Project management is a profession where the most common response to a scenario question is “it depends”. This stems from the basic definition of a project – it is a unique endeavor and hence a good practice for one project may be the wrong practice on another.
While this can be frustrating for those asking the questions, it also makes it challenging to develop effective training programs for new project managers. It’s relatively easy to come up with scenarios where a specific practice can be used, but once someone has mastered the use of those, it can be very difficult to ensure that they know when they should be used and to what extent.
So what are some features which a training simulation would need to help project managers succeed?
Stakeholder assessment and engagement
Many training exercises will use role-play or similar techniques to help someone learn a new practice. But such techniques don’t truly prepare someone as the supporting cast are usually other learners, there are limits on the number of stakeholders who can be represented and there is always a safety net in place to ensure that things don’t get too real. Technology advances could enable the generation of a large cast of multidimensional AI stakeholders who could be programmed to respond and act with progressively more realistic levels of behavior – The Matrix and Westworld both provided good examples of this.
As stated in Chapter 3 of the Fifth edition of the Guide to the PMBOK, “Project managers and their teams should carefully address each process and its inputs and outputs and determine which are applicable to the project they are working on.” This tailoring approach is critical to ensuring that a team finds the right balance between risk and value, and yet is one of the least exercised competencies in most training curriculums. We try to overcome it by developing adaptive methodologies, but those cannot substitute for judgment which (till now) has only been developed through a breadth and depth of experience. A good simulator would learn which project contexts a particular practitioner had mastered and would then modify multiple variables to test the ability to adapt.
The No Win scenario
A great example of Star Trek’s vision is the Kobayashi Maru simulation from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. This simulation was designed to test how a Starfleet Academy leadership candidate would respond to a no win situation. While project managers won’t find themselves in a life-or-death struggle against an overwhelming number of Klingon cruisers, a project management scenario should assess their ability to cope with imminent project failure.
We often speak about project management as being a toolbox but we shouldn’t forget that tradespeople are usually given explicit instructions and plenty of practice on specific situations where a given tool should be used. While project managers might be provided with conditions in which a practice could be appropriate, rarely if ever do we find ourselves presented with sufficient evidence to feel certain that we have picked the right tool.