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.