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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Project Management Basics – Chapter 12 – Training Stakeholders

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” Henry Ford

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” John F. Kennedy

The Project Management Institute® (PMI®) has changed the Exam Content Outline for the PMP® Exam. One of the biggest changes (aside from an increased focus on Agile) is the dramatically increased emphasis on the softer skills of project management. Relationship management, team development, leadership skills and stakeholder engagement have moved to the forefront of the values based curriculum.

Did the pendulum swing too far in that direction? Time will tell. I see the PMBOK® is a user guide for someone who wants to understand the processes for good governance in a predictive project. The technical aspects of project management are important and should be at the forefront of any discussion about projects.

Having said that, I understand the point. Projects are delivered through people and a successful project manager should have excellent interpersonal skills.

One interesting topic is the need to properly “train” stakeholders at all levels of the organization. My greatest failure as a project manager was caused by not educating a key stakeholder! Let me share that story.

I was responsible for the delivery of a large international facing portfolio of projects. The work was legislatively mandated and required coordination with jurisdictions around the world. This was exciting work and several projects in the portfolio involved innovative technical solutions that literally changed the face of how jurisdictions securely exchange data in this space.

My boss was a brilliant attorney and his mastery of this particular section of the law was widely recognized. It was an honor to work with him.

While most most of the technical issues were discussed in working groups at the Organization for Economic Co-operative Development (OECD), several of my colleagues agreed that an offsite session would be a better approach to gathering requirements. One jurisdiction agreed to host the meeting and key stakeholders committed that they would not leave until we had an agreed upon set of requirements.

Three weeks before the meeting, my boss told me he wanted to cancel it. I was stunned! I asked him why and he told me that “A colleague told him they weren’t ready to work on requirements.” I told him that his colleague wasn’t equipped to know if they were ready! He was an attorney and knew nothing about his organization’s technology capabilities. Furthermore, I was in almost daily contact with my peer in that jurisdiction and they were ready for the requirements elicitation. Finally, I told him that if we didn’t hold this session that we would put the project schedule at risk.

I was unable to sway his opinion and the meeting was cancelled.

After some introspection, I realized that I had failed him. Because he was so smart, I assumed he understood basic project management principles. He didn't. I also assumed that since I was the project management expert that he would defer to my judgement in this space. He didn't. Not long after that I scheduled a meeting with him and explained project management principles and practices.

After that he understood why I was so insistent on having the meeting and why it had been a mistake to cancel it. I had failed to properly educate a key stakeholder about project management basics, and that caused him to make a bad decision.

This was my failure, not his.

I learned from that experience and have held project management training sessions with key stakeholders on every significant project since then. That same concept is reflected in the new PMI course materials.


William Butler Yeats wrote a poem in 1919 called “The Second Coming”, and the poem’s phrase “the center cannot hold” has been widely used. The poem is a chilling look at order being overwhelmed and the descent into chaos. Every time I observe organizations fail to deliver routine processes, I think of the poem. The center is not holding. The poem contains a much better quote that seems to capture the majority of what I see in the press: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Yep.

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