Can PM Training Success Be Measured?

Can PM Training Success Be Measured?

So, I was just over on Elizabeth Harrin’s blog, rabidly trying to catch up on her posts (she’s one of my favourites) after crunch week at university. While I was there, I caught her piece, Is Project Management Training Really Effective?

In the post, she presents some research that indicates project management training appears to provide some value on the surface, but so little is measured, it’s hard to be conclusive. Elizabeth is mostly concerned with a piece of data that suggests training success measurement is “anecdotal feedback or guessing”.


Image courtesy of chandlerparker on Flickr.

I think Ms. Harrin is right to be concerned. What’s the point of implementing any program if you don’t bother to measure the success afterwards?

But I’d like to throw in a wrinkle.

If you go and take a class in making iPhone apps, you come back and sit at your desk and maybe make something nifty like Angry Birds all by yourself. Then you sell your app on the iTunes store, and your company makes a lot of money and YAY that training was really valuable. The point is, you made the app by yourself. Training either gave you a new skill that you could apply on your own, or it didn’t. Measurement is easy.

When I look through the comments on Elizabeth’s post, a lot of people are looking at project management training in a similar light…they’re looking at things like degree of competency in the skill, quantity of new knowledge, and internal behaviour changes that result.

I would suggest that project management training cannot be measured by these benchmarks. And here’s why:

Project management training does not prepare students to deal with resistance. It teaches analysis, it teaches models of thought, and it teaches a logical, baby-step methodology that works.

The problem is, the methodology requires everyone who surrounds the project to be accountable. People don’t like being accountable. It’s icky.

Imagine you’re a brand new project management trainee, and you’ve just come from class. Everything you learned while you were there made perfect sense to you. I mean let’s face it–we PMs are not rocket scientists. You knew when you got back to work you’d make a difference. And then you talked with your first stakeholder:

“Thanks, but we’d rather not box ourselves into a charter.”

What’s your response? “My teacher said you’re supposed to?” Yeah, that’s going to win the argument. But if you’re just starting out, you have no practical command of the material. Unless you also took a negotiations class, what else are you going to say?

So what happens? One by one, the things you learned in class get eroded by the other people who don’t want to take ownership of those tasks that are rightfully theirs. You make concessions. You let accountability fall away. Your project loses integrity (thank you Rick Valerga) because you lose integrity. You didn’t mean to, but you didn’t have the skills to defend your ground.

Has the value of PM training been compromised? I don’t believe so. The PM lessons are every bit as valid as they were before the resistance. The damage to the project occurred because of a lack of skills that were not taught with the traditional analytics.

But what are the comments when the project goes under the bus? “Wow. Timmy’s project management training wasn’t very useful.”

I agree with Elizabeth that PM training must be measured by any company who sends its people to school. However I think there are barriers in the way that would make any measurements highly inaccurate unless steps are taken to remove them.

Personally, I think leadership and negotiation skills should be an essential part of any project management program. I mean if you’re going to do it, do it. Just listening to the PMI is half-assed.

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • Rick Valerga

    Thank YOU, Geoff Crane!  Great article.  I really like your treatment on how challenging it can be for a new PM, fresh out of school, to engage the team and try to develop accountability.  I think training can help, but theory must be followed by practice.  And I do believe it’s possible for training–high impact, scenario-based training–to help the student anticipate resistance and think through how to deal with it.

  • Heya, Rick! Thanks so much for the comment! 🙂 Sorry for the plug. I couldn’t resist! LOL

    I agree with you 1000%. Experience is crucial but you can’t acquire it if you don’t start somewhere. Things like negotiation skills and assertiveness training (something else that occurred to me while walking the dog just now) can be very effective. You learn to anticipate by visualizing a situation that demands a response. If you haven’t experienced a resistant stakeholder yet, you don’t have the tools to do that. But a good training course could absolutely help with that.

    Hrm. I wonder if anybody’s specifically offering project management-based role-play negotiations training?

  • Elizabeth

    Experience is important, but we get that experience every day. Negotiating with family members. Organising trips or events for groups. Dealing with customer service people during our daily lives. What I think would be helpful is for PM training to appreciate that people already have many of the skills they need, they just need to be shown how to apply them in a workplace setting. Somehow, we forget that we can negotiate effectively outside of work and revert to parroting the manual at stakeholders. Bringing more of our out-of-work experience to the office can help us improve.

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  • I think that’s a great thought, Elizabeth! We do negotiate all the time when we’re not at work. My main thing with negotiation, though, is it requires a certain level of command before it can be done effortlessly. When a guy negotiates with his wife over who gets to drive the car, the guy already intimately knows his own position (he loves to drive), knows his wife’s position (she loves to drive), knows his own opinion (she couldn’t drive cattle), and her likely arguments (get your ass out of that seat if you ever want sex again). He’s familiar with all aspects of the argument, and can hold his own very well (or wind up walking).

    The same cannot be said for someone just starting out with new information. We see this ourselves–as our projects start to come together as PMs, our own personal command of the domain we’re working in is weak. It’s hard to stay firm when we’re on shaky ground, so we rely on our subject matter experts to inform us. We have to get people to repeat themselves over and over and over…it’s part of our learning process.

    New PMs aren’t there yet. They don’t even have a solid grasp of the framework…they need the experience to develop a command of the material so they can negotiate with the same capacity as the above example.

    Unless, of course, there were a bridge (*cough* training *cough*).

  • Anonymous

    “Personally, I think leadership and negotiation skills should be an essential part of any project management program.”

    Damn right!