Wednesday, 17 June 2009 00:00

A Fresh Approach to Project Management Training

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I had the pleasure to be a guest lecturer recently for a project management fundamentals course at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. While I've lectured in this way many times over the years for many different institutions, I was struck by the unique approach that this course used for teaching the project management basics.

Most project management courses use PMI's Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge as both a text and a framework for teaching the subject. Classes are often divided along the chapters (knowledge areas) in the PMBoK Guide and students are taught a typical, sequential project management process (a.k.a. "waterfall method") for implementing the tools and practices described in the book.

What was different about the Trent University teaching model was that they used two main textbooks: the PMBoK Guide (as expected) and a book on agile project management. The professor, Peter Northrop, explained that he wanted to give "a balanced perspective on two prevailing views of project management." When I dug a bit deeper into this, he noted that in past years, computer science students (the primary audience for this course, although business students can also count the credit) who were taught a waterfall model for software development rarely completed the end-of-year assignments, often getting caught up in the paperwork side of their project rather than completing the deliverables. With the introduction of agile project management training, more projects are now getting completed, though with some noted resistance among those who still want to teach and use a more traditional, waterfall-based model.

Students were correctly taught that the PMBoK Guide describes a menu of processes and tools that one may want to use on a given project. There is no "PMBoK Method" prescribed by PMI; in fact, they don't yet publish a project management methodology at all. When building their project plans, students are encouraged to select from the practices described in the PMBoK Guide to build sound project management approaches. Being given an understanding of agile project management right from the start (remember that this is a PM fundamentals course) means that students are often choosing iterative and incremental development models, with more of the agile management techniques. They see that these agile management techniques are not in conflict with the PMBoK Guide (in fact, many are described in that book) and they feel confident in adopting the processes and tools that make the most sense for their own projects.

I was amazed to see this teaching approach being implemented (and succeeding) with the students. Agile project management is usually considered to be an intermediate or advanced topic, not something that is taught to beginners until after they have learned the basics. Not that I thought that it wouldn't work (after all, it is the holy grail of project management teaching, in my opinion) but rather that the approach was so innovative and that it was being pioneered at a university - the last place that I expected to see that kind of project management training innovation.

Giving students the understanding of a range of project management approaches and tools or process options builds more flexible managers who likely will be more able to adapt to various work environments when they are done school and entering the workforce. In addition, they more likely will have the confidence to adapt standard methods to deal with the unique characteristics of their projects. It takes a good understanding of a method to be able to modify it, and most managers don't have the confidence or the knowledge to do so, resulting in the deployment of the full method on every project. These graduating students will be less likely to fall into that trap.

In my mind, this project management fundamentals course should be considered a model for the redevelopment of many of our existing project management training offerings. Recent studies in Dr. Dobb's Journal show that agile management techniques are now being used in more than two-thirds of organizations and a healthy percentage of the remainder are considering trying out the agile approaches. Agile management is not a fad; it traces its roots back to the iterative incremental development techniques used for large scale software and systems development projects starting in the 1950s. It is time that mainstream project management training organizations realize this trend towards adopting agile techniques and start teaching them to their students. Heck, even the latest version of the PMBoK Guide finally at least mentions agile. If PMI is finally recognizing the trend, then perhaps there is hope that we will soon have more project managers trained with a broader set of tools, and the confidence to challenge assumptions in the quest to optimize the delivery of their own projects.

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