Practicing Project Management

Athletes, musicians, and artists regard practice as a “must do”, so why don’t business leaders and project managers?

Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliners” highlights that 10,000 hrs of practicing something seems to be the tipping point for becoming an expert. Bill Gates and the Beatles are two examples of this success principle in action. They were not naturally gifted “geniuses” at an early age, but they took advantage of opportunities to accelerate the learning processes by investing a LOT of time in a very short period of time to make it happen.


Learning Japanese language has been a struggle for me. I tend to blame it on the computer program I’ve been using or my engineering background (English wasn’t easy for me either). Deep down I know the real reason. I don’t practice regularly. I’m currently looking for a class to add motivation and feedback but realize it’s the lack of regular practice that undermines my efforts to retain what I’m learning.

Many Japanese professionals I work with find it difficult to build competency in English too because of a lack of regular use. There must be like-minded individuals all across the world who want to learn languages. Guess I’ll start a meetup group for those in the bay area who want to learn Japanese so that we can create some accountability as another form of motivation

Could the same philosophy apply to improving your project management and leadership skills. “Of course” is the easy answer, but rarely do we do it. We take that class or attend the webinar (if your distractions allow you to focus long enough), but putting new skills into action is difficult. Why?

First, there is time pressure. Our multi-tasked existence provides no “slack time” for the added prep that’s necessary for applying a new tool or technique. Secondly is the lack of feedback from an expert to provide insights on how to adapt the concept to the unique situation you are dealing with. Thirdly, others are hardwired to reject another change, so this addition de-motivation is the third strike that leads to a “strike out” on your first trip to the plate. Ready to try again? Not likely.

Is it possible to change the system of learning to make it easier to adopt new skills without paying your mom to nag you daily to practice before bedtime? I think so.

It starts with rethinking our workshop approach. I often fall victim to stuffing in more content to a workshop with the mindset that “more is better” or “they’ll pick out the tools that work best for them”. But a recent design project has me rethinking this approach. This time around I’m focusing on introducing a few key skills early and reinforcing them through repetition in a variety of different situations with increasingly more complexity. This opportunity for participant’s to “practice” the skills several times begins the process of transitioning the learning from the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of our brands) to the basal ganglia. This part of the brain is where routines reside. You don’t have to think about tying your shoe anymore because all that practice pays off. By the time the 2 days is over, some of the foundational pieces are set in place making them easier to recall in the coming weeks.

Here is the key – START PRACTICING THIS WEEK. We often find ourselves investing extra hours to get caught up after a day or two out of the office. Schedule time during this critical first week back so you can focus on what and how to apply. Choose some meetings that your run or 1-on-1 conversations you’ve got coming up to put new concepts into action. This doesn’t have to be some “secret mission” – let others know and request feedback on what they think along with suggestions for improvement. Making it a WE learning exercise works for some situations. Not going to fly in your place? Try saying its required “homework” even if the class is finished. If the skill your are working to improve requires a bit more discretion, then ask a trusted colleague about your plan and request input from them alone after the meeting is done. We can make time to practice skills in our everyday lives then we are guaranteed to accelerate ANY change that we want to.

Jim Kouzes, author of The Leadership Challenge, recently highlighted this point in a conversation we had. Using a weekly meeting or adding a few minutes to a daily routine is all it takes. I’d suggest 3 steps to ensure that your investment of time and energy reap the desired returns you want…

  1. Focus – make small changes and build on the successes while limiting the risk of screwing up – a necessary part of the learning process.
  2. Goals – set specific objectives that will allow you to track and celebrate small wins and document for yearly performance reviews
  3. Feedback – inputs from yourself and, more importantly, from someone else to look at “what worked” and “what didn’t”  ensures you can continue the good stuff and fix what’s not

So what are you waiting for? Start today by choosing one specific thing you want working on and add time to your weekly schedule to focus on it. Be consistent. Do it for 21 days or 3 weeks if it’s a weekly practice and see what results you get.
Maybe I’ll start the morning yoga practice that I’ve been putting off to?? Or maybe I’ll wait and add it to the growing list of New Year Resolutions to begin on January first. Just kidding. It’s in my calendar, so I’ll follow up later with results.

Mata atode aimashou!

Jeff Richardson


1 thought on “Practicing Project Management”

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    Hi, Jeff.. I especially liked two different but complementary techniques you mentioned. 1) finding opportunities to focus a workshop on one area, with multiple opportunities to practice the same new skills/techniques in increasing complex or challenging situations. and 2) giving ourselves “practice homework” even if a class we attend does not.

    On the latter, I’d assume that most workshops include some kind of personal action planning to help people take away one or more application ‘to-dos’. But I bet most of us get embroiled back in “the real work” and maybe forget to seriously follow through on our actions. It’s a great thought also to not just set specific actions for applying a new tool or technique to a current project task or issue — but to ALSO set “practice to-dos”.

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