills to lead projects.

But, before you get started, I have to tell you that there are a few things they didn’t teach you in project management school.  A few items that every Project Manager learns over time through experience that changes the way they approach their job.  Below are a few of the “dirty little secrets” of project management.  Read them at you own peril:

To read my post on “The 6 Things to LOVE about Project Management,” click here.

  • You will spend a significant amount of time and energy playing politics. Whether you like it or not, corporate politics and projects are closely related.  Most projects come at the expense of other initiatives, and there is always someone that is not in agreement with the selection process. Also, most projects have large numbers of stakeholders, line managers, internal & external customers, and other parties that have a stake in the outcome. There’s a good chance that at least one of them has interests that are not aligned with yours. You need to keep your eyes and ears open, and your fingers on the pulse of the organization to insure success.
  • Not all of your team members want to be part of your project. Many have other jobs, responsibilities, and pressures. Often, they are awarded to you by a line manager or stakeholder who is required to provide a resource, but not necessarily the best one. I have even had team members who secretly were against the project to which they were assigned. Don’t assume that all team members are excited and motivated by the opportunity to work on your project.
  • The Business Case your project was built on is crap. You get assigned to lead an important project, with lots of accolades and a splashy launch with the CEO.  The next day, you and the team dig into the details of the business case and you find it’s based on fantasy.  The revenue projections are grossly overstated, the costs are not realistic, and the market potential is far smaller than the figures used.  Wow! It’s a little hard to go back now and tell the CEO you decline the position. Turns out those Ivy League business analysts who wrote the business case were influenced more by passion than facts.
  • There are Stakeholders who don’t support your project. Many stakeholders had no say in which project goes forward, and if they did, yours would not be their first choice. Some disagree with the strategy, many worry about the changes that might result, and others have legitimate concerns about things like resource allocation and balancing fiscal year goals with longer-term priorities.  In any case, they may be your stakeholders, but they are not always in your corner.
  • Your project Sponsor cannot always be trusted. What?  The person you turn to in times of trouble is not always reliable?  Yes, sponsors often have many responsibilities and your project might not be the most important. Plus, sometimes they become a sponsor because of position and rank – not due to interest or competence.  There are times when a project goes bad and your sponsor will simply vanish.  Sometimes you have to walk down the road alone.
  • Your Project Management Office (PMO) is not always your friend. PMO’s are a great help to most Project Managers. They can provide infrastructure, support, and guidance that will help you be successful. However, they are not all created equal.  Some PMO’s thrive on power, bureaucracy and control. Others are understaffed and focus solely on just a few high-visibility projects. Finally, there are some with a level of maturity and development well beneath your needs.
  • People will sometimes hate you. It is just a fact that people who run projects and bring change often face resentment, resistance, and even loathing.  Often you are messing with people’s worlds, challenging their norms, and forcing them to change something with which they are very comfortable. Many times you are an outsider that does not “come from” or “know the business”. Yet, you will lead projects that sometime change everything.  Some people will hate you for this; it is often hard to avoid.

The good news is that if you are armed with the right tools and skills and aware of the pitfalls that many project managers face, you have most of what is needed to succeed.

The keys to being successful are the following:  be open and transparent, listen, be humble and respectful, use all the tools in your tool-kit, never let obstacles derail you, trust your gut, and be willing to ask for help when needed.

Good luck to you. I know you are ready for this challenge and many more!

To read about the other side of Project Management, read my award winning post, “The 6 Things to LOVE about Project Management,” by clicking here.

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About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
This entry was posted in Career & Development, Project Management and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to 7 Things They Don’t Teach You in Project Management School

  1. Richard Botto says:

    Absolutely true … all of it. I realised early on in my career as a PM that I had to be comfortable with not being liked. It was quite a challenge for me as I’ve always been a good negotiator and influencer. But, as you rightly point out there are times when, for a range of reasons, you won’t be popular and you just have to be comfortable with that; remain objective, professional and hold onto your integrity.

    It’s also funny how you can hear about stakeholder management from the strangest of places. I once heard a guy that had started out as a bus driver and then decided to setup a tour bus company. In a radio interview he said there are only 3 types of customers:
    – Venturers – these are the people that are engaged, read the guide book before they came on the tour, point to things and want to really be a part of what they are experiencing (not passive)
    – Vagues – these are the ones that are so busy that they didn’t have time to read the guide book before they came. They got here on the holiday and now its up to the tour guide to look after them. They participate but aren’t really active
    – Vocals – these are the people that aren’t happy unless they are unhappy. Unfortunately many Vagues have a predisposition towards becoming Vocals unless you nurture them well.

    Of course the above are my memory of his words, but I did think how transportable that was to the world of corporate projects. I’ve prepared a slide (somewhat aligned to the above) which I will consider using at one of my next project kick-offs.

    Thanks for prompting me to respond.

    All the best, Richard Botto

  2. Sabitha Anisetti says:

    Excellent, on point Dale. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Opher Rigbi says:

    very true, realistic.

    Thanks.

  4. Maria Angeloni says:

    Unfortunately, people get in the way of every project.

  5. JL Goedermans says:

    I fully agree to these observations, but in my experience I would not “attach” these to only Project Management. The same goes to line management, strategic objectives settings, team objectives settings and so on…
    Despite all the available knowledge and trainings, I’m astonished every single day how goal setting, business cases built on emotional evidence are getting validated at highest company level.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you JL for reading and commenting. In many cases, the lessons noted in this post apply to many disciplines – not just project management. Most managers face these issues at some time in their careers. As far as goal setting & business cases – often times companies elect to use the best case scenarios to justify investments. If all goes right – we will achieve this. Rarely does all go right, especially if change or implementing something new is involved. Thanks for your comments – best wishes.

  6. RRC says:

    Sometimes we also culprits to such traits and behaviours! We can avoid them but can mitigate it!

  7. shashisgreati says:

    Hello Dale, I had shared this article with some of my colleagues and everyone appreaciated how insightful this is. Thanks, really good one.

  8. Tomo Lennox says:

    I laughed as I read this, because it is so true, and so different from what we are taught. But seriously, this is reality. This is why projects fail. Why should it be off limits for training? Why is there not more about courting people’s favor in the PMBOK instead of Earned Value Theory? Agile is a great breakthrough in project management, but if I could find a good book on “Winning the Politics of Project Management”, it would be worth a fortune.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Tomo,
      Thank you for the comments. Do not get me wrong, the PMBOK is great collection of knowledge that every PM should know and use. I had an old “beat-up” copy next to my desk that I often use as a reference guide. And, in fairness, the PMBOK does have sections on interpersonal skills that has value. I think it is just that “soft soft” or let’s say people related issues, are variable, hard to quantify, and are different based on the type of project you are managing. It is hard to put – “playing politics” into a procudure that everyone can use.
      Anyway, thanks again for yor time. You are right, there is a book out there (maybe with your title), that is just waiting to be written.
      All the best.
      Dale M.

  9. Maria Rey says:

    Dale, I support all the 7 things 100% but think the most dangerous is the one ‘Your Project Sponsor cannot always be trusted’. Being a good project manager and having a committed sponsor you can manage the rest of things you are for sure going to face. The problem is when your sponsor is not interested or missing. My recomendation … spend time ‘training’ your sponsor on his role and responsabilities and don’t let him skip them

    • Dale Myers says:

      Maria,
      Thank you for reading and commenting. Your point about training and/or managing your sponsor is a good one. Sometimes, you simply have to “make them” be and act like a sponsor. The more you invest in training/managing, the better the return you can expect. But, even with this, there are still situations where sponsor issues are a problem. As an example, I worked on a 1 year project, that after 8 mths the sponsor (who I had a great relationship with), left the company. A new sponsor was appointed who had a different opinion of the final outcome of the project. I lost a month of time, before he finally realized the project team had it right. In the end I lost a month, spent a lot of energy – simply because of a sponsor issue that I could not control.
      Anyway, thank you again for your excellent comment.
      Dale M.

  10. JJ Cinecoe says:

    Excellent comments which I would take as Geat Advice onto my BOK and periodically assess its effect on managed projects.
    Very good grasshopper you have achieved your potential into The PMP knowledge required for success. Naturally how we deal with each of those human factors will determine our outcome

  11. Charles Nehls says:

    Very insightful comments. I am involved in highly capitalized projects that frequently bring technological complexity to the Operations side of business units which is not always welcome. A “not invented here” push-back sometimes originates from mid-level operations management who are ultimately responsible for successful project implementation. Lower level, typically younger engineers are usually enthusiastic about the introduction of new technology, their Managers….. maybe not so much. Politics, team-building, maintaining a positive attitude and continually selling the project must be on every day’s to do list. Of course this must happen while your iron will forces daily progress toward successful implementation.
    Chuck N.

  12. Zeinah says:

    You forgot one, “the systems business analyst can be your best friend, or your worst nightmare, depending upon the issues the analyst has to deal with as well”….

    Many times we are put in the same position as the project manager, and often can’t trust our manager/director either…I can’t begin to tell you the times I have been pressured to take certain decisions that were ill advised and many times my saying no actually protected the pm from a clm

  13. T Stroud says:

    This is so true. I have just recently came across these situations… Don’t teach you in class.

  14. Peter Allan says:

    Excellent summary having spent many years dealing with projects in the public sector 3rd party partnerships, a project aim can change at anytime given that different stakeholders expectations if your project sponsor has political pressures put on him/her. Staying mindful of the key objective of a project and making sure everyone agrees through a project charter and reminding them of this constantly is still no assurance it will be successful

  15. Fabian says:

    I strogly agree with this because as a program manager you are bend to bringing change. And truly in most cases, you are bringing a change to peoples attitudes, culture and beleive and so it is always very difficult to succeed. most time you will experience problems from even those you see as stakeholders who are suppose to be supporting your work because they are part and parcel of those enjoying what you are trying to correct.

  16. rami says:

    u hit a lot of hidden nerves that are not said frankly when u enter PM world

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you Rami. I want to show the good and the bad of the profession. In the end, it is a great profession for most. All the best. DM.

  17. I was on a six sigma Kaizen for a week as a subject matter expert (SME). The team and the project leader were absolutely aligned on the objective and were determined to objectively propose a solution to the problem, having little bias. After working through the issues and arriving at, what we considered, a great solution, the Sponsor and chief stakeholder completely turned the solution on its head by simply giving us the solution (what he thought the solution should be, which was bereft of all reality). It was only then that we all realized that he wanted to use the six sigma ‘vehicle’ to validate his preconceived idea. To say that he was the proverbial wet blanket is an understatement! All this to say that one does not need all seven ( or more) things you mention here as ingredients in a project to cause the ‘perfect storm’!

    Thanks for sharing, very insightful article!

  18. Here are my replies to the concerns raise above:

    Playing politics: PMs need to take charge of the project destiny, lead the whole team top to bottom, and assiduously publish all project risks and issues, as well as the usual external risks.

    Reluctant team members: Need to be sold the benefits of being on the project – how will a successful project look on their corporate resume? How will the company move forward? What skills, knowledge and experience will they gain?

    Poor Business Case: Should be queried and included in risks if necessary. PMs are not there to be popular, they are there to deliver value to the business through project success. Keep documentation and email that relates to questionable BCs, as it may be needed nearer to the end of the project. Insist stakeholders produce a success criteria document. Build it in draft yourself if need be, socialise through informal discussion, and then force agreement through formal sign off.

    Difficult Stakeholders: A hard nut to crack, but develop alliances with project allies and sponsors, and point out informally the effect of non-conformity or lack of compliance. Document the issue officially as “difficulty obtaining resource”.

    Missing Sponsors: Even harder, but again it’s down to building relationships. This time it’s with their boss, who needs to explain the real significance of the project and what is needed, and understand the effect on meeting corporate objectives of leaving the project in an outsider’s hands.

    PMO: Great if they can help, but again it’s back to the issue and risk log. If you need resources and you are not getting them, log the issue, show the PMO responsibility. It should all add to the organisational learning curve.

    Change Haters: Politely, explain the fate of the luddites to them, and encourage them to embrace change. If they use the phone, like television, operate a computer, you can always point out to them how much easier things are nowadays because of change. And don’t assume if they are “old” that they won’t get it, or can’t change. Many can and do. It’s a state of mind, not down to miles on the clock.

    The challenge in PM is sensitively finding the diplomatic wording that will be accepted, and the channels and departmental language sets that work. As PM, you control the issue and risk logs. The wording can be debated, but the closing of a risk or issue is principally in your hands.

    If you are dealing with people who just ignore logic, a genuine relationship and any kind of desire to benefit the company over their own career, or they are just plain power crazed as opposed to genuine leaders, then it’s time to plan an exit strategy before they damage your reputation as well as their own !!

    All good fun, isn’t it ?

  19. Kathy Evans says:

    Thanks for sharing, so true!

  20. Shadnesh says:

    Spot on ! Ive been through most the situation above and just to share another situation is when you assume the role of PM without knowing what your predecessor have done (damage mostly) which was not shared earlier ! And you end up dealing with legacy issues which can be fatal to your career.. 😉

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you Shadnesh. You make a very good comment. Sometimes PM’s spend a lot of time cleaning up the messes left by others. They usually don’t tell you how big the mess is when they ask you to take on the role. But, you can think of it this way – someone else’s mess is your chance to shine. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment! Good luck to you.

  21. Dan Strayer says:

    Can’t agree more with what you’ve talked about here.

    I’m truly amazed by the notion of trainers out there who think of their job as mere “pull the learning aids off the shelf”; more so, I’m amazed by mentors and students expecting that this is what you should expect from your training spend. Experience, competence, on-the-job capability still make the project manager as much as it ever did before: as ever, from the classroom to the continuous professional development, instruction can only get the average student so far – competent instruction with competent students for application is the key.

    Thanks for sharing this, Dale.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Dan – thank you for reading and leaving a comment. I would summarize with: Education + Training + Experience = A Professional that can handle all situations. Have a great weekend!

  22. Carel Senten says:

    Great article and complete true.
    Still to be a projectmanager is fun.

    Regards,
    Carel

    • Dale Myers says:

      Carel,
      Thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, being a PM is great fun. All should give it a try is they have the chance. Here’s something to read that I wrote (old blog post) that talks about why being a PM is so much fun: http://wp.me/pxFBQ-82
      Thanks again – please take care.
      DM

  23. Prantik says:

    Nice reading Dale. It’s true in almost for all the PMs on earth!! PMP is giving us a framework, PMs should use those guidelines as per the project and organization’s demand / setup.
    At end am absolutely agree with you that a PM should be open and transparent, should be a very good listener, be humble and respectful. Should use all the tools s/he is aware of, trust his/her gut, and be willing to ask for help when needed. Thanks Dale.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Prantik,
      Thank you very much for the kind words and your comments. Being a “very good listener” is important no matter what one does in life (work, home, friends…). I wish you a good and happy day!
      DM

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