Project Management: An Apprenticeship Model of Learning

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My company has an active program to hire college graduates.  Every summer my team is graced with newly minted graduates who want to rotate through the project management track.  Generally, these future project managers (PMs) have limited training in project management.

When evaluating PM candidates, I have found that attitude and behavior are more important than academic training.  In fact, some of my best college hires have come from unexpected majors like history and chemical engineering.

I believe that the best way to train future project managers is to employ the apprentice-learning model where new PMs are trained in the craft by an experienced, senior project manager.

The apprenticeship model is consistent with the current trend in education that emphasizes ‘learning by doing’.  Recent studies of high-school physics students find that students retain more when concepts are taught using “hands-on” methods rather than the traditional lecture style.

There are technical skills that PMs need to know such as building a project plan, estimating costs, articulating status, etc.  But, ‘soft skills’ matter the most.  In numerous academic studies, communication, leadership, and relationships are identified as the key differentiators between good and great project managers.

These ‘soft skills’ are not ‘book smart’ skills, nor are they always intuitive.  They are often learned through years of experience, trial and error, and good professional training. The apprentice-learning model can shorten the time to acquire these skills by creating a formal process for a master craftsman to share experiences and wisdom with the new PM.

For example, one of my new PMs recently told me he was not feeling “part of the project team”. The development team had moved into a ‘war room’; but he was not sitting with them.  Because he was new to the team, he was uncomfortable ‘inviting himself’ into the room. I helped him overcome this social discomfort, by finding an opening line that would help him breach this perceived isolation.

By breaking the physical barrier, the PM also breached the communication and personal barriers that separated him from the rest of the team. This seems like a simple solution, but for someone that is feeling isolated and is not comfortable with confrontation, navigating this type of situation is daunting. It can be a big step to say something as simple as: “Hey, I feel like I am missing a lot of the great communication that is happening in the war room; do you mind if I join you?”

In an apprenticeship model, the new PM goes through a progression of roles building both technical project management skills and soft skills. The craftsman guides the apprentice through the process and coaches them through difficult situations.

When a new PM joins our team, their first rotation is often supporting the administrative tasks of running a project organization, such as processing procurement requests, creating metrics, reporting, coordinating status review meetings, etc.   These assignments expose them to important skill-areas, like navigating the internal systems and processes, analyzing and presenting data, and preparing project and portfolio reporting.

On their first project assignment, the new PM acts as a project administrator or coordinator.  They work with an experienced project manager and handle the basic tasks, such as:

  • Updating project schedules, status reports, and issue/risk logs;
  • Maintaining the project data in our project management system;
  • Managing meeting logistics and taking meeting notes;
  • Managing project documentation, and tracking approvals.

By mastering these basic, yet important functions, they learn the fundamentals of a successful project.

After the new PM has demonstrated proficiency as a project coordinator, we assign them a small, low-risk project to execute under the direction of a mentor.  The aspiring PM manages the project through the full development lifecycle.  They have accountability and ownership of the project, but the mentor provides support to ensure that they are successful.

As the apprenticeship continues, the new project manager is assigned progressively more complicated projects.  During this period, the PM may rotate to different areas within the organization. This allows them to broaden their experience and develop their internal, mentor network. The apprentice also learns that there can be different approaches to similar challenges.

We also ensure that the new PM receives coaching and mentoring from the management team.  This mentoring is both tactical (‘what assistance do you need with your current project?’) and strategic (‘how do you build strong relationships and communicate effectively?’).  These discussions provide greater context to the project management profession.

I believe that there is a strong relationship between the proficiency of a project manager and the depth and breadth of their experiences. By using the apprenticeship model, we can front-load experiences that would normally take longer to acquire. Using the apprenticeship learning-model, my team is successfully training the next generation of project managers.

© 2014, Project Management Essentials, LLC

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