What our delegates say
Q. How did you get into training with Strategy Execution?
The company I was working with at the time wanted everyone to get formal project management training, and Strategy Execution was recommended to me by my boss. I started off just planning to do a Masters Certificate in Project Management, but once I had gotten the certificate I kept coming back because I realised what an important factor training was in my career development.
Q. You have now been training with Strategy Execution for 10 years - What keeps attracting you back?
I find the standard of the courses consistently high and I am always very impressed with the instructors. They really strike a good balance between presenting the academic course material from George Washington University and telling us about their own real life experiences – it really brings the course material to life. In the last 10 years, Strategy Execution has really expanded their offering. You not only have courses in the area of project management but also programme management, business skills and business analysis. This means that I can pick up more than just the basics – I can start to expand and refine my knowledge. Strategy Execution’s PMI® affiliation is also a plus for me – I need PDUs to retain my PMP® certification and with their courses you get those PDUs as you train.
Q. Do you think formal project management qualifications are important?
Training is a massive advantage in the project management profession, often certification is the only thing setting you apart from the competition. In larger companies you can find barriers to promotion unless you have industry certification. This means that if you come in to do project work as an outside contractor for one of these companies, they require that you are at least qualified to the standard of their own internal project managers – otherwise, you won’t win the contract. I encourage everyone in my team to work towards their PMP® certification – it’s invaluable in this industry.
Q. Why do you think training is so ‘key’ to your development?
Although important, training is about more than just formal qualifications. Sometimes it is easy to get put off best practices by all the lengthily processes and administrative hurdles you can encounter. As a job, project management can be really challenging and you can sometimes lose sight of the main goal. Training really reignites my enthusiasm for project management and reaffirms why we have certain processes in place. After I go on a training course and I get back to the office invigorated and keen to apply what I have learned and keen to make sure all the right procedures are being followed.
Q. How has project management changed in the last decade?
When I started as a project manager, the majority of us were technical specialists implementing system-based solutions. However as project management developed, organisations decided that they needed project managers to be able to articulate the project solution and business case at the organisational level. Now we have almost come full circle – because of all the technology presently being implemented – there is, again, more call for IT and systems-based project managers. However, unlike the early days of project management, project managers now have higher levels of standardised industry certification. This enables us to communicate properly with each other and articulate the business case and overall organisational goals to the rest of the business.
The face of project management has really changed in the past 10 years. It is becoming more regulated and there is definitely an increasing demand for project managers to have formal training and accreditation. Projects definitely have higher success rates now than 10 years ago – but we are still looking at success rates of around only 36%, which is staggering! There is still a lot of work to do within the industry to raise standards.
Q. You have a background in the military – how did this prepare you for life as a project manager?
When I left in 1998, a lot of people in senior management felt that the military was just about marching around and barking orders. However, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. It is generally the rule that if you have been involved in any sort of leadership role within the military, you'll be a good project manager. All the planning that is required is just like the planning required within a project. All the skills are very transferable, and I was using project management techniques a long time before I realised what they were as regards to ‘formal’ project management! For example, at the time nobody told me that what I was working on was called a Gantt Chart when constructing time/event charts, but that's what it was. We were operating in the most efficient way possible in order to get the job done. That was, in some cases, iterative, so technically we were using Agile methods before they became formally identified!
Q. Agile is the buzz-word of the moment – what's your opinion on it as a way of managing projects?
The thing about Agile is that someone has written down and formalised what we've always instinctively done, which is to break things down to the smallest pieces so that someone will understand it better and deliver it better. I don't know anybody, outside of public service, who would adhere to a true Waterfall delivery, because we don't operate like that – we get as much done as quickly as possible, because at the end of the day, we're in business to generate results. We've got milestones to reach and we've got contracts to complete, so the more quickly we can get something done, the more quickly we can move onto the next piece of business.
However, it's important to know how to do a Waterfall delivery, as that forms part of your essential foundational knowledge. People should not try to do Agile until they have very good processes and controls in place. You need a lot of very competent people who know what they're doing. Inexperienced people interpret it as a technique that doesn’t require any planning at all... and all this leads to is chaos. Also, not all people can think that way anyway. A metaphor I like to use is building a wheelbarrow. In the old Waterfall method, you'd build the the body, then the frame, then the wheels, put it all together and test it. In the iterative (Agile) world, you'd build the sides of the hopper, the frame, the wheel, all at the same time, but you still don't know it's going to fit, which is why you still need an integration testing phase at the end to ensure it's going to work. People think Agile is great as it reduces time to market. However, it can also be extremely risky; yes you get greater ROI from the reduced time-to-market and resulting increased market share - but this ROI is potentially compromised by the fact that you might not get the results you need first time around and because it is manpower-intensive and expensive.
Q. How important is the requirements-gathering stage to the overall success of a project?
With any type of project, requirements are the key to success. The big problem with any delivery is poorly-defined requirements. They need to be focused around a business benefit. However, you need to really break them down and pick them apart - otherwise when it comes to signing off the results, you could end up with a customer who wanted a pink box when you've built a blue box. Does the colour matter? Probably not. But because you've made an assumption rather than properly defining the requirements, you've built something which the customer doesn't want. Now colour is probably a non-functional requirement (and therefore non-essential) and you could probably get away with not implementing it, but what if the customer wants a hinged lid and you've given a sliding lid? The customer just said “lid” and you didn't check exactly what they meant by this and why they wanted a lid. What if this IS a functional requirement. The problem with requirements is that they're written in English, which is an ambiguous language - and ambiguity needs to be tested, resolved and an agreed definition approved.
Q. OK, so tie this into Business Analysis for me...
The ‘Business Analysis bit’ occurs right at the beginning when the business analysts sit down with the client and the client presents an initial requirement. The BAs break this need down (with process flows, and object language, swim lanes etc) and tell you what it actually means in terms of outcome. At the same time, the delivery and testing teams will give a list of requirements, which when added up, produces the total requirement i.e. all the aspects of delivery. The BAs break down the general requirements into technical requirements; the delivery people take all this information and build the product. This should match the original business case. Each requirement is traceable and has at least one test case to prove it meets the authorised/approved definitions.
It's a matter of understanding what the client wants, and then breaking it down into something that can be built. The product needs to be built, tested, and the result is a business-oriented solution. The day-to-day PROJECT MANAGER won't get involved until the requirements are pretty much finalised, although whoever's responsible for that delivery i.e. the senior programme director, will be involved from day 1. It is the senior programme director’s job to ensure that the salesperson doesn’t sell anything that cannot be delivered. If he's in the sales meeting and the client says he wants a pink box and the programme director knows they can only make a blue box, the first thing to do is to try and change the clients mind. If that's not possible, then the next step is to go back to the office and find out why they can't make a pink box, and if possible, do something about it. Project managers should be more and more involved in the sales process, as it is the delivery guys who know what can really be done.
Q. What skills does a new Project Manager need? Are communication skills becoming more important as Project Managers become more client-facing?
Communication skills are a key part of our vital skill set. Although, it depends on the company and the size of the project - a first-time Project Manager wouldn't normally be put in a customer-facing situation straight away. However, it's something that will be required of them in the future, so they need to have the ability to communicate, both written and verbally, in a coherent and effective manner. A lot of people straight out of university may have a degree, but they can't necessarily communicate from the start. Good communication skills require experience All Project Managers need to be able to communicate, to think logically, and to appreciate that people and their views are important. A really great Project Manager will need to have great leadership skills to get the best from the team, everyone's different and everyone responds to different leadership styles. Yes, certain skills can be taught, but it is vital that they have the basic skills and potential.
Q. Is it important to have a degree?
To be a Project Manager, do you need a degree? These days you can get a degree in Project Management, it’s a good place to start – you will ignite your passion for Project Management and learn the central tenants and theories. However, essentially a degree consists of learning rather than doing. The only way you're going to learn how to be a project manager, is if you get out there and get some real life experience. You don't get that in lectures – you learn it by doing the job, making mistakes, and finding out how to solve problems. One problem in this country is that we've got rid of all the technical colleges and we've lost a lot of opportunities for apprenticeships, and in certain industries these can be incredibly helpful.
Q. Is professional training important?
Professional training is highly relevant, because it is teaching actual skills and practised problem solving techniques that have been tried and tested in the real world. Also, professional training tends to be done while people are employed and in the job. This means that people can learn about best practice strategies with their actual work environment and issues in mind. They benefit from real-life examples in class, then can go and apply their knowledge back at the office whilst it is still fresh in their minds.
Leadership training is a good example – people need to learn about different communication styles, how to get the best out of different types of people, then they can do and do it for real while it's still fresh in their mind. It's great for learning planning skills, how to technically manage a project. Professional training whilst working is very different to learning at university and not putting it actually into practice for 3 or 4 years.
Q. There's a feeling sometimes that Project Managers always over-estimate because it makes them look good when they then finish early or under budget. Does this approach to risk still hold?
It used to be, but nowadays because budgets are so tight, you need to get your estimate as accurate as possible if you want to get given the project. A good estimate will come with a set of caveats explaining the risks which have been taken into account whilst developing the estimate. You can't prepare for every risk, and at the beginning of a project, a good Project Manager should be up-front about that and explain that unforeseen risks could cost, say, 10% on the budget and/or schedule. A good, experienced Project Manager can be very accurate on this - he can include a certain margin to cover these risks, which is vital, but he can also see that within X years of managing this type of project, certain risks have never actually occurred – and so it will most likely go on the bottom line. However, this contingency budget has to be in there as a safety net.
Q. Is there any advice you wish you'd been given when you started out as a Project Manager?
You can't solve all the problems on your first day! One of the first things I learnt was that you won't always do something in exactly the way you've learnt it should be done. There's a process and a methodology. The methodology is the science, but real project management is an art form, and you don't get it right all the time!
Q. What's the next big thing in Project Management?
In the UK, it's that senior delivery people with long delivery backgrounds will become Chief Execs of FTSE 100 companies. They know we're here to make money, and they understand the complexities of good delivery and are therefore perfectly placed to drive companies to success, they also understand people and no matter how much technology a company employs, this is only an enabler, people provide the solution!
Q. Why did you decide to pursue the Advanced Master's Certificate in project management?
I did my first Strategy Execution course before the Advanced Master’s Certificate was available. I was already PMP® certified; the first course I did with Strategy Execution was Programme Management. I really enjoyed it, I found the instructor of a very high standard and I enjoyed the knowledge sharing, which took place among the group members. Thanks to the good experience on this course, I planned my next move to be Strategy Execution’s Master’s Certificate in IT Project management, as I come from a business background and thought improving my knowledge of the specific issues of IT project management would prove useful.
At this time the Advanced Master’s Certificate was created and I judged it to be more suitable to me – the courses were pitched at my level. The Advanced Master’s was more of a stretch. Although I wouldn’t say the courses were difficult – the value comes from meeting the other delegates – learning how they deal with specific issues, and of course the insights from the instructors are invaluable.
Q. What part of the Strategy Execution classroom experience did you like best?
Without a doubt it is the ability to meet my peers from other organisations. And the quality of the instructors means I enjoy every course. I’ve been to quite a few courses with other training companies too, but I’ve found Strategy Execution’s instructors to be the best in the business. For me, the real advantage comes from how they share their experience to illustrate points. That’s where the real added value comes from.
Q. How have you applied what you’ve learned at Strategy Execution to your day-to-day job?
Well, I’ve kept all the notes from the classes I’ve attended – they are useful to refer to on specific points. A large part of my role is working on requirements definition, and the notes from the ‘Requirements Management’ class were useful in approaching this.
I’m now involved in setting up project management master classes within my office. We identified the eight areas of project management that the office was lacking in, and I’ve developed small ‘master classes’ to tackle and improve this. The course content and structure from Strategy Execution was very useful in pointing the way in this.
The project management benchmarking questionnaire I picked up on one of the courses was a useful tool in assessing where my office is now. I will use it again at the end of the year to see how far we’ve come.
Q. What is the biggest challenge that you face on your job?
Stakeholders management. As part of a programme integrating Ulster Bank and First Active to Royal Bank of Scotland Group systems, I am managing the integration of five applications. This involves a diverse group of cross functional stakeholders, who I need to ensure buy into the changes and work with me to deliver changes which impact organisational structure, processes, systems and support and are heavily dependant on effective training and communications.
Q. What are the benefits of having an Advanced Master's Certificate in project management?
Project management is becoming more professional, if you’re a serious project manager you need to have accreditation to demonstrate this. In addition to what I learned when completing the courses, I’ve found my own attitude to training has inspired my team members to take project management more seriously, and pursue formal training themselves. They all now have structured project management development plans.
Q. What are some of the lessons that you have learnt while working on projects?
It is really important to make sure you have captured all the requirements, ensured they are documented to the correct level and that they are traceable.
It is also important to manage the stakeholders and their expectations, as a negative stakeholder can de-rail your project and ultimately, it is your sponsor and stakeholders who judge whether your project has been a success. I’d recommend all project managers to have a stakeholder management plan. It helps ensure all the stakeholders are identified; their positions are fully understood and enable an effective management plan to be put in place.
Q. Would you recommend Strategy Execution’s project management programme to others? And why?
I would certainly recommend it. In terms of recommending the Advanced Master’s Certificate, which I completed, you should be an experienced project manager before you embark on this. In the first instance I would recommend the Master’s certificate as an excellent way of getting to PMP® certification.
Q. Why did you decide to become PMP® certified?
I got PMP® certified because it shows you are a professional project manager and it stands out on your CV. Accreditation benchmarks you against others. I’ve seen over my career an increase in project managers being trained and accredited – and I really instil the importance of training into my team members, qualifications themselves are something to aim for and demonstrate you have done the training.
Q. Do you have any further comments you would like to add?
I’ve got an awful lot out of Strategy Execution’s courses – I still keep my eye out for any new courses that are introduced that will be relevant for me.