The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

Taking time for powerful just-in-time learning

Jeff and I are posting this week about different ways to effectively learn new project skills, including the value of practicing new techniques in different forms.  I talked yesterday about the value of practice with feedback as a critical component.   Today, I want to highlight another version of in-the-moment learning and just-in-time support that involves feedback, and that is especially valuable whenever we have just hit a big project challenge.  Let me explain — and illustrate this powerful form of support that I think many of us are missing out on!

I recently had one of the most rewarding “mom” experiences you could ask for. Out of the blue, middle of the day, got a call from my teenage sophomore-in-college daughter. It was mid-term week – and “the BIG TEST” was that afternoon, the one she was really stressed about. That stress showed as she (very emotionally) expressed her worries as the reason for her call.

We talked for about 15 minutes. And I got to support her. Very specifically, I had the honor and pleasure of getting to coach her a bit. We covered a bunch of ground in a short time: some quick stress-reduction techniques (deep breathing, focusing visually on the environment vs. obsessing over the coming test, rolling those shoulders…); the joys and saving graces of partial credit and to pace her work across problems to maximize it; a tip for talking to her professor after this to get some advice on how to study even better next time; a personal story of obstacles overcome (I too was an engineering major and made a C in the class she is now taking, and still “came out fine”…..); and my assurance that all the freaky physically stress reactions she’s experiencing are normal!

By the end of the call she was calmer and even laughing a bit. Still nervous, but ok! Not because I’m some miracle-worker with world-bending insights; just because she got a little targeted, practical, understanding coaching, from someone with some experience with what she’s going through. And she got that coaching **right when she really needed it**.

What essentially did this quick coaching provide?

– some perspective and validation — those big concerns are normal and survivable

– some tools and techniques – practical ways to deal with the immediate situation

– some confidence – to go handle the tough situation

Why don’t we do more of this for our project challenges, especially our particular personal “high-stakes and massive butterfly times”? (Having to go talk to a known-table-pounding exec sponsor to deliver some bad news and ask for help. Having to lead a tough discussion or decision-making session that involves team segments who are currently in wild disagreement. As a new PM, even just having to run your very-first-time-ever cross-functional team meeting…) I’ve gotten some coaching in my life; I’ve given some too, including to PMs in situations like this. How much more awesome is it to enter each fray on more solid footing, obtained from just a few minutes of advice and moral support?

Instead — in these types of project situations, how often do we just fly by seat of our pants, on our own, without any advice from seasoned veterans of similar challenges? Do we assume we’re just supposed to be able to “go do it” from raw ability or maybe remembering a tip or two from some class we took a year ago? (Sports teams certainly know it doesn’t work that way…).

I know some organizations do have coaching available for their project managers. And some PMs, by nature, may be more likely to have identified people they can tap for quick advice and then do it as needed. But I bet many of us just simply don’t even think about this kind of help, or stop long enough to find it and use it. Providing some quick just-in-time coaching to my daughter that day reminded me how powerful it can be to pause long enough to just get a little advice!

It was a natural call for my daughter – coaching is really part of the Mom job description (and I’m thrilled she does still call on me). I hope we will all think about how to make coaching a more natural thing-to-do in our work lives, on our usually-not-easy projects: Look around for people we could tap for a bit of coaching, think ahead to tough tasks and situations where that coaching would be so valuable, pause long enough on our way into the situation to actually get those words of wisdom — and then put that additional know-how to confident use.


About the Author

Cinda Voegtli, Founder, President, and CEO of ProjectConnections, has over 20 years of project management experience in start-ups, rapidly growing companies, and large corporate environments. Her portfolio includes a wide variety of activities: developing products; managing projects; building organizations; and implementing and improving project management, portfolio management, and development processes. Her project experience includes communications and medical systems, IT application and infrastructure, industrial automation, desktop software, facilities construction, biotech drug development, and aerospace/government programs. Cinda has held director and VP-level positions managing budgets of up to $50 million across large portfolios of projects in technology development companies, and has provided senior management consulting to clients such as Hewlett Packard, Lam Research, Pacific Bell, Dow Chemical, NASA, FAA, Nellcor, Aviron/MedImmune, and Mobil Corporation. She is a Past President of the worldwide IEEE Engineering Management Society, an author and speaker on engineering and project management, and co-author of a Fortune 500-targeted book on rapid product development. Her specialties and project loves include projects involving technology development (high tech and IT); applying PM to short iterative web and marketing projects; adjusting PM and development processes to work on everything from simple, small projects up to large messy complex projects. Why she's still in project management : "Because there is nothing more satisfying than getting a bunch of incredibly different people rallied around a business goal to successfully execute a messy uncertain complex project together." Best project advice she has ever received: "Make the process work for the people, not the other way around."
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