How to Become a Project Manager: Can You Learn by Watching?
By Margaret Cato-Smith
Going on a formal project management course is a must for an aspiring project manager. However, there are a number of additional approaches you can use to develop your project management skills. Direct experience is often cited as the ultimate teacher and most would agree that this is undoubtedly true. The problem is though, that you may not always be in the ideal position to be gaining direct experience. In this case, a secondary approach can be taken. I call it the ‘watch, analyze and learn’ strategy.
For this approach to be effective, you need to be in a situation where you have the opportunity to observe a project or a number of projects. Typically, there are always projects going on in any business today. This is essentially due to the fast pace at which the business environment is changing. I find that the most ideal situation requires that you are sitting among or very close to where the project activity is occurring. Because of the modern trend of open plan offices, you get to hear some of the chatter between project team members. There is also the opportunity to have conversations over a cup of coffee.
There are a number of specific things you can look for while observing. Does the chatter sound as if things are going well or not? In each case, see if the success or failure can be attributed to specific ways of operating. Watch how the project team members work together. Are they co-operative or otherwise? If not, why do you think this is? Could anything be done to improve relationships? Are there issues external to the project team members that are affecting their ability to do their work? All of this information is valuable to you as you learn to become a project manager. However, it is only useful, if you are able to come up with alternative approaches that overcome any issues you may be seeing. Always ask yourself how you would do ‘it’ if you were the project manager. Think about what you’ve learned in your project management studies and how some of the theory may apply in practice.
There are some ‘DON’Ts’ that you need to pay attention to. Remember you’ve got your own job to do and you must not compromise this. Your reputation has to be intact if you are to get an opportunity to try out your own project management skills. Don’t get involved in ‘gossip’. Simply listen and observe and draw conclusions that are useful for your own learning experience.
What if you feel you can contribute an improvement? Tread very carefully. Remember, you are an outsider, not involved in the project at all. While you may have an interest, you have not been employed to contribute at all. If your suggestion relates directly to the work of someone you get on well with, then potentially broach the topic carefully. Otherwise, you might try talking with your own supervisor and getting some advice before diving in headlong. When looking for project team members, the ability to work well with others is always a requirement. Hence, be careful to always demonstrate that you are a team player.
In the final analysis, look for things you can learn even if you are not on a project. Some projects work well, some don’t and there is a lot of variation in between. Watching projects can therefore be an excellent way to see the different ways in which the theory behind project management can be implemented.
From this article, you can see that studying a formal project management course is not the only activity that will support your desire to become a project manager.
Margaret Cato-Smith has spent almost all of her working life since the 1970’s working in Information Technology, primarily implementing application systems. This has given her a wealth of information on how things can be done efficiently and how without paying proper attention, some projects can go on for much longer than expected and sometimes never deliver what was originally envisaged.