6 things the project management certification didn’t cover

Feeling pretty good about your project management bona fides after some classroom instruction and research? There are surprises in store for any enthusiastic soul walking into their first project management situation. Even an extensive certification course won’t prepare you.

In any job, learning and thinking on your feet is important. In project management, it separates the true practitioners from the posers.

“When you just follow the cookbook approach, you’re not a project lead or manager—you’re a facilitator,” says Jeff Varney, process and performance management practice lead at APQC. “The leadership aspect of project management is really critical, and a mechanical approach might not meet those needs.”

Your training was probably too general

Project management students typically come from diverse industries. The historical fix has either been to over-generalize learning examples to the point that they are vague and unhelpful, or to simply throw out a mix of case studies in the hope that some of them will resonate eventually for every student. Particularly for a skilled project manager crossing into the same discipline in a new industry, this will mean an adjustment period as you learn the peculiarities of that company and industry’s approach to project work.

“It’s very difficult for someone from a pharmaceutical background to understand examples from software,” says Martin Wartenberg, consultant to University of California, Irvine. “Instructors have to get better at bridging that gap and making more examples real.”

You’ll never stop learning

Identifying and availing yourself of subject matter experts is crucial to good project management. But SMEs can’t do all of your thinking and intuiting for you. Get used to having a stack of books, real or virtual, on your desk. The best in the business immerse themselves in background material that gives them a solid grounding in the fine details and intricate technologies that a successful project will ultimately entail.

“As a project manager, you need enough understanding to have technical conversations, to provide checks and balances, to understand their needs, and to challenge them,” Varney says. “A little bit of knowledge goes a long way towards being an effective project manager.”

It’s good to say “no.”

Finding a way to meet every request and expressed need isn’t the hallmark of a top-flight, seasoned project manager. Knowing when and how to say “no” is. Particularly when requests come in for more time or resources, project managers have to learn how to unearth the real needs from the nice-to-haves.

“You can’t just say ‘You need that? Okay, I’ll make it happen,’” Varney says. “You push back on it because it’s not in the project scope, or you agree to it because it mitigates risk in some way.”

Defining requirements is harder in the field than it is in the classroom

In the real world, people are not nearly as able or willing to clearly, concisely, and accurately state their constraints and requirements.

“Project managers aren’t taught enough how to define requirements, speak to stakeholders, and drag kicking and screaming everything there is to know about what they want built,” Wartenberg says. “It’s a big gap in the way project management courses are taught.”

Not all teams are dream teams

Rarely will you be handed the team you want. Resources are dictated as much by availability as they are a match between skillset and need. As a team leader, project managers must be ready to help team members exceed what they previously saw as limitations, and push through personal boundaries.

More often than you expect, you may have to fight to get the team you need. When even adequate talent is unavailable due to budgetary or other constraints, project managers must take an active role in communicating that this constitutes a genuine project risk. They must also be willing to trade, lure, and assert themselves to pull in the right resources from other projects if the overall outcome will be better.

“Project managers need to learn to have those conversations about shifting resources around for the good of the portfolio of projects,” Varney says.

Not everyone wants you to succeed

From petty rivalries to dreadfully serious budgetary clashes, in the real world not every oar will pull in the same direction. Freshly anointed project managers arrive with an expectation that even outsiders fundamentally want their projects to succeed. Some will be bitter that an opportunity didn’t come their way. Others will be more than happy to help tarnish your star to make theirs shine even more brightly by comparison.

“There are people around you who do not like you and will do their best to help you fail,” Wartenberg says. “New project managers don’t grasp that concept yet.”

In short, politics is everywhere, and no amount of certification study can prepare you to navigate it when it rears its ugly head. But don’t check out or give up, because the political process doesn’t have to be a knock-down, drag-out fight. Wartenberg leaves us with these encouraging words: “Remember that politics is the art of the possible.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.