How to Make IT Training More Useful

Training IT practitioners in the people aspects of project deliveryIT organizations believe that they provide adequate training to their practitioners in the required aspects of managing projects.

But they do not. Or if they do, it is not sufficient.

This article expands on my previous article which focused on the responsibility of Project Managers to develop their team members, not just their team (“How to Develop Project Team Members”).My foundational premise for this entire 52-week series of articles on the people aspects of project management is that, while Project Managers are well trained and well equipped in the process and technical aspects of their jobs, they must also develop and grow in their ability to lead in the people aspects of project delivery.

IT organizations believe they are providing adequate training to their project managers

Whenever I speak to IT solution providers, or IT departments internal to large organizations, about putting as much emphasis on the people aspects of project management as they do on technology and process, I often receive answers like:

  • “We train all of our Team Leads and Project Managers to get them PMI certified and to maintain their Professional Development Units (PDUs).”
  • “Every one of our managers receives ongoing training in the technologies that they are expert in, to keep their skills up.”
  • “All of our project leads are required to attend leadership training.”
  • “We provide as much training as our project schedules will allow.”

These responses are universally true of IT organizations. On the surface these sound good, but organizations fool themselves into believing they are providing the requisite training for their Project Managers. And their projects continue to come in late, over budget, with unhappy clients, and with reduced profitability or outright losses.

What do these responses tell us? Here is what I observe when I conduct on-site project Team Assessments:

  • “We train all of our Team Leads and Project Managers to get them PMI certified and to maintain their Professional Development Units (PDUs).”
    Translation: The organizations earmark substantial training dollars to keep their staff steeped in the process aspects of project delivery.
  • “Every one of our managers receives ongoing training in the technologies that they are expert in, to keep their skills up.”
    Translation: They put significant focus on the technology aspects of project delivery.
  • “All of our project leads are required to attend leadership training.”
    Translation: They believe that leadership skills are generic, and hire a local training group, or have one of their experienced PMs conduct the training.
  • “We provide as much training as our project schedules will allow.”
    Translation: Project schedules are always tight, so there is little time for training in any discipline other than process or technology training.

These responses are well-intentioned, even self-congratulatory in many cases. But understand this. The training they provide their project management staff is predominantly to help them maintain their technology and process expertise which, of course, must be maintained at high levels.

But this is where even the most sophisticated, experienced IT providers miss the point. They miss the fact that Project Managers must also be well-versed in developing and managing people.

IT organizations don’t train the “soft skills” well

First of all, technology and process training that IT organizations provide for their Project Managers does not include training in the people aspects of project management. If training in the people aspects is covered at all, it is often just a glancing blow – an acknowledgment that Project Managers need training in the “soft skills” as well.

If I have one takeaway from over 40 years as an IT consultant, it’s this: the “soft skills” are the hard skills. They are seldom utilized well, and they are seldom taught well.

IT organizations’ leadership training is often “cookie-cutter”

Secondly, the leadership training that IT organizations provide to project management staff is typically “cookie-cutter”, generic, and not particularly helpful. The providers of leadership training they hire offer the same training for IT project management staff as they do for the big-box store managers down the road or the hotel chain across town. If these training providers do customize the training for IT, their customizations are woefully inadequate. Their trainers are unaware of the unique challenges faced by IT professionals and are unable to address these unique challenges during the leadership training.

IT organizations’ teambuilding often misses the point

I have also witnessed team-building exercises, or what I call “experiential leadership training”. In my opinion, this is a great way to get out of the office for a day or two, but it has limited benefit.

I remember my own experience with this type of leadership training. In one of the exercises, three co-workers and I strapped two eight-foot long 4×4 wooden boards to the bottom of our feet – four people harnessed in tandem on a ski-like contraption. We were then required to maneuver to the top of a grassy incline, working our steps in unison to gain the hill. The exercise was intended to illustrate how well-coordinated teamwork would help us to accomplish our goals. Really? We had a lot of laughs and got some well needed outdoor exercise, but the benefit to helping us with the people aspects of project management were negligible (not to mention that our project suffered a day of delay).

IT organizations often misuse personality assessments

Thirdly, IT firms often hire consultants to conduct personality assessments with the Project Managers. These assessments are considered effective training in the people aspects of project management, but they are mere substitutes. Full days are set aside to discover each manager’s personality type or DISC profile or love language or the like. The results are then explained in terms of how individuals can best work with each other and their staff.

Can I make a confession? Years ago, I learned that I was an ENTJ (Extroversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgment) using the Myers-Briggs assessment. To this day I remember “ENTJ”. I just do not remember ever using that knowledge in working with my fellow managers or my project teams.

Don’t get me wrong. These tests can be useful if followed through; but to use them as genuine substitutes for much needed training in the people aspects of project management is superficial at best, and most often inadequate.

Training in people aspects for this team, for this project, for this end-user, for this time

So, if soft skills training as an add-on to technology or process training is inadequate; if cookie-cutter, generic leadership training is inadequate; if experiential leadership training is inadequate, and if personality assessments are inadequate, just how should IT organizations be training their Project Managers in the people aspects of project management?

I read an August 10, 2019 blog post by Seth Godin which, I believe, expresses the core of what the people aspects of project management embody:

“Discipline, rigor, patience, self-control, dignity, respect, knowledge, curiosity, wisdom, ethics, honor, empathy, resilience, honesty, long-term, possibility, bravery, kindness and awareness. All of these are real skills, soft skills, learnable skills.”

When was the last time your IT organization provided any training to instill these people aspects into your Project Managers’ and Team Leads’ daily behavior?

As an independent IT consultant providing services to both IT and end-user organizations, I consistently ask the following questions:

  1. How well did the IT Team perform in developing the technical solution
  2. How well did IT manage the project artifacts, processes, and methodologies?
  3. How well did IT do with regard to the people aspects of the project – e.g. respectful treatment, knowledge sharing, advice seeking, customer service?

I think you will not be surprised to know that questions 1 and 2 almost universally receive high praise from the end-user organizations. Question 3 not so much. The IT staff answer similarly.

I once discussed these findings with a human capital executive of an internationally known IT firm. She fully agreed. She had the same observations of her technical peers within her own company.

One of my colleagues conducted a project audit for a highly respected IT firm on a major DDI engagement. The summary from the client organization was, “They came in on time. They were within budget. They met the requirements of the contract. And we’ll never work with them again.” For the client, it came down to the people aspects of how their staff were treated throughout the project delivery. The poor project management fundamentals in the people aspects cost the IT firm valuable follow-on business and a reference-able client.

When I am contracted by an organization to conduct a Team Assessment for one of its projects, I join the team on the project site as an observer. Every project is different – different IT staff, different end-user staff, different technologies, different challenges. Based on my observations during the Team Assessment, I then prepare a tailored Team Development program to address the people aspects of project management that are most in need of attention.

The Team Development program is created for Project Managers by Project Managers who understand the leadership demands and challenges of IT projects. Our approach does not use a “cookie-cutter”, out-of-the-box, generic leadership training program. The training components of our program focus on developing project management skills that are immediately useable on the current project and transferable to other projects, in the same way that technical or process skills are transferable. However, we also tailor it for this team, for this project, for this end-user, for this time.

IT organizations must step up in developing their project leadership beyond technology and process. Failures in the people aspects of project delivery significantly impact the success of any IT project.

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