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Navigating uncertain terrains: applying our learning as students to our working lives

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Written by
Brian B

Tips from an MSc Project Management student on applying academic learning to a professional environment.

In a meeting

In recent years, project management techniques have become some of the most widespread in the business world. The Project Management Institute (PMI) estimates that by 2030, 2.3 million new project management-oriented positions will need to be filled in a broad spectrum of industries globally. Many CVs now include 'project management' as relevant experience, and many of my classmates on the MSc Project Management programme with academic direction from Royal Holloway, University of London are building on their professional experience – my own being in biomedical academic publishing. During my discussions with this diverse, international group over the last year, I've learned that the necessity to integrate multiple, sometimes highly diverging team cultures and expertise to 'get the job done' is common to projects. This is also true for other initiatives in many industries. However, this begs the question: if strict interpretations of 'theory' aren't always aligned with 'practice' in the real world, how do we maximise the value of our ongoing learning and apply this to our professional lives? In my experience, I have found some tips that apply not only in project management, but also more generally:

1. Embrace flexibility

Professional environments are often unpredictable and require openness to many different approaches when planning and problem-solving. In project management, mapping step-by-step to completion (called 'waterfall' in project management jargon), can be effective in getting others on your wavelength – at least initially. However, planning too rigidly can discourage ongoing input from colleagues and reduce the benefit of their expertise when facts change. A better approach also focuses on the quality of the 'journey', and not just the 'map' itself, encouraging team and user input to iterate, reassess and adjust goals based on changing circumstances and feedback - embodied in an alternative approach named 'agile'.

2. Plan to leverage technology

Remote collaboration is both a challenge and an opportunity in project management. The spontaneity of 'water-cooler conversations', (informal chats between colleagues on non-work topics), can be lost. However, rapid advances in cloud-based project management platforms, video conferencing tools and collaborative documentation systems can offer a nuanced, 360-degree view of project status for all stakeholders and team members round-the-clock. The responsibility is on the project manager to plan effectively (increasingly assisted by AI tools), curating project documentation carefully, avoiding information overload and ensuring that well-briefed meetings are consistently delivering actionable results.

3. Communicate with team cultures in mind

Collaboration at work isn’t always easy, and even more difficult when different team cultures are interacting around a whiteboard or in a Zoom call. In this context, effective communication from the project manager is critical, tailored for the 'why?’ of more data-driven vs. more creative colleagues. This should also be sensitive to the pressures on their specialised teams within the overall organisation. Contributions to projects usually need to be balanced with ongoing work within departments and engaging communication, combined with an open and available project manager, aligns the project team with potential changes, challenges and the evolving project landscape.

4. Understand risk

Limits on time, cost and other variables mean that risks to projects are always possible. For this reason, project managers need to identify potential risks early on, assess their impact and develop strategies accordingly. Why stop there? A true understanding of risk is holistic and empathetic, listening to multiple perspectives in the project team, and combining key inputs in an ongoing manner. This has the additional effect of offsetting team negativity, maximising buy-in to ambitious project goals and preparing the project team to navigate through turbulent times with resilience.

5. Maximise 'lessons learned'

For every project manager, seeking out as many 'lessons learned' from relevant previous projects is a critical project input. This tests the ability of the project manager to understand the context they are working in, minimises uncertainty and maximises the chances for project goals to be achieved from the earliest stage. As an equally critical project output, they test the ability of the project manager to maintain the engagement of the team following project closure, and in doing so, to deliver full value to the organisation for the investment in the project. This also helps to avoid future project pitfalls and maximising future project results. Fostering a culture that values continuous improvement, where project team members feel empowered to share lessons without fear of blame, is critical.

In summary, 'real world' environments demand an open mind from project managers, departing from rigid approaches to enhance the chances of success. They challenge us to become agile, empathetic leaders who can adapt to the dynamic and uncertain nature of our surroundings. In doing so, they can transform adversity into an opportunity for growth and innovation, a message that can resonate more widely across other roles and organisations.

Brian B studies MSc Project Management in Switzerland