Lessons Learned From 3 Decades in Project Management

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By Wanda Curlee

PMI is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, an occasion that has led me to reflect on projects from my past. While I don’t have 50 years of experience, I do have 30.

Over those years, I have been a project manager or project team member across many industries. But by far, I’ve learned the most on Department of Defense (DoD) projects. In fact, my very first project was a DoD project. I’ve found that in this industry, the project manager is responsible for all aspects of a project. And when I say all, I mean all.

The project manager needs to understand the contract from beginning to end. From my first federal project to the most recent one, the contract was well worn, as I would look at it many times a day.

On a federal project, there are various sections of the contract. For example, Section B describes how the supplies or products are to be formatted and supplied. Section C is always the statement of work (SOW). Other sections provide the names of administrative and technical contacts, how invoices should be formatted, when the invoices need to be submitted and what supporting information is needed.

There is a section that lists all the rules, regulations and laws that the contractor must follow and obey. This list usually runs more than five pages, printed on both sides and single-spaced. 

The statement of work is also always very detailed. Think about a contract for a nuclear submarine, an aircraft or some other vessel—the SOW would be tens of thousands of pages. While I never managed those types of contracts, I did oversee some pretty intense technology programs, where the SOWs were thousands of pages.

I learned that having a team I could trust was instrumental in delivering a complex project. Trust meant that the team understood the needs of the project. They knew when deliverables were due and what the client expected, and they kept everyone informed if there were issues or delays. The team also kept detailed records and updates. This meant the project manager should never be blindsided, and with that, neither should the client.

Of course, I did not learn all this on my own. I had a wonderful boss/coach who saw my potential. He took the time to explain why things were happening the way they were. I was allowed to work in different departments to learn how each area affected the project. To this day, I am very thankful, and I pay it forward. I have always taken the time to mentor and coach those on my project teams or in organizations I ran. The greatest reward was to see those I mentored surpass me in rank within the organization.

When I think back to the moment where I earned my chops, it was a U.S. Air Force project to design a paperless office and non-hackable email system. Don’t laugh! As you may have guessed, the initiative was not successful. Within two years, the government canceled the project. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is this: Unsuccessful projects provide a wealth of learning, maybe even more than successful projects. 

What have been the most influential projects you’ve worked on throughout your career?

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: October 22, 2019 07:01 PM | Permalink

Comments (11)

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Nice approach and advices of your extense experience managing projects. Thank you very much for sharing with us.

Veronica - Thank you for your kind words.

Dear Vanda
Interesting your reflection
Thanks for sharing
The most striking projects for me were the ones I had to work with highly qualified people whose objectives (each corresponding to a completely different phase) were:
- Perform the strategic and organizational diagnosis
- Rethink strategy and organization
- Develop action plans (projects) to implement the strategy and organizational structure.
- Support project implementation
To be able to work with highly qualified people is a challenge, to create a team spirit and, besides reaching the project objectives, to create a body of knowledge related to projects of this nature.

Very interesting., thanks for sharing..

This is great Wanda, thanks for sharing your experience.

Hello Luis - Thanks for your response. Working with highly skilled and qualified individuals is always a pleasure. As you stated there needs to be rethinking and tweaking along the way, or maybe even a major change, and the highly qualified can see the need readily. It is up to the project manager to determine the various changes that are needed.

Hello Eduin - thanks for the response.

Hello Rami - Thanks for reading the blog.

Working in each department is golden. I've found that sitting in with key individuals from each of the departments I interact with for a few hours if you can get it, is very helpful. I've also requested to take training's that weren't originally meant for me. For instance I recently went through a technical training to learn the equipment better on projects that I manage. Can I manage a project without that technical knowledge? Sure, I have people who know it well, working on that side of things. But if I can answer questions from my clients immediately, and talk intelligently about the topic at hand it shows the client that I know what I am doing and builds trust much faster than just telling him I will get back to him with the answer. It also builds trust with the team because they respect someone that understands their side of the process. I will always opt to learn as much as I can about the projects I manage down to the minute details so I can be more effective.

Hello Kimberly - Thanks for your post. Indeed taking the classes that relate to the project are very helpful. And as you noted speaking with key personnel creates trust and helps to understand the more complex items on the project. Thanks again for your insight.

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