I’m frequently asked how to improve one’s project management skillset. Are there additional coursework or specialized certifications one should acquire? Is there a particularly beneficial project management framework or book that should be on every PM’s shelf? Has some esoteric formula or calculation revolutionized a project with which I’ve been involved? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “no,” and I’ll usually tell people they’re barking up the wrong tree if they’re trying to improve their capabilities in project management (or most other professions) with these types of approaches.
One of the best tools I’ve ever found for improving my public speaking was karaoke. You’re in front of an audience, usually with unfamiliar material. Like most speaking events and presentations, the audience generally wants you to succeed, and in most cases a bad performance won’t derail your career. Similarly, with project management, reading yet another weighty tome might provide some additional depth to your PM capabilities, but I’ve found most projects benefit from a PM with a large breadth of knowledge rather than overly-deep content focus.
Since project management is a skill that can be applied to a variety of problems, some of the best PMs I’ve worked with process a similarly broad range of experience and skills. In a large company, one year you might be managing an IT systems implementation, and another year might bring an organizational integration or supply chain optimization project, so bringing a broad breadth of knowledge makes you more flexible.
In general, one of the most valuable skills in any profession is an ability to learn, something that can only be developed by exposing yourself to a broad range of content and different activities. Many PMs joke that no two projects are alike—and if you’ve honed your learning abilities you can rapidly acquire context about the project you’re working on, and quickly pull from a variety of resources when the plan inevitably goes awry and requires some quick thinking. Just as I’ve applied karaoke to my own public speaking activities, I often find myself creating mini project plans when doing everything from planning a holiday dinner to building a bicycle. Applying these familiar tools in unfamiliar circumstances makes them second nature and builds confidence in their use.
Project Managers are also tasked with interacting with a wide variety of different people, from line employees affected by the change you’re implementing to watchful C-level executives keeping an eye on a major organizational effort. If all you can talk about are the nuances of WBS elements and Gantt charts, you’ll struggle to relate to this wide variety of people. If you’re a well-read, multi-dimensional and interesting person, you’ll have no problem working with this range of people and encouraging them to do whatever is in their power to make your project a success.
Before you pick up yet another book on Project Management or enroll in that additional certification course, consider strolling down to the fiction aisle or taking a class on a skill tangentially related to your job. While an ever-deepening knowledge of PM tactics might make you a slightly better PM, broadening your knowledge base will make you a better and more promotable worker, and perhaps even a better human being.