​Is your project management development stuck in 2005?

It's time to change the way project management talent is developed, argues Colin Ellis

I met with a client last week who told me she was sick of being sold the same project management development courses by training organisations.

“They’ve been selling it for 10 years,” she told me.

Her organisation has a nickname for these kinds of companies, ‘MOTS’, meaning ‘more of the same’, and the project failure rate was proof that what they sold didn’t work.

Back in 2005, organisations that wanted to reduce the costs of their projects and increase the certainty around their delivery turned to methods as a way of becoming more consistent.

“We need more consistency!” they demanded. “Here’s a silver bullet!” replied the training organisations.

Yet, in 2005 it became increasingly difficult to forecast the times and costs of technology projects (specifically) as the pace of change became too hard to keep up with.

Almost every week there was a new technology feature (and associated process) which customers liked the look of, leading to an expansion of the scope, which in turn caused projects to fail.

The blame was laid on project managers for not adequately controlling this and in some instances that was correct, but in others it was caused by a lack of understanding of what project management actually was and the value it offered.

In his 1999 book The Project 50, Tom Peters said, ‘the funny thing about project management books, is that they rarely talk about the work itself.’

These books talk about a utopian world where everyone understands what needs to be done and goes about it in the same way. This, of course, ignores the human element and if it wasn’t for people, projects would be great.

Fast forward back to today and organisations are still confused about how to develop their project management (PM) capability. A PMI Pulse of the Profession survey earlier this year found that only 45 per cent of organisations have plans in place to develop their project management talent, 5 per cent less than in 2014.

The situation is getting worse, not better and it’s time to change the way that project management talent is developed because, frankly, the 2005 approach didn’t work then and it still doesn’t work today.

So what does work?

Having worked with a number of organisations on developing their talent and improving their results, here are some pointers on where to start. A good project management training course will contain all of the elements in the diagram below and you shouldn't settle for anything less.


Your organisation and the way that you do things is completely different to everyone else so you shouldn’t be buying ‘standard’ courses.

Content tailored to the challenges that you face or the opportunities that you have should be a minimum requirement from those that provide project management training and you shouldn’t pay any extra for that.

Behaviours first, everything else second

If you truly want to change the way that your people deliver, the training course you select has to address the behaviours of those being trained. Great project management is a by-product of good leadership.

Every project management course should have at least one module on what great leadership looks like to allow your people to make the choice to be a better person.

Collaboration over classroom

Over the course of your training, there should be regular collaboration sessions in a variety of group sizes, to get people mixing, thinking and working together.

If your people are listening to someone talk or staring at a Powerpoint presentation for hours on end, you are missing a huge opportunity. Training should develop your community, not just the individuals.

Customer satisfaction should be at the heart of everything

Every topic covered in the training should enhance the customer experience of project delivery. While time, cost and quality are important measures of a project, it’s equally vital that your people learn how to provide the best service possible.

At the heart of the training should be practices, techniques and environments that make your projects great to work on and be on the receiving end of. Once your people know how to do that, then you need to invest in a tool to ensure they keep doing it.

Anecdotes and personal experiences

Training works best when stories are told. Not only is it a demonstration that your trainer has been there and done that, but attendees are also able to make an emotional connection with the learning itself.

It makes complex ideas easy to understand, allows for humour to be used (also important) and gives the trainer an opportunity to display vulnerability, which will give those being trained the confidence to try something new.

Everything should be immediately applicable

The development you provide to your project managers should be full of things that can be applied immediately. Ways of behaving, speaking, thinking, working with others and improving the way things get delivered.

Even if there is some science in your courses, it should be practical to everyone in the room. Being able to ‘take one thing away’ from a training course just isn't good enough.

Follow-up and continuous improvement

At the conclusion of your training and having put what they've learned into practice, your people will need further help and support. You should identify a mentor or trusted resource to be there to answer their questions or provide insight into how they can get better at applying what they've learned.
A good training offering will build this into their approach or better still provide a longer term approach to achieving measurable change.

Insist on more, not less

The world has changed as have the challenges we now face, however, the thinking behind the way that organisation’s develop their project management talent hasn’t.

Too many project management courses still rely on mechanical approaches when our world is now more humanistic, flexible and influenced by smarter ways to do things. The next time you’re ready to invest in project management development insist on ‘lots’ and not ‘MOTS’.

Colin Ellis has his own project management practice specialising in leadership and culture. He delivers training courses and speeches that provide individuals and teams with the knowledge and skills to become great project managers. You can find out more about him and contact him through his website, LinkedIn or on Twitter.