A Project Manager’s Lessons Learned

Astronaut in space.

Image Pixabay. Design James Walker.

I’ve just started a Project Management course at University of Liverpool, kindly funded by one of my employers. Despite running many digital literary/educational projects, I’ve never had formal training and so was concerned I may have picked up bad habits on the way – a bit like learning to drive from a friend. The course is an opportunity to provide a bit of context, depth and theory to a self-taught profession that has kept me busy and stimulated for many years.

To get the best out of education, you need an inquisitive mind. So, I’m loving being directed to readings and sources I’d never have encountered otherwise, such as Jerry Madden’s ‘A Project Manager’s Lessons Learned’. Madden retired in 1995 as Associate Director of Flight Projects at Goddard Space Flight Center. The ‘Lessons Learned’ are a collection of 128 observations compiled during his distinguished 37-year career with NASA. As his colleague Les Meredith observed, “God only gave us Ten Commandments. Jerry has listed over a hundred instructions for a Project Manager. It is evident a lot more is expected from a Project Manager.”

Here’s some of my favourite tips. The first is particularly resonant to me as it is incredibly difficult to relinquish control when putting together a literary project as you have such a strong vision of the outcome. But I guess as I’m conceptualising projects and then running them, there’s a blurring between Project Manager and Sponsor. Having said that, all my projects involve collaboration and co-creation; experience has taught that getting the right team together makes delegation a lot easier. Anyway, here’s a few tips from Madden.

  • A manager who is his own systems engineer or financial manager is one who will probably try to do open heart surgery on himself.
  • The project manager who is the smartest man on his project has done a lousy job of recruitment.
  • A puzzle is hard to discern from just one piece, so don’t be surprised if team members deprived of information reach the wrong conclusion.
  • Wrong decisions made early can be salvaged, but “right” decisions made late cannot.
  • Experience may be fine but testing is better. Knowing something will work never takes the place of proving that it will.
  • Management principles are still the same. It is just the tools that have changed. You still should find the right people to do the work and get out of the way so they can do it.
  • A working meeting has about six people attending. Meetings larger than this are for information transfer.
  • Abbreviations are getting to be a pain. Each project now has a few thousand. This calls on senior management to know a couple hundred thousand. Use them sparingly in presentations unless your objective is to confuse.

National Holocaust Remembrance Day: Ruth Schwiening

Friday 27 January is National Holocaust Remembrance Day. In this article, James Walker discusses a project celebrating the remarkable life of Ruth Schwiening who came to Britain at the age of three as part of the Kindertransport during WWII.

In my early twenties, I devoured every book imaginable about World War II. Through literature, I wanted to read every perspective so that I could try to understand that which was completely incomprehensible: the deliberate, organised, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million European Jews, as well as other groups of people who fell into the category of Untermenschen (subhuman) and therefore did not deserve to live. This included disabled, gay, Romany, and Jehovah’s Witness people and anyone else who contravened the ideology of racial purity.

Sebastian Haffner’s memoir Defying Hitler was a particularly memorable read because it opened with a line I had never considered before: The first country to be invaded by the Nazis was Germany. Until that point, the narrative had been simple – at least by my education. All Germans were bad, all Allies were good. To realise that many German people were also victims of Nazism complicated my simplistic understanding of war by bringing humans to the centre of the story.

I mention this because I recently invited Ruth Schwiening and her husband Jürgen to give a talk to some of my creative writing students at Nottingham Trent University. Ruth and her family were born and bred in German. Her parents ran a farm and taught others – a bit like woofing – so that they could live independently off the land. But when the Nuremberg Laws were introduced in 1935 another aspect of their identity was made prominent: They were Jews. This meant they were denied their German citizenship, forbade to marry non-Jews, and had all political rights removed. They were forced to sell the farm and flee the country.

Ruth was put on the Kindertransport when she was three and came to Britain. She still lives here now, in Newark, Nottinghamshire. However, there wasn’t room for her twin and other brother. Her father was arrested and sent to Dachau – the prototype concentration camp. Remarkably, there’s a happy ending of sorts to this story. The family were eventually reunited and lived to tell their tale. But Ruth’s most rebellious act was to later marry a German man, Jürgen, who had been raised as a member of the ‘master race’. But that’s another story.

Ruth is as an artist who has turned to paint, ceramics and poetry to make sense of her life and to warn others against complacency. With the growing rise of authoritarianism and fascism across the globe it is vital her story and others are not forgotten. It’s with this in mind that I have been working with Debbie Moss and the National Holocaust Centre to produce a spin-off website as part of their project called The Listening Project. This will feature Ruth’s story as well as responses to her artwork from John Lewell, Kai Northcott, Ellie Jacobson and myself.

My Story by Ruth Schwiening was published by The Association of Jewish Refugees in August 2022.