Wednesday, 06 April 2011 10:47

Project Management Training: A Student’s Perspective

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“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Master’s Certificate in Project Management (MCPM) Course.”  With these words, pronounced by David Barrett, our five month journey into project management began.  David, the Program Director for the Schulich Executive Education Centre’s Centre of Excellence in Project Management, then set the scene for what we were going to cover during the eighteen training days, programmed for two days every second weekend.  We were going to receive instruction in various facets of project management, including the critical time-scope-cost triangle, quality, human resources, communications, risk, and procurement.  We were also going to learn how everything is integrated within project management.  Having completed the pre-reading of the first three chapters of the PMBOK, I knew that these key topics corresponded to the nine knowledge areas.  These topics would be presented to us by various experts in the field, each module building upon the knowledge we had gained to date.  By the end of the course, David assured us, we would be ready to write the PMP certification exam (provided that you have acquired the required hours of real-life project management experience required to apply for the exam).

I quickly glanced around the room, seeing many eager faces, but none of them familiar.  I looked at the various nametags, noting that there were many different industries represented.  The Department of National Defence provided the largest contingent with over 30% of the 24 candidates.  Others included provincial and municipal government organizations, private industry, and even some just wanting to gain more knowledge for their own benefit.  Noting that the crowd represented a broad spectrum of managers, David asked all of us to quickly introduce ourselves, state what we hoped to achieve, and to mention something notable about ourselves – little did I realize how important this last information would be (hint for future students). Once this was completed, he turned us over to our first presenter, Dr. Bud Lush.

Bud, as it seems, was a man of two personalities.  He most often was his real self, giving us further information about project management.  At one point, however, he put on an “Academy Air” hat and became Sir William MacAulay, the project sponsor for the rather expensive paper planes that we were going to build.  The class was divided into four syndicates, with each syndicate being comprised of members from diverse backgrounds.  Our first syndicate assignment was to determine who was going to fulfill each role – six project managers with no one to manage would be problematic indeed!  The roles selected, the next challenge was to select a company name.  Coming up with a future-proof name when you don’t quite know what will happen was an interesting challenge; our syndicate came up with the name Flight Logistics International (FLI) – bad pun fully intended.

That’s when the real project management work commenced.  Each syndicate’s first task was to attend the bidder’s conference, ensuring that the team understood all pertinent information.  As FLI members, we wanted to ensure that we could provide the most accurate bid that met all of the project deliverables.  When I reflect back on this initial day of training, I am still amazed at how quickly our syndicate came together as a group – a future lecture on team development and dynamics told us that we had “Formed” very well indeed.  The first day ended with more than a few people wondering, “How is this going to come together at the end?”  Bud assured us that everything would indeed come together in the end, and that we would be impressed at the results.  SPOILER ALERT – he was right.

The next 3.5 months were very informative, with much information being passed in a short period of time.  Some likened it to “drinking from a fire hose” whereas others, with perhaps a little more experience, came up with phrases such as “I wish I had known about THIS when I implemented project YYY.”  We were provided with a broad range of project management professionals from various industries, each one focussing on different aspects of program management.  They included:

  • Project planning and control;
  • Personal and team communication in a project environment;
  • Project quality management;
  • Effective project cost management;
  • Procurement and contracting management, and
  • Assessing and managing project risk.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the students demonstrated strengths and weakness in different areas – this is where syndicate work provided the greatest benefit.  Not only did it force the students to contemplate the information that had been provided and apply it in a practical context, it allowed for different individuals to provide peer mentoring at different times.  Although the Academy Air project team remained constant throughout, did I mention that the individual class syndicates were always reformulating so that you eventually got to work with everyone in the class?  For me, this was a significant advantage since there was always a new perspective (either personal or industry) being introduced.  Some syndicate work was challenging (I remember grinding a few gears in cost management); other work was instructive yet highly entertaining (a risk-based dice game – Vegas, here I come!)

The name of the eighth module was called “Filling in the Gaps.”  As we started reviewing this module’s material, we were also able to simultaneously see how much information had been assimilated in a short period of time.  Having already covered much of the PMBOK, this module provided additional info in areas such as professional ethics, and also served as a review of all the material that we had covered to date.  I wish I could have been an outside observer for the initial module and this one – the difference in knowledge and confidence must have been remarkable.  We ended this module with our final written exam. 

The final weekend was perhaps the one that did “FLI” by the fastest (another collective groan came out of the readers…) Although we had completed our homework every week, completing various project documents for the docket, this was the final opportunity for FLI and the other syndicates to polish the documents and ensure that everything was ready for the final day.  Sir William MacAulay (or was it Bud Lush – I get the two confused), came back to look at our proposals and approve our documentation.  On 12 February 2011, after some final twists and turns that won’t be revealed here (projects ALWAYS go according to plan, don’t they?) the no-fly zone was lifted and the various paper plane designs were airborne on the proving grounds of the St. Mary’s University executive lunch room.  In parallel with baseball, one could hear shouts of elation for successful flights, cries of dismay for a plane that wouldn’t behave as it should, and cries of protest if a judge stated that a plane did not qualify when it was obvious to EVERYONE on the team that it did indeed land in the appropriate zone (darn blind home plate umpire…)   The rapid fixing of damaged paper planes would have made NASCAR pit crews look on with admiration.

On completion of the flights, the final results were assessed.  Although it is with much chagrin that I report that FLI did not have the best plane design, I am pleased to report that we did provide the most complete and coherent documentation.  Most importantly, we also had the best costume!  The MCPM certificates were handed out, a few “cocktail napkin” awards were presented, and some libations were consumed.  Although some arrived as strangers, many departed as long-term friends, and all are much more prepared to employ project management best practices as we go back to our regular jobs.

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Chris Haché is the Test Coordinator for the Victoria Class Submarine Operational Testing and Evaluation Programme.  Having been employed with the Canadian Forces for the past 22 years, he has worked around the world.  He was also the Chief Military Planner for the United Nations Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) before, during, and after the earthquake of 12 January 2010.  He currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and can be contacted through LinkedIn.  Although he is a submariner, he thoroughly enjoyed flying the paper planes.

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