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7 Ways To Develop Your Project Management Skills

thoughts-139620_1920You are responsible for your project management skills. Not your manager. Not your company. It’s all on you to build skills or lose them.

Do you remember the principle of entropy from your science classes? Simply put, order tends to degenerate into disorder. Your skills and abilities tend to decay unless you take an active effort to build them.

Still skeptical about the need to invest in your skills? Consider this observation from “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation” by economist Tyler Cowen:

In today’s global economy here is what is scarce:

  1. Quality land and natural resources
  2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced.
  3. Quality labor with unique skills

Here is what is not scarce these days:

  1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy
  2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return)

I will assume that you’re not blessed with vast stretches of land and resources. That means that you need “intellectual property” and/or “quality labor with unique skills.” That’s where your opportunity for greater rewards lie.

Professional development for project managers can be free. You still need to invest energy and time in skill development. I can show you the way but you have to put on your own shoes.

1. Visit The Bookstore

The humble bookstore provides some of the best project management education available. In my local bookshop, I tend to gravitate to a few sections: history, community and culture (i.e. sociology, psychology and related studies) and business. You can always shop from Amazon too.

Don’t know what to read? That’s an easy problem to solve. Josh Kaufman has read vast quantities of business books and now you can read the best. You can get his guide to the 99 best business books and start shopping.

2. Take A Course From A Professional Organization

The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers a large library of educational resources. With the price of a membership, you can read journals, case studies and more. If you have an appetite for a structured course, here are some interesting examples I recently discovered:

  • Project Cost Management
  • Creating the Work Breakdown Structure
  • Working with Difficult People
  • Embracing Organizational Change

Tip: Investigate industry associations in addition to project management specific groups. For example, if you are a project manager in a bank, look into financial industry associations to see what conferences or webinars they offer.

3. Post-mortem a Past Project

Once you complete a few projects, you have a rich resource to strengthen you project management skills. Here is a simplified way you can analyze a past project to find opportunities to grow. This process assumes you run a post-mortem by yourself. For the past results, I suggest reviewing a project you completed at least six months ago.

  1. Review project documentation. Is the documentation complete? Is it clear who accomplished which tasks?
  1. Reflect on project communications. Review agendas from project meetings and examine your notes. Were your project meetings productive and focused on results?
  1. Analyze project conflicts. Conflict is a common challenge. Ask yourself how you responded to conflicts. Did you yell at someone? Did you escalate a problem to the project sponsor without contacting the project team member first?
  1. Evaluate project delivery. Look at your project’s plan for your intended time, cost and scope. How well did you deliver on those dimensions? Is the end client of the project happy with the results? If not, what frustrated the client the most?
  1. Ask one project team member for feedback. Once you complete the first few steps of the project, look up an old project member and ask for their feedback. Ask them what you did best on the project and what they would have changed if they project were started over.

Tip: The project post-mortem is an excellent way to identify which skills need further development.


4. Run A Conference


Organizing an event is a project! Even better, running a conference expands your network. If your day job involves implementing ERP applications, the challenges of running a conference will expand your horizons. For the greatest growth, consider working on skills that you find challenging.

If you can’t find a conference to contribute to, start one! Conferences do not need to be based at conference centres in exotic locations. You can get started by booking a space at a local college and university.

Tip: Seek out smaller conferences that have the greatest flexibility. In my experience, organizers of smaller conferences are happy to have the help and open to new ideas.


5. Teach A Project Management Skill To A Colleague


Teaching is one of the best ways to clarify your skills. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The act of thinking through your skill and putting your ideas into words is invaluable.

If you are unsure where to start, look around your department for new professionals hungry for growth. In many cases, ambitious professionals will happily take on the opportunity to grow.

Come with a short list of project management skills you can teach (e.g. stakeholder management, project planning, and conflict resolution) and ask your new protégé what they want to learn.


6. Refresh Your Communication Skills


Communication skill development remains neglected despite their central importance. For purposes of simplicity, I will restrict myself to two broad skillsets: speaking and writing. When you think about the work a project manager does all day, communication is fundamental. No matter how good you think you are at communicating, you can do better.

  • To improve your speaking: join ToastMasters. It is cheap and effective. If you find yourself hunkered down reviewing project plans all day, ToastMasters participation will keep your speaking skills sharp.
  •  To improve your writing, there are two tips.
    • Write short sentences. Short sentences are easier to read. Short sentences are easier to understand. Do you agree?
    • Write in the active voice. There is more to writing (e.g. On Writing Well by William Zinsser) but these two tips will improve your writing.


7. Learn Marketing Skills

Marketing is the art and science of persuasion and getting people to take action. Are you struggling to keep your project sponsor interested in your project? Are you unable to persuade the hot-shot software developer to help you? You need to learn marketing. Marketing helps you to sell your projects and sell your skills as a project manager.

To jumpstart your marketing education, I have two resources to recommend to you.

Listen (Free!): The I Love Marketing podcast (i.e. Internet radio) has over 150 hours of free interviews, lessons and other material on marketing. Joe Polish and Dean Jackson, the hosts of the podcast, focus on direct response marketing where your efforts produce a measurable result.

Read: I recommend reading Robert B. Cialdin’s book “Influence: The Psychology of persuasion.” It is one of the most popular and widely recommended books on persuasion.


What would you add to the list?


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About BruceHarpham

Bruce Harpham writes about project management at Project Management Hacks. His project experience includes work in the financial services industry and higher education. Bruce loves to travel, read history and make the world a better place through projects.

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