Can We Teach Someone to Become a Good PM?

light of wisdomIn the grand tradition of analytical thinking, the answer I start with is, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

On the Yes side, there are a lot of “things” a good project manager needs to know and know how to do. There are the technical skills that can be taught – what might be referred to as “hard” skills. “Soft” skills, too, can be taught. Communication techniques, conflict management, and other people-related processes, though perhaps somewhat less deterministic than some hard skills, seem to be teachable.

On the other hand, can you think of some project managers that had been taught those skills and were not particularly good? I know I have. Knowing how to do something does not automatically lead to doing it appropriately (or even at all).

So, are some capabilities innate and not learnable (then certainly not teachable)? On this one, my experience leads me to believe that while we probably start off with different levels of some innate characteristics, most of us can learn to do what is appropriate and effective as a project manager. I’ve seen people struggle, appear woefully inadequate and eventually emerge as good PMs. One example comes to mind: I worked with a PM, we’ll call him Tony, with great technical and planning skills. Time and time again, Tony would find himself with a team that would just put out the bare minimum. There was some respect, but no enthusiasm. He went through many training sessions – but no change, just barely competent. Then, at some point we noticed that something was different about Tony’s projects. People started to ask to work with him. When asked, Tony just said, “I finally realized I could let people decide a lot of things for themselves.” Tony had finally learned lessons on buy-in and cybernetic control (plus lots of other stuff).

So, I think good project management is learnable. Still, the question remains, “Can one teach someone to be a good PM?” Finally, I have to say, “No.” What a weird thing to say for someone who does a lot of PM training, isn’t it? Perhaps, as in Tony’s case, it comes down to what we call “wisdom.”

It is no longer enough to be smart — all the technological tools in the world add meaning and value only if they enhance our core values, the deepest part of our heart. Acquiring knowledge is no guarantee of practical, useful application. Wisdom implies a mature integration of appropriate knowledge, a seasoned ability to filter the inessential from the essential. — Doc Childre – Founder of HeartMath

Or, perhaps it’s about “attitude.”

To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right. — Confucius

Do I then think that teaching PM is futile? No. A good PM does need good tools. Finding out how to use new tools and how to better use existing tools can make any PM better. Still, just as learning all the techniques involved in oil painting does not an artist make (maybe an art critic), a truly great PM is more than the sum of her tools.

And, I believe there is a calling beyond tools for those of us in many roles trying to help others be better PMs. Though maybe we can’t directly lead someone else down the path to a good heart, let’s continue to shine whatever light we have so there’s illumination when they’re ready.


1 thought on “Can We Teach Someone to Become a Good PM?”

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    How very gratifying to see the topic of heart explicitly discussed in project management. Is there a section on that in the PMBOK? Perhaps it is right there next to the section on courage. Thank you, Alan, for raising the human issues of project leadership. I hope we’ll all take just a few minutes break from updating the latest gantt chart or action item list to consider what kind of human being we need to be to lead a project team composed of other human beings. While this might be too “touchy feely” for some circles, I firmly believe that project management is fundamentally about authentic, heart-felt leadership of human beings, plus a couple of diagrams and spreadsheets.

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