Want more innovation on your project team? Ask the right questions

On a vacation in 1943 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Edwin Land took a picture of his young daughter. When she asked if she could see the photo immediately he, of course, said no, he had to take the film to be developed. He then asked himself something along the lines of “why not?” “Why can’t someone invent a way to take pictures that you could see right away?”

It changed photography until the digital camera changed it!

As you probably have surmised this was the very beginning of what became known as the Polaroid Land Camera, an invention that changed photography forever. In fact, the company he started had tremendous success, so much so, it was placed it on what was known as the Nifty-fifty, a group of high-flying growth companies that dominated trading on the New York Stock Exchange in the 1960s.

In his highly readable work entitled A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger points out that it’s not just asking questions that leads to innovation; it’s asking the right kinds of questions. What kind are those? The ones that Edwin Land’s daughter asked; namely, open questions.

Open questions are ones that begin with Why? What if? How? Asking questions like this compels the person to really think hard about the nature of the answer. Closed questions, on the other hand, the ones that begin with How many? How much? How fast? don’t do much to spur innovation. They lead to “just the facts” answers, the kind that legendary, and fictional, detective Sargeant Joe Friday would ask each week on Dragnet, a long-running TV crime show that took place in Los Angeles.

Sgt Joe Friday, played by the stoic Jack Webb, just wanted the facts. Nothing more nothing less.

Theodore Kinni, writing in strategy + business, opines that closed questions “support the status quo.” In other words, asking how you can make better, faster, and cheaper widgets assumes that you should be making widgets.” An open question would be one where you would ask why are we in the business of making widgets at all.

Open questions act as a catalyst for innovation. They are, Kinni writes, potential game changers.  Here’s how he breaks them down.

“Why?” questions are potential game changers. For example, rather than ask how can we make widgets faster ask why are we in the business of making widgets at all?

“What if?” questions are the beginning of finding solutions to problems, or, capitalizing on opportunities. They prompt blue sky thinking.

“How?” questions “get down to brass tacks.” For example, how would you put a darkroom in a camera so that you could see the picture immediately.

Berger’s book explores how one can create a “culture of inquiry” leading to greater organizational innovation by asking these three questions.

Try this: in your next project team meeting, have one question each that begins with Why?, What if?, and How? I think you’ll see the conversation is richer and prompts deeper thinking among the team members. Remember, better thinking leads to better results.

btw: for those who want a trip down memory lane, here’s the trailer for the Dragnet series. It’s a classic!


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PM leadership tips from someone who buries people for a living

That someone is Steve Muro who heads the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) responsible for 131 U.S. national cemeteries where more than 3 million veterans and their families are buried. The NCA is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs headquartered in Washington, DC. whose motto reads “for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan. These words were spoken by Abraham Lincoln during his Gettysburg Address and are now on a pair of metal plaques at the entrance to the VA. Next time you’re in Washington, take a short stroll down Vermont Ave NW. They’re really quite inspiring. But back to Mr. Muro and what we can learn from him as project managers.

Recently, the NCA received the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s highest rating ever, surpassing top corporations and all other federal agencies. Quite impressive. When asked by Tom Fox , Vice President for Leadership for Public Service, about any particular experiences which formed his leadership style Mr. Muro had an extremely moving story to tell.

His very first assignment was the burial of an infant who was less than a year old. When the hearse pulled up to the gravesite the mother emerged from the car holding her child’s casket in her arms. At that exact moment he knew we don’t have a second chance to do it right. We have to do it right the first time. This has been his guiding principle for many years.

When you’re in this business, you’ve got to DO IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME!

When he was asked how does he maintain this very high level of quality he enumerates four things that we as project managers in our work can apply immediately.

First, he says we assess our performance and then we pour through those assessments highlighting where we did well and where we could improve, and what changes do we need to make to get better NOW. Sounds a lot like lessons learned doesn’t it?

Second, he realized that training employees in all aspects of the work is extremely critical. Apparently, he doesn’t go the cheap route many companies are using today by encouraging people to take MOOCs, sit through what amounts to be marketing webinars, or watch grainy YouTube videos. He does it right.

Third, he believes in and practices that everyone needs clear accountability in their roles. If there’s confusion quality will suffer which may ultimately be experienced by the family and loved ones of the deceased at the time of burial; how awful!

Finally, what sets Mr. Muro apart from many managers is that he credits his “amazing employees” (his words) as it relates to the NCA’s extremely high satisfaction ratings. After all, he says they are the ones that deal with the family members day in and day out, and it’s their professional work that has raised the bar so high.

So, the next time you pass a national cemetery think of Mr. Muro. We sure can learn a lot from him.

How about you? Do you only have one chance to get it right? Should you have more than one?

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Think Agile is a fad? Think again

What’s in your wallet? At Cap One plenty since they started using agile!

In 2011, Capital One (the “what’s in your wallet?” company) delivered only 1% of its development projects using agile. Today, it’s 85%. Here are some facts to get your (or your executives’) attention.

Using an agile development methodology Capital One

  • has 400 product releases per month
  • 95% of products meet expectations on the first release
  • delivery times have been cut by 3-6 months
  • they have decreased costs significantly

While you might think that Capital One has a pilot test of agile going on the fact is they have trained more than 3,000 developers and business users on this innovative development approach. This is no small feat. One can only imagine the level of organizational change management they went through to do it.  But in one sense, they didn’t have a choice.

Why the drive to agile? Turns out that when Capital One acquired ING Direct back in 2012 it was clear they needed to merge the two IT groups; and, guess what, each one did things a lot differently. Also, Capital One established a goal to make banking less like “banking” and more along the lines of creating a customer experience found at Amazon and Netflix. And, they wanted to proceed with alacrity and speed to get this done. The only way to do this was to adopt agile, and not incrementally, but by going “all in.”

One of the keys to success was to ensure that the business was fully engaged in the agile process. Anyone who knows Scrum, for example, understands how important the Product Owner’s role is. These folks at Capital One took this seriously. So intent was the company on making sure that the business was engaged in the development process that one of its nine metrics on agile development is the amount of time the business spends with the development team. Other metrics include agile team size, quality of product, delivery time, cost, and meeting expectations on the first deployment.

Rudy Wolfs, Capital One’s Senior VP of Card IT, when speaking at a recent Information Week Conference (as reported by Greg MacSweeney…….read more here), remarked that the dynamic of the development effort changes completely when the business is heavily involved in the development process. The resulting product is simply better. Gone are the days when requirements are elicited and thrown over the wall to the development group only to have a product returned six months later that doesn’t meet expectations.

With results such as these, it’s hard to imagine that agile development at Capital One will have a short life such as most fads have. Capital One is not alone. Other companies and organizations are experiencing positive results as well. But as anyone in the change management game knows, sometimes the best approach is feet first, all in. Make a commitment and “let er’ rip” as the old saying goes.

Do you work in an organization that has the intestinal fortitude and executive commitment to train 3,000 folks to make sure they’re going to have a shot at success? Or do you work for a company who’ll tell you to go watch a few webinars and YouTube videos and figure it out on your own?

Capital One falls into the first group, but I  bet there are too many companies that fall into the second. It’s no wonder agile development, or any other major initiative, doesn’t take root when a company just won’t invest to the degree it should. Sadly, people will then blame the methodology, when they should be squarely pointing their finger at their execs for their lack of commitment.

Next time you see a Capital One add that ends with
“What’s in your wallet?” just remember that this company opened its wallet and made the right level of investment to do it right!
The views expressed in this post are the author’s. They have neither been reviewed or approved by ESI International.
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Can 2,000 yr old technology spur innovation on your project? You bet!

Paper. It’s been around for 2,000 years. Thankfully, in 1968,  Dr. Spencer Silver, of the 3M Corporation improved upon it by, accidentally as it turned out, inventing the Post-it Note.

According to Jeff Hillins, 3M’s global business director for the Post-it Brand, it was initially conceived as a way to bookmark pages. However, people quickly began using them for all sorts of things such as routing stacks of paper documents around the office. As time has passed, and as more and more companies have tried to go “paperless” (fact: we use more paper now than ever before), use of Post-its actually declined. However, we are not witnessing a resurgence of these little gems. Why?

Well, we can blame, or thank, Tim Brown the CEO of one of the world’s most respected design firms: IDEO (eye-dee-oh). You see, in his very interesting book, which I read about a year ago entitled Change by Design, Brown recommends the Post-it Note as a perfect tool for brainstorming because it facilitates converging on a solution when you’re dealing with a whole host of possibilities.  Brown talks about brainstorming sessions where each idea is written on a single Post-it and then properly stuck to a wall. With each participant in the session sticking these things on the wall, ideas converge, affinities are identified, and solutions are agreed upon.

Paper is a lot more “visual” than a bunch of people huddled over a 13 inch laptop screen, or worse, staring at a projection from an LCD onto white board material that so many conference rooms have these days. It’s so bright, you need to wear a welder’s helmet to read what’s on the wall. Using Post-its it’s easy to pick up each piece and stick it someplace else to get your point across. Conversation is encouraged and people just seem to have more fun doing something physical like this rather than standing watching some poor slob bang in all the ideas into the laptop. 

Now, I know that those reading this post (hopefully there are at least two of you) have used Post-its in exercises in training classes, and in particular project management courses. ESI has been using them effectively for many years. But are you using them in your project team meetings, or meeting with your clients, when you’re fishing for good ideas to solve some thorny problems?

Well, if you need some help in figuring out how to use them, 3M has created the Post-it Note Collaboration website which provides 13 suggestions for using Post-it Notes for, as they say “building brilliant ideas together.” Look, I know 3M has a financial interest in having us use Post-its. But you can always use generic “yellow stickies” if you don’t want to give 3M your money.

So, if you find yourself using the same old brainstorming routine by using those foul smelling dry erase markers that get people high, dizzy, or just plain nauseous, or, if you’re dragging out the old laptop and creating mindmaps that people can’t read in the dark, you just might want to try this 2,000 year old technology upgraded. If nothing else, you’ll have more fun!


The opinions expressed in this post are the author’s. They have not been reviewed or approved by ESI International.

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PM training through MOOCs? It’s just a matter of time

Coursera, one of the relatively new companies offering MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses) recently announced a couple of very interesting bits of news. First, the former President of Yale University, Richard C. Levin, who stepped down this past June, will become its chief executive next month. And, second, the company recently introduced what it calls “specializations” where an individual who completes several related courses will earn a certificate, all for the low price of between $250-$500!

I’m sure Levin had his choice of jobs upon leaving Yale; most ex-presidents of Yale do. And yet, he chose to jump headfirst into this rapidly evolving, and somewhat controversial,  form of on-line learning.  Coursera sees rapid growth, especially in China, and Levin, with a great deal of experience in working with Chinese universities throughout his career, can help spur that growth, and grow his compensation as well.

As regards certificates, this is another interesting development. MOOCs are real courses, often provided by some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the world. However, the one huge drawback to them is that they don’t offer real “credits.” In other words, you can take the same course they offer at the university but you do not earn credits toward a “real” degree.

Since these MOOC companies began, they have been offering a wide variety of courses which are basically “one offs.” In other words, courses have not been offered as a package toward any particular end goal such as a degree or certificate. Now, though, Coursera, is “packaging” certain courses so that the learner can actually receive some type of certification for a very low price. Certification means a lot more to most people, including current and potential employers, than the completion of a single course.

What does all this mean to PM training?

I think these developments might be the precursor of a select group of colleges beginning to offer  courses in project management. And they will market several courses together in a “package” leading to a certificate. This would put a great deal of competitive pressure on the hundreds, if not thousands, of for-profit corporate training companies providing PM courses worldwide right now, many of whom offer certificates themselves.  But it doesn’t end there. It will also put pressure on existing colleges and universities who also provide non-credit courses in PM who charge a whole lot more than $250 per course.

What could this mean to all of us? It mean the dawn of a new era where we can take courses from some of the world’s most prestigious universities, earning certificates along the way that could help us advance in our fields for a very reasonable price to our employers. After all, corporations are looking to cut costs (seemingly at all costs) and this is sure-fire way to do it. MOOCs present a very attractive, and cheap, way to promote and deliver training in an organization.

Following is a dramatization of how corporations are going to be looking at using MOOCs for PM training——





And, it’s happening right now. Virginia Romety, Chairman of IBM, whose revenues have been slipping for the past 7 quarters, encourages her employees to earn 40 hours of continuing education per year. The catch is that IBM does not pay the tuition expenses, but does cough up the funds for books and supplies. An enterprising IBM manager with the last name of Watson (not related to the famed Tom who started the place) decided to take a financial management MOOC course from the University of Michigan to earn his 40 hours. He wasn’t going to pay for it himself, so a MOOC was a great option.

I’m sure other CEOs are sitting there behind their mahogany desks thinking that maybe Romety is on to something. Great courses at next to nothing prices. Hey, you can’t beat free.

Watch out, MOOCS might just be in your future. By the way..have you ever taken a MOOC? What did you think?


The views expressed in this post are the author’s. They have neither been reviewed or approved by ESI International.

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As a PM are you on the human hamster wheel?

We’ve all witnessed the poor hamster on his hamster wheel running furiously and literally going nowhere. Many people I’ve known through the years use this as an analogy for how they feel about certain projects they’ve worked on. Obviously, the message is that there is a lot of energy expended but ultimately it all leads nowhere.

Well, I’d like to show you (literally) a different perspective of the human hamster wheel. In the Boiler Gallery in Brooklyn, New York there are two performance artists who are living on a 25-foot wheel made from wood, steel, and furniture. This 10-day event features Ward Shelley and Alex Schweder who are sharing two living unites arrayed over the hamster-wheel-like sculpture. Shelley’s on top and Schweder is on the bottom.

As you will see from the short video clip below, they must work-and live-in absolute unison so that they each can live peacefully on this sculpture. This brought to mind how we as PMs must work with our teams, and our team members with each other, including stakeholders as well, in absolute unison to complete our projects and programs and provide value to our stakeholders. If someone, or some group is out of sync with the rest of the greater project team, our decision-making process slows down, our performance suffers, and oftentimes serious conflict, personality and otherwise, arise. The “sync” I’m speaking about is making sure we’re all aligned with the end-result, what we are aiming for in the project.

So the next time one of your colleagues complains she feels like she’s on the old hamster wheel just spinning around for no apparent reason, you might want to show her these pics and give her a completely different way to look at the world.

The Hamster Wheel…click on the pic and watch the clip..fascinating!

If, for some reason, the movie doesn’t launch from the pic above click on this url.


Let me ask again the question again. As a PM are you on the human hamster wheel? Answer: I hope so. Your project depends on it!


The views expressed in this post are the author’s. They have neither been reviewed or approved by ESI International.


















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IT Project Managers, the insurance industry, and fear

Many have heard of the famous remark by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” Well, that quote just took on a new twist in the global insurance industry when executives surveyed in that sector say they fear their current systems will not be able to handle the regulatory and financial challenges of their business. In fact, in a survey conducted by Northern Trust, 70% of the senior investment managers surveyed admit they are concerned about the future.

What’s going on? Well, in the U.S. there’s increasing business and systems complexity related to the Dodd-Frank Act; and, in Europe, the sector has to comply with the Solvency II directives. Both of these sets of regulations will compel insurers to create new products to help manage risk, provide better reporting on investment performance, and, in particular, comply with all sorts of regulations. Compliance is big business in this industry. And if a company is found not to be in compliance with the rules there are stiff penalties.

These new requirements will severely test the legacy systems that insurers have carefully maintained through the years, maintained by an army of aging workers who are ready to call it quits. According to the study 39% of respondents expect 11% to 25% of their workforce to retire within five years. COBOL anyone?

How does this affect IT Project Managers? Well, I think it does in ways both positive and negative.

From a positive perspective, IT Project Managers are needed now more than ever. With the demand for new products rising, compliance issues more demanding than ever, and people wanting to retire, those in the “prime “ of their careers will have plenty of challenging work to do, even if the job is writing specs for some Indian outsourcing firm to do the job for you.

From a negative perspective, more work, more hours, more bosses running in fear of violating federal rules or just losing their jobs, will create more tension and stress for those who work in companies who will try to do more with less and suck the life out of their employees. Lucky are those who work for true professional outfits who see this change coming and who are carefully doing the HR planning necessary to make life satisfying for all.

For now though, looks like executives in this industry are running in fear. What can you do to help them out? Those IT Project Managers that step up with real ideas will win in the end.

Oh, and there is really is more to fear than fear itself if these companies don’t get their collective acts together in time to address what they already know is a problem.


Visit ESI’s website for a wide variety of resources that will help the practicing project manager do your job faster.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s. They have not been reviewed or approved by ESI International.

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Women Project Managers. Better? Different?

Saturday, March 8 was International Women’s Day, organized by the United Nations to celebrate women’s achievements, particularly in the workforce. And given that I walk by the United Nations on 1st Ave in Manhattan every time I go to retrieve my car from the parking garage around the corner, I couldn’t help but think about women in project management.

I’ve been in project management for about 39 years and I’ve noticed through the years that more and more women are attending PM conferences and training courses in the discipline. I can’t remember when I noticed the tipping point where there were, roughly speaking, an equal number of women in the audience as men, but it happened a while ago. It was noticeable and I found it gratifying.

In my long professional career I’ve only worked for one woman. She was the CIO of a major U.S. government agency. She was smart and tough and worked in an old-line organization where very few women ever held an executive role. I got along fine with her. She wasn’t my favorite boss, but she treated me fairly and basically let me along to do my job. I never spent any time analyzing the differences of her management style with those of the men I’ve worked for in the past. To me, she was the boss and that was that.

But given my very limited experience in working for a woman, I sometimes wonder about the leadership styles differences, generally speaking, between women and men project managers. In a very interesting article in the online publication Strategy + Business entitled “How Women Leaders Have Transformed Management,” Sally Hensen describes a model of leadership employed by women that is very much different from the “traditional” leadership approach most often ascribed to men; it’s called  ”Emergent leadership” and even though it’s one that many would ascribe to women managers, it is a style of leadership, for example, that Google looks for in all its employees.

Emergent leadership is both non-positional and nonhierarchical. In other words, one’s leadership approach and basis of power is not based on one’s “highfalutin” title or in what box they occupy on the org chart. It is based on personality, approach, and one’s ability to be the center of a collaborative web of people working together. It’s also about the ability to take a group to a point and if there’s someone else who can take the group to the next point, the leader steps aside and allows the other person to lead.

According to Jensen, women tend to be more inclusive than their male counterparts, although readily admits certain male CEOs were noted for their inclusiveness, a trait that tends to build trust much faster. She writes in The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership  that women

“showed little interest in perks and titles, often preferring modest offices in the dead center of an organization and criticizing the “Versailles to the pig style” range of workspaces common in most organizations. They tended to lead from the center rather than the top, drawing people in around them and creating tendrils of connection throughout the organization, rather than putting up barriers that hierarchies reinforce. They had a bias for direct communication and preferred receiving information from those directly concerned, rather than conveyed up a chain of command. They sought to make collaboration and teamwork cascade through their organizations, rather than pitting people against one another and letting them duke it out.”


I suppose the inverse of this is a testosterone-fueled leadership style where some guy sits behind a big mahogany desk and barks out orders to frightened, cowering, subordinates. I’m sure that’s not the case, but you get the idea. Traditional leadership, as the pundits explain, finds its basis of power in titles and where one is placed on the org chart.

As project managers we tend not to be the direct manager over the team members who are working with us. This very fact creates a dynamic that is altogether different from the typical manager-employee relationship. I do wonder to what degree a woman’s style of leadership, as described by Ms. Hensen, would work more to our favor than trying to morph a traditional leadership model into a project setting.

The world’s a complicated place. All kinds of leadership theories abound. But this one, emergent leadership, seems to be resonating with more and more companies. Will it work in every instance? Probably not. But it can be a helpful addition in our kit bag of leadership approaches we can rely on when the time is right.

So, my question to you is this: Are women project managers better? different? and if so is it that their leadership style is so different from that of male project managers?  I’d be interested to hear your experiences working for both.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s. They have neither been reviewed or approved by ESI International. Visit ESI for plenty of free resources.


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Agile expands in Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong

What would an ESI Top Ten PM Trends for 2014 look like if ESI didn’t have some mention of Agile development and project management as part of it? Well, this year is no exception. This year, though, the focus is on Asia, and specifically Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong.

I have many colleagues in Asia (ESI’s Asian headquarters is in Singapore, a country I’ve traveled to more than 20 times while working for ESI) and they tell me that information technology project managers (ITPM) in this vast region are acutely aware of Agile but they want to know more. In fact, they want to know a lot more!

Certainly there are pockets of excellent practice of Agile; but, in fact, there’s a lot of resistance to implementing Agile as well. And, what’s interesting is this resistance isn’t just coming from middle managers, who some have called the great “unwashed” who everyone likes to blame everything on.

No, the resistance, surprisingly enough, is coming from practicing project managers as well as from PMO heads and the reason is they firmly believe Agile is just a fad. Just another “flavor of the month” as the old saying goes. Well, I don’t know about you, but in my opinion, anything that’s been around for more than 10 years is NOT a fad. Justin Bieber, he’s a fad (and at the rate he’s self-destructing he might not last more than another year or two!)

ITPMs in the region really know that in order for Agile to be successful they need very serious and committed buy-in by their executives, they need to select the best projects for their Agile pilots, and they need a support mechanism, such as a center of excellence for the Agile framework.

They’re trying very, very hard to overcome these obstacles because they realize Agile has a lot to offer. In fact, there’s a lot of promise. Therefore, they are doing everything they can to make it happen.

To all of these folks who are trying so hard to put Agile into practice in the face of such resistance, recalcitrance and intransigence, I can only say these three words of support:

Vaya con Dios!


The above post is an expanded version of one of ESI’s Top Ten Trends for 2014. See all the PM Top Trends here.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s. They have neither been reviewed or approved by ESI International.

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EPC companies admit they didn’t invent project management and seek professional help.

There’s a revolution going on, and it’s going on in the EPC industry: Engineering, Procurement and Construction. These are the companies that work on the “megaprojects,” the projects that run into the hundreds of millions, and yes, billions of dollars. Think, The Chunnel, the Big Dig, and bullet train systems in China and Japan as examples of such large, complex, and extremely costly projects.

For many years EPC companies did project management their own way. In fact, they thought they invented project management (engineers and constructors have been long time users of the Critical Path Method.) These folks believed they knew it all and no one could possibly teach them anything new.

But the EPC world has changed. Don’t take my word for it. Pick up an excellent book entitled Industrial Megaprojects: Concepts, Strategies and Practices for Success, by Edward Merrow, a guy who’s been in that business for more than 30 years. Mr. Merrow writes about Project Owners (the people that pay for these gargantuan projects) that have lost many of their in-house engineers and other professionals who they relied on for critical expertise in a wave of outsourcing, cost-cutting, and down-sizing.

The impact? Owners now have contractors managing contractors managing subcontractors without oversight from the owner himself. As honest as some folks are, others aren’t, and are taking advantage of the situation. And, you might have thought that was just a “Government” problem! Not so.

Many of these megaprojects have run into serious problems and enlightened industry executives in the EPC industry recognize this and realize they need to fix it. They know they have become too insular through the years and have relied on themselves for their own project advice and project management professional development. In many respects, it’s like the lawyer who represents himself in court. Do you know what he has? A fool for a client.

ESI’s EPC clients have remarked that they have opened the doors to the outside. They’re bringing in organizations such as ESI to help with their professional development, to teach their staffs global best practices in their industry. They have abandoned having their own engineers and project managers teach their own people. Why? Because they have learned that simply because someone is a competent engineer or project manager does not make them the best PM instructor. Additionally, EPC firms struggle to maintain the type of up-to-date content that provides a fresh perspective on such complex engagements.

This more enlightened development approach, characterized by highly customized programs with serious and in-depth internal case studies, will yield improved project outcomes over the long run. The old guard is changing, and there’s a new way of doing things. And, to many of these executives, it’s about time.


The above post is an expanded version of one of ESI’s Top Ten Trends for 2014. See all the PM Top Trends here.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s. They have neither been reviewed or approved by ESI International.

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