In general, most places of business ain’t too good about project manager training. I’ll hit you with a few stats if you’re ready. Here’s No. 1: most people first become a manager at 30, then get their first manager training at 42. (If you had a kid the same day you got promoted to manager, the kid would be in fifth or sixth grade when you first got trained.) Here’s stat No. 2: most project manager training, when it does occur, revolves around a 1911 playbook. In that tome, managers were seen as gatekeepers of productivity. In a way, they are and that’s all still true — but in a more connected, real-time (buzzword!), digitally-driven world, managers should be doing much more with people. A lot of the tools are doing things themselves. Think machine learning, etc. They don’t need the managers. The people need the managers.
Instead of embracing that side of project manager training or leadership development, here’s what we do. We give people tools to essentially avoid dealing with other people in any real way. Examples would include:
- Once-per-year performance reviews
- A host of other cover-your-ass moves designed to let managers ignore people and focus exclusively on process and product
So that’s all tough. But maybe there’s a path forward on better project manager training.
Project manager training: MIT research
I’ve written a little bit about this idea of “the team leader of the future.” We live in a fast-moving business world and new tools are being created — and/or taken to scale — every day. In such an environment, shouldn’t leadership also have to evolve? The common answer is “Not as long as we are still making money,” but I think that answer is a little bit myopic. Balance sheets don’t reflect what your future looks like, and I think a lot of executives miss that. There are clues to your future — i.e. will you be disrupted, etc. — all over your org, but you gotta tap into them. Your balance sheet just shows the money you made of late, not necessarily how things might be in five years.
Here’s some new work from MIT called “The Three New Skills All Managers Need.” What are those, pray tell?
- Partnering with digital “colleagues”
- Become digitally mindful
- Have empathy for the technology preferences of others
All good ideas, and all good for future project manager training. Let’s go 1-by-1.
“Partnering with digital colleagues”
This is complicated. MIT approaches it as basically “understanding algorithms and machine learning.” Yep. That’s important. The thing I would add is “knowing how to work with IT or other technology-centric departments.” A lot of people in other divisions, like marketing/sales or Ops, have no idea how to approach a developer. They send totally out-of-context emails that use none of the terms the developer would recognize. Projects stall hourly because of this. So I’d say there’s a human element (working with IT, etc.) and a tech element (understanding how algorithms and AI will shift your business).
Project manager training: Becoming digitally mindful
MIT nails it up top in this section:
Because digital technologies enable remote work, the nine-to-five workday is becoming less and less meaningful in many settings. Ironically, current management mindsets still focus on the separation of work and nonwork time. Consequently, because managers find it difficult to establish boundaries between work and nonwork, organizations face the fallouts of “techno-stress,” technology addiction, and information overload. However, technologies will only increase in flexibility, richness, and seamlessness, and that will lead to their greater use at home for work and vice versa.
In short: how we view the work week in (almost) 2017 is a joke. Almost any white-collar job with a CRM can be done from a beach with WiFi at this point. Most important thing to understand: many managers manage for control, not for quality or productivity. Control is what matters to them. The work could get done in a half-assed way, but if it’s done in a way they feel they had control over, that is what matters. Right there is one of the single-biggest flaws of work.
Empathy for the technology preferences of others
I’d take this as “square peg, round hole.” What I mean is like: just because you understand a technology (“I’m a big Slack guy, Gary”) inherently doesn’t mean everyone else will. The purpose of a job is usually to get work done in a quality way. If you use Google Drive to do that and I use Trello, that’s fine so long as the priorities and goals are achieved. A lot of times, companies force people to work in a certain way, usually because of a contract they bought into (like a software provider). If people aren’t comfortable working that way, they probably won’t work that way. Then process erodes and productivity erodes, and everyone runs around screeching and hollering about “action plans” to fix it.
In short: everyone has different habits and preferences for how they use tech and platforms. Be mindful of that.
How does all this relate to project manager training?
Glad you asked. First off, we need to get better at training up managers. There are too many out of the box solutions and HR webinars clogging the market. Those things don’t work. Any project manager training needs to revolve around three high-level components:
- These are the priorities of your job/role and how you will be evaluated/bonus’ed on it
- Here are the ways to deal with people
- And these are the ideas around process and technology
That needs to be the top because, well, most companies are horrible at setting priorities for workers. The front line leadership level — middle managers and project managers — is the best level to try and improve this. These people have families and mortgages and school payments, so they do want to know about money. Bonuses and compensation are important to people, Daniel Pink keynote speeches be damned. So you need to explain all this out, clearly, when doing project manager training.
After that, there are two pathways. One is about dealing with people — so topics like feedback, check-ins, employee recognition, not wasting people’s time in meetings/calls, etc. need to be addressed here. That should be a full day, a full week, or even ongoing. Managers usually don’t know this stuff, and they desperately need to.
The other track is about dealing with process and technology. What tools to use? What is your team comfortable with? How much process is a good amount? Who will monitor it, and what happens when it goes off the rails a little bit? Most managers I’ve ever seen love to discuss this stuff, but even this stuff needs to be in the context of people.
What’s up with you writing so much about people in the context of managers?
Well look, someday robots will come for a lot of our jobs. That’s true. But at this exact moment, most work is made up of human beings. Since human beings are emotional, psychological creatures, you need to factor that stuff in when discussing work. One of the biggest problems of post-WW2 America, IMHO, is that “management” came to mean “Mr. Productivity.” That completely ripped the human concept from work at a lot of places, and all that did was increase stress and depression left and right. I need to make money to live, right? But do I need to be treated like a target number KPI in order to make that money? At many jobs, the answer is yes. We stripped “people” from “manager training” and we came away with a 82 percent failure rate on most managers. See a correlation there?
Most project manager training stuff is all about some webinar. Some HR lady says “You cannot send dick pictures to your employees.” The project manager nods and writes this down. I fail how to see this kind of stuff will ultimately lead to the “transformative business results” that the executives want. I think it’s a mix of people management, process development, and technological integration. What say you on project manager training?