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Project Management Education: Cultivating Cognitive Readiness and Optimal Performance

Many project managers are self-taught, often thrown into the water to sink or swim.

This article addresses the need for PM education to cultivate the cognitive readiness you, your team and your organization need to perform optimally.

The Need for Expertise

For the large number of small projects that are performed in organizations, ‘accidental’ project managers with intuitive skills may be OK. However, when it comes to larger, more complex and mission critical projects, project managers with significant project management (PM) knowledge, skills and experience are needed.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) identifies three dimensions of project management expertise:

  • Technical – the specific skills of scheduling, risk management, cost management, etc. and the use of project management tools that support these skills.
  • Strategic and Business Management – understanding organization structure and the impact of it on projects and projects on it, cost and benefits assessment from a business perspective, business strategy, etc.
  • Leadership – skills related to motivating and managing people, including communication, conflict management and relationship management skills

This has been a major step forward in the PM field, clearly recognizing that it is not sufficient to know how to construct a schedule or WBS to be an effective project manager.

Now, the field is recognizing Project Management education must go beyond the simple transfer of knowledge to the cultivation of the ability to integrate skills to manage in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) situations.

Integrated technical skills, organizational awareness, mindfulness, communication skills, managing change, conflict and expectations, and the application of emotional and social intelligence are needed to ensure that qualified people manage projects in a way that contributes to a consistently high probability of success.

The PM Education Objective: Prepare for Optimal Performance

The key to effective PM education is remembering that the objective is to prepare people for optimal performance, measured by the degree to which project managers add business value and consistently satisfy stakeholder expectations.

Optimal does not mean perfect. It means continuously improving performance that is as good as it can be under prevailing conditions.

PM Education is essential to effective project performance. To be deficient in any PM skills, whether technical or not, increases the risk of project failure. For example, a person playing a PM role who has no knowledge of the use and importance of a WBS will be more likely to develop a task list that is incomplete and difficult to manage. A PM deficient in communication or decision-making skills risks developing poor relationships, causing confusion and making poor decisions. A PM deficient in mindfulness and emotional intelligence is likely to be reactive rather than responsive.

The State of PM Education

PM education is big business. The domain of technical PM education is filled with courses on every aspect of project management performance – task analysis, scheduling, procurement, critical chain and path, risk management, etc. Many of these courses are well done, with participants gaining knowledge that they can apply on the job or use to pass an exam.

When it comes to providing education regarding business management and strategy, the coverage is not as complete. Offerings in this domain tend to be theoretical. Though, they do raise awareness and provide frameworks to apply theory to specific organizations. Ideally, practical education in this area should be specific to the organizational environment.

Leadership courses abound – some are great, some OK and some terrible. For example, one young project manager shared that the course she took on handling difficult conversations left her frustrated because it did not address situations in which the other party was completely oblivious to anything but his own opinions and positions and was verbally abusive. The course assumed that everyone was rational and working toward a win-win outcome. The instructor had never actually worked in any complex project. For leadership courses to be effective they must be anchored in real world experience.

Many courses focus on specific subjects, often without putting the subject in the overall context of projects in organizations. They teach students how to do a risk register without dealing with the political, scheduling and budgeting issues that underlie risks.

Programs that integrate a full range of subjects into a comprehensive education program tailored to the specific culture of an organization are rare and often limited to fundamentals and certification training. Some of these comprehensive courses are nothing more than a string of individual modules on each topic that fail to address the interplay among the topics – for example the way communication and conflict management skills are used in the context of scheduling.

Comprehensive, Integrated PM Learning

No one learns a complex skill without applying it in real-world situations and getting feedback about performance. Integrated courses that center on case study’s and workshop simulations are needed. Though they are not enough.

Coaching and mentoring and opportunities to address questions and issues with subject matter experts and peers are necessary parts of education. This ongoing learning is far less prevalent than standalone courses that have little or no follow up to ensure that learning is applied and makes a difference in performance.

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A comprehensive PM education program is more than a traditional curriculum of courses. It must be fully integrated into the fabric of the organization and the individual’s personal practice. A full program consists of

  • Courses in various media, over time, with multiple levels of skill advancement
  • Integrated workshops
  • Self-paced opportunities to refresh knowledge
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Regular Q&A sessions
  • Communities of practice
  • Lessons learned events
  • Feedback & Continuous improvement.

The program may be formal and provided by the organization. Whether that is the case or not, it is the individual’s responsibility to make sure he or she is continuously cultivating the readiness to perform.

Cognitive Readiness (CR)

The objective of PM education is to enable optimal performance. Optimal performance relies on cognitive readiness.

In the military “Cognitive readiness is the mental preparation (including skills, knowledge, abilities, motivations, and personal dispositions) an individual needs to establish and sustain competent performance in the complex and unpredictable environment of modern military operations.”1 Change “military operations” to “project operations” and we have a good working definition.

Cognitive readiness, is the readiness of individuals and teams to apply their skills and to explore their faults and deficiencies and make the effort to overcome them. Cognitive readiness implies the courage and candor to objectively assess performance and improve it as needed. It implies the resilience and the capacity to accept uncertainty and paradox. It is enabled by and enables a healthy perspective and the application of knowledge and experience.

Cognitive readiness (CR) is cultivated in an educational program that goes beyond traditional technical, business and leadership skills to include

  • Organizational awareness – Knowing the nature of people in organizations, particularly one’s own,
  • Mindfulness – The ability to step back and objectively observe
  • Emotional and social intelligence – The ability to effectively manage one’s emotions in the context of relationships
  • Wisdom – a perspective that recognizes that
    • service is the ultimate motivation for leaders
    • everything is impermanent in a continuous change process
    • no one has complete control
    • we are responsible for the results of what we say and do, and
    • nothing is without imperfection

Wisdom, informed by mindfulness and education, leads to the personal dispositions (attitudes, beliefs, etc.) that promote optimal performance.

Learning and applying all that is not easy. Learning begins with awareness that, unless they are cognitively ready, individual practitioners are unlikely to be able to perform optimally. The performance of teams and the organizations will suffer along with individual careers.

Cognitive readiness and the cultivation of optimal performance should be a primary objective of any PM Education program. If your organization is not providing the right program, it is up to you to craft your own and to manage your own learning and development.

1 Morrison, John E. and J. D. Fletcher, Cognitive Readiness, Institute for Defense Analyses, 2002. Download at , p. I-3

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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