What Have We Learned from Experience?

Have you ever heard the statement, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want”?  That statement led me to consider what experience has taught me about managing projects.  As a seasoned project manager, I generally live by the creed:   “Good project managers bring in their projects on time, within budget, deliver what they said they would deliver, and it works!” But experience has taught me to question whether those are the only criteria for a good project manager.  Now, I know that there’s much more that I have learned from experience.

Let’s look at some of the “wisdom” many of us gained when we didn’t get exactly what we wanted or expected.  We have learned the following by managing projects for many years:

  1. The schedule is important, but quality is more important.  We have learned that schedules are only estimates, and estimates are only as reliable as the information on which they are based.  Unfortunately, schedules are too often locked-in before reliable information is compiled; or, approved changes dictate that the schedule should be revised, but the sponsor is unwilling to allow you to revise the schedule.  Only once in more than 25 years of managing projects have I encountered a customer who wanted an unfinished product on time rather than a complete and useful product that could have been delivered two weeks later.
  2. Customers don’t always know what they need or want.  A project manager is frequently involved in gathering requirements for a project and must learn to ask the right questions at the right time.  For instance, asking a customer what they expect to use the product for, in what situations, for how long, etc., may enlighten both you and customers about what they really need rather than simply what they want.
  3. Project managers must work with what they have.  As a project manager, you don’t always get to select your team members.  Sometimes, you are “given” resources that no one else wants.  The challenge, then, is to uncover the talents  in those people… some task that they might actually enjoy and excel at.  If and when you can do that, you have truly learned how to manage people!
  4. Project managers often enjoy turning the impossible into the possible.  By our nature, we are problem solvers.  Ask a group of seasoned project managers to talk about their most successful projects.  You will probably hear about the hardest ones – those projects that simply could not be delivered on time and within budget, but somehow they were!  We’ve learned to look for alternatives, solve complex problems in unconventional ways, and rely on ALL of our team members to come up with creative solutions.  A good project manager cannot excel alone.  It takes a team of overachievers to accomplish the impossible.
  5. Stakeholders are the key to project success (or failure).  If you don’t find ALL of them at the beginning of the project, they will find you – generally just before the end of the project.  And, too often, their recently discovered needs and requirements, if implemented so late in the project, completely change everything – scope, schedule, budget, etc.  Identify them at the onset of the project AND make sure you understand and incorporate their needs in the project management plan.  It is only through experience that we seasoned project managers have learned that turning the project naysayers into your allies is one of the secrets of successful project management.
  6. Be quiet and listen!  As a problem solving project manger, it is very easy to start solving a problem before you hear all of it.  Listen to your sponsor and stakeholders, and listen well, before you offer potential solutions.  Ask questions until you have flushed out all the necessary information.  Then, and only then, analyze what you heard, generate alternatives, and provide your sponsor, customer, and/or stakeholders with options that may have different budgets, schedule, and scope.  Let them decide what will work best for them.  As many of us have learned by experience, rushing to a solution too often solves only part of the problem.
  7. Remember, the project belongs to your sponsor, not you.  Too often we want the sponsor to accept our suggestions, alternatives, or solutions, when in our professional opinion, those are the best solutions.  But, the person who controls the triple constraints also controls the decision-making.  At times, you simply must give them what they have asked for, even when you know that is not what they need.  In these situations, document all your recommendations, and be prepared to suggest them, once again, when the sponsor realizes that you had the best idea from the beginning.  Experience has taught us not to gloat, but to gracefully implement the right solution, when the time is right.

You can learn many project management methods and techniques from classes and methodologies, but some things you can only learn from experience.  What has experience taught you about managing projects?

-from guest blogger Gloria Brown

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3 comments

  1. Greg Guidolin Reply

    These are all great. Here are some others from my experiences:

    Needs and wants are important. Recognize that all project team members (including Stakeholders right!) needs and wants are based the triple constraints. Keep asking questions until you get each triple constraint well understood and the needs and wants are clearly defined.

    Always challenge the team to move faster. Mistakes will be made and do not penalize the team for trying and failing. Kaizen – small improvements are important. The pride, confidence, accomplishments and improvements achieved will be returned many times over in the later phases and projects.

    Diagram the overall project/program and demonstrate the Triple Constraints of the project. This will create the common view and the team more than words can ever describe.

  2. gkalison Reply

    Greg, those are great additions. Thanks for the joining the discussion!

  3. Peter Myakoshin Reply

    Thank you for the great note! These are like taken from my PM experience…

    Some additions:

    1. Document everything. This is obvious, but sometimes forgotten, and hence – clear way for problems and sometime – disaster.

    2. Do not assume or always verify that assumptions made are clearly communicated to all stakeholders

    3. Communication is the key. Make sure to use “thick” communication channels as opposite to “thin”. And make sure to get feedback. Always.