That's an answer I hate and love at the same time.
In this case, it fits very well. The approach to developing your skills depends on:
- The skill you wish to build,
- the level of expertise you want to achieve,
- your current level of experience as a Project Manager,
- the dynamics of your projects/organization,
- the amount of time you have,
- the budget you have.
For this article, I'm focusing on the differentiation by the level of expertise: Junior Project Manager, (Regular) Project Manager, and Senior Project Manager.
Junior Project Manager
Find a teacher
In some companies, there are onboarding programs that include the support of a mentor/teacher in the first weeks of your journey as a Junior Project Manager. At Netguru we’re huge fans of such an approach. Don’t mistake the teacher with your leader/manager. Having someone on your level or similar is a much more comfortable set-up for gaining knowledge.
If your organization doesn’t offer the support of a mentor - try to find one by yourself. Ask one of the more experienced Project Managers whether they would like to spend some time with you to teach you more about project management and organization. You’ll be surprised by how many people are eager to share their knowledge when asked.
Observe more experienced PMs in their projects
When you work in an organization that has a department of Project Managers, you get a whole team of teachers. Talk with them, try to figure out what are their strong sides, and look for opportunities to learn from them. The best way to do that is by shadowing. If you have a master of retrospectives in the Team, ask for permission to join one of his/her meetings - observe, make notes, and try to implement what you learn in your projects.
It’s also good to run projects in tandems. You can help the more experienced Project Manager with operational tasks and at the same time observe him/her at work.
Learn from other Project Managers’ mistakes
Why should you make your own mistakes if you can learn from the mistakes of other Project Managers? Case studies (online, on meet-ups, at work) are valuable sources of knowledge. They give you the opportunity to avoid common pitfalls by either identifying the risks sooner (because now you know that such risks exist) or by mitigating them effectively (because now you know that such mitigation methods exist).
The same applies to After Action Reviews from projects similar to yours. Try to research the documentation available in your organization and find the lessons learned by others. If your organization doesn’t have such a knowledge base - start creating your own.
Formal learning (university, books, online courses)
If you don’t have a team of Project Managers or there’s no knowledge sharing culture in your organization - you can always choose a more formal approach. There are multiple books, online courses, and university courses related to the topic of project management.
When selecting the materials for learning, try to look for those which are written/created by people who have hands-on experience in project management. When choosing an online course, research the creator of the content; when selecting a university course, check who’s teaching the classes and what topics will be covered.
(Regular) Project Manager
Experiment with tools and methods
As a Project manager with more experience, you now know what works and what doesn’t work in running a project. However, it’s important that you don’t stop looking for new tools and methods. It’s a cliche, but when you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards.
It’s very easy to get stuck in your usual repertoire of retrospectives, email templates, and reporting methods. Challenge yourself to try something new every once in a while. But don’t stop at just trying things out. Write down your observations, ask for feedback, and try to figure out patterns. This is the way to maximize the value coming from experiments.
Conduct AARs / share case studies
They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result (which, by the way, is not a quote from Albert Einstein). It’s hard to disagree.
So make sure that you analyze your projects (or project phases in longer assignments) and try to get as many lessons learned and action points for the future as possible. The best motivation to do it right is committing to sharing the findings with your colleagues. Presenting your case study to other people will require a deep understanding of the cause and effect and formulating the conclusions in a simple manner.
Get formal certifications
Certifications are tricky. On the one hand, they are desired for the job market and make your CV look better. On the other hand, does solving a standardized test make you a better Scrum Master?
I think that the most important part of getting a certificate is the process of preparing for the exam. Before taking the PSM I test, you need to read Scrum Guide thoroughly multiple times and make sure that you interpret every single word correctly. When analyzing the questions from the open assessment, you start to look at some topics from a different angle. And, finally, you realize that not all things that you thought belong to Scrum are in fact Scrum.
Working in one organization with a stable team for a longer period of time might kill your curiosity. The best way to protect yourself against that is by attending conferences and meetups. Learning more about the challenges of Project Managers from different backgrounds and organizations gives you a new perspective on your own challenges.
Maybe the tool you’re using is used by someone else for a completely different purpose? Maybe there’s a solution to the problem you’re facing in your project which never occurred to you before? Or maybe you can copy a solution from a different industry and apply it to your team with minor tweaks? You’ll never know until you leave the safe and familiar waters of your current organisation.
Senior Project Manager
Become a teacher
“If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough” is another quote wrongly attributed to Alber Einstein. Nevertheless, it is completely true.
Teaching someone else requires that you have a great understanding of the topic. By committing to transferring knowledge to others, you force yourself to explore the issue in detail and as a result, develop your skills.
Also, the examples and questions shared by your “students” will be valuable additions to your experience. As they learn, they will experiment with the solutions you recommend; you can analyze the results together. All of you will benefit from the lessons learned.
Create a board of mentors
As Senior Project Manager you have lots of experience, so you’re able to tackle the majority of project-related issues. However, you also get assigned to more challenging projects. This means that the complexity of the issues rises.
I’ve already discussed the value of having a teacher/mentor. But for a Senior PM one mentor won’t be able to cover all the needs. Try to find a specific mentor for each area that you want to improve. Look for people who can help you with particular problems that you face in your projects/career. Only experts who have the hands-on experience that can help you move forward. When you talk to them, you can ask follow-up questions that will get you to the core of the solution.
Attend conferences and meetups as a speaker
This recommendation is very similar to the first one - “Become a teacher”. However, here you push yourself even harder.
When speaking at a conference you “teach” people who don’t know you and don’t know your background, so you have to create your image as an expert from scratch. You need to fit months of experience from a project into 20 minutes of a presentation, so you really have to think it through and understand every little piece of it. You have to make your message clear and understandable, as the majority of the audience won’t have a background in your industry, so your communication has to be on point.
All these skills are crucial for daily communication with clients and teams, so developing them during conferences will give you an extra boost at work.
Create and improve existing processes
With experience from multiple projects, you’re in a perfect spot to create or improve processes that can help less experienced Project Managers. When you look at the bigger picture and try to grasp the essentials of the process, you practice your analytical skills, which then can be transferred to your projects.
What is more, each process should be properly implemented. And practicing change management on an organisational scale is a great challenge. It’s also a good step towards leadership/management positions if that’s the path that you want to follow.
BONUS: My top picks - sources of inspiration
Below you’ll find links to books, courses, and other sources of inspiration that influenced me the most and were an important part of developing my skills as a Project Manager. Enjoy!
- Courses on LinkedIn Learning. LinkedIn Learning is available for Premium users, but the first three months are free! I really liked the courses related to Agile Project Management:
- New tools and methods inspiration