Project Management

Look for opportunities to improve your project management skills

What are some ways to improve your project management skills if your firm doesn't have a mentoring program? Here are five strategies to try.


TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

Question
In your columns as the Project Management Mentor, you’re in a good position to provide advice and counsel to project managers as they struggle through various aspects of managing their projects. We don’t have a mentoring program at my company. In fact, we don’t have much of a support system at all for project managers. Do you have any advice on how to start up this type of program?

Kerry

Answer
In my fictional columns as the Project Management Mentor—in which I describe project management scenarios—I’m able to work with project managers and recommend courses of action that will help to remedy situations. Most companies don’t have a similar support structure. In fact, a few years ago, project management support didn’t exist at all in most organizations.

During the past few years—with the rise in popularity of the Project Management Office (PMO)—many companies have realized that they need some sort of support in place for project managers and the project management discipline.

The type of project management support structure put in place generally depends on the size of the organization, the value it places on project management skills, and the type of culture it has. For example, Blue Sky Manufacturing (the fictional company that I feature in my columns) is a large organization and can afford to have two or three people acting as project management mentors.

If your organization is small and has only a few project managers, you won’t be able to have a project management expert on your staff. This situation doesn’t imply that your project managers aren’t as skilled as they need to be, only that you cannot afford to have a specialist.

Other options
If you’re in this type of situation, it doesn’t mean that you have no options. Let’s assume that you don’t have a formal mentoring program or a PMO. Other options can help you achieve the same results:
  1. Formal training: It’s surprising how many project managers struggle because they have never received any type of formal training. Many people build a workplan and then don’t follow it, managing problems, scope, risk, and quality reactively. If these project managers took a few training classes, they could learn the basic processes and understand why they’re essential to delivering the project within expectations.
  2. Role models: You don’t need a formal mentoring program to get good project management advice. All you really need is someone you can talk to who has a strong project management background. For example, if you think a coworker has good project management skills, ask him or her for advice. Your manager may have been promoted to his or her current position because of an ability to deliver projects on schedule. Find good role models and ask them for advice and guidance.
  3. Peer support groups: In some organizations, project managers are encouraged to band together into peer support groups to talk about common problems and ways to resolve them. This approach can build relationships that will make you comfortable enough to contact your peers at any time to get some quick advice.
  4. Consulting help: Consultants are available who specialize in project management as a discipline. You can ask them to provide specific advice for situations you encounter. They may also be able to provide project coaching from beginning to end. In this way, they’ll gain a better sense for your organization and the best alternatives to resolve specific problems. Of course, this advice is going to cost you money, but you may be able to utilize the consultant for only a few hours per week (just like the Project Management Mentor).
  5. Project management organizations: These organizations, such as the Project Management Institute, help members network with others in similar circumstances. When you attend the meetings, you’ll usually find people with a diverse set of skills and experiences. You may be surprised to find others who are struggling more than you are. Talk to others about how they manage projects at their companies. You may meet individuals whom you can contact between meetings for more advice and guidance.

Summary
I’ve given specific examples of actions you can take to get some of the benefits of a project management mentor (or coach) without having to invest in a formal position. Some of the alternatives require money. Others, such as peer networking or informal mentoring, do not; they do, of course, require a time commitment. I wish you good luck as you think about how you and other project managers can benefit from these types of skill-building programs.

How do you improve?
Were your project management skills ever stalled? How did you improve them? Post your suggestions in the discussion below.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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