The Mastering Projects Workshop Experience

Notes from a Graduate

If you manage projects, at some point you’ve probably taken some kind of workshop to improve your leadership skills. And if your experience was typical, you learned rousing new theories for about three days and left inspired.

Then you came back to the office, put your class materials on a shelf, and went back to doing things pretty much the way you’ve always done them.

Why did you fail to improve? Actually, you didn’t. The trouble with those great theories is that somehow, they just don’t work out the way they’re supposed to in the real world. Unfortunately, managing what should be just isn’t the same as managing what is, and those theories don’t necessarily resolve into applications.

Chaotic projects are all too routine in companies today. So anyone trying to apply ideals to such haphazard, conflicted, and high-pressure environments will become jaded very quickly. All these workshops in pursuit of perfection continue to be popular, but as you may have discovered for yourself, they almost always turn out to be placebos.

The Mastering Projects Workshop Is Different

For one thing, this course will not teach you to manage projects—that is the unrealistic goal of placebos. This course will teach you to teach yourself. Think of this workshop as the first step in becoming the project manager you’d like to become. That’s a permanent process.

David Schmaltz, founder of True North pgs, Inc., and the Mastering Projects Workshop, was a project manager himself—a manager of project managers, in fact. He always found that “project management” caused most of the project’s problems. So his workshop is not about doing things “the right way.” It’s about mastering the meanings of your experience.

In this highly interactive workshop, you won’t just learn fundamental principles; you will be continually challenged to apply them to your own project. You will even begin to see the world in a new light.

One student explained his transformation: “Before, I just paid lip service to framing projects. Now I realize how nebulous my thinking was. This workshop gets you to examine, ponder, and wonder about your project in completely new ways. And answers start emerging!

“The instructor isn’t giving you the answers—you’re stumbling on them yourself. A major part of what’s going on in this workshop is realizing how powerful a tool you are.” In fact, the very soul of the Mastering Projects Workshop is that you are the most powerful project management tool you will ever use.

You are a better resource than you think you are--not because you can plan or stick to a plan, but because you can adapt. This workshop helps you demonstrate to yourself that you already know everything you need to know.

Furthermore, you will leave the Mastering Projects Workshop with a real way to apply what you’ve learned back in the real world. You will get a unique and memorable chance to try out your new ideas in an environment where it’s okay if it doesn’t work out exactly as planned. You will really see what it feels like to manage a project with your new skills.

And what does it feel like? It may come as a surprise: Your project might look like a mess, a mistake. The process may not be smooth or machine-like. You may find you’re not so much skiing down the mountain as tumbling down it. And you will know that that’s good. It’s the pursuit of perfection that’s not so good.

So often, teams, in an effort to be conscientious, let the project become the project to maintain the plan. After this workshop, you will no longer try to follow a perfectly straight line from beginning to end. You may just apply a piece of wisdom here and a piece there. But you will be going where the energy is, following an organic process.

This process involves pesky humanoids--not machines—and those humanoids do embarrassing, silly things. Then, amazingly, they go out and do the job. Look at D-Day, for example: Eisenhower led the largest and most complex military operation to date. The risky invasion went awry and spilled ashore in chaos. And it ended in glory. He said in retrospect, “Planning is everything. The plan, itself, is nothing.”

The future of planning, as you will learn in Mastering Projects, is not in getting the right plan; it is in scenario planning. With scenario planning, you consider the space in which the project will occur. You identify the make-or-break issues within that space. These critical success factors are like the gauges on a dashboard: They indicate trouble before trouble shows up.

Methods for the Madness

The fact is, managers can’t predict—but they can track. Factors change with each project, but you can always have a dashboard that reminds you at a glance what has to happen and what can’t happen. You can create a dashboard for each project based on a few of the most critical components: For example, what’s happening in the marketplace, how much of the technology is new, or whose political support does the project need? These are all measurable components, and identifying them will make the project manageable.

There are many technological ways to make the perfect fantasy predictions, and many classes that teach you how to use them. However, adaptable frameworks like a dashboard beat any software around.

The workshop provides one all-encompassing project management tool far more valuable than any piece of software: a well-thought-out process that actually helps you Name It, Aim It, Reframe It, Tame It, and Sustain It Over Time. As you progress through the workshop, you will directly experience this process by using it to gain mastery over your current and future projects.

Methods as cheap and simple as Post-it Notes—used innovatively--can revolutionize a project. You will learn the malleable Post-it method and a wide range of others in Mastering Projects, all of which help you come to grips with what the project is really about.

And that’s not easy, because the reality surrounding a project is usually more like a thick chowder than a streamlined plan on paper. That dense jumble can be stupefying, which is why project managers so often end up clinging to their plans and losing sight of their mission.

Every project has factors beyond its control, but in Mastering Projects, you will learn the principles that can help you—the most important tool--stay awake, listen to your project, and keep it manageable even as it’s changing over time.

How the Process Works

Usually, a project begins with “a bright idea.” People are intrigued, and enthusiastic planning ensues. Unfortunately, it is doomed planning based on the initial impression of simplicity, because at this point no one wants to think about all the disappointments that are so likely to crop up. Bright ideas are a lot like fish bait.

You will begin the Mastering Projects Workshop with your own bright idea. However, your bright idea will be developed into a manageable project using techniques, based on the experience and insight of instructors David and Amy, that will help you understand its complexity.

One way you will learn in this workshop is through David and Amy’s many intriguing stories of past experiences, all of which reveal some lesson. Their anecdotes generally culminate in a manageable one-liner that leaves a strong, lasting impression. For example, they tell of a salesman in the computer hard drive industry who discovers a wonderful secret to making sales: His revelation is that “Jerks don’t buy disk drives.” Although most of the workshop’s participants will never need to sell disk drives, once they’ve heard this story, they inevitably begin referring to this idea and applying it to their own situations.

Perhaps what makes this workshop most enlightening is that you will be actively involved throughout, drawn into the looking glass to see things from another side.

For instance, you will be asked to sign your name with your non-dominant hand. Why? Simply to get a taste of stretching out of your comfort zone--and more important, to step back and notice how you evaluate yourself (the moral: we tend to be awfully hard on ourselves).

Mastering Projects will give you a chance to look at just about every aspect of your project in a new light. Just imagine how different your view would look if you started to live by these unorthodox ideas:

• Even as the manager, you will not be at the center of the project.
• It’s a given that you’ll be wearing a straight jacket as you try to manage.
• There is no better way to get help than to ask for it.
• Aspire to be like the idiot.
• Acquire a taste for limits, conflict, frustration, and bad vibes.
They will all begin to make sense in Mastering Projects. But how could flying balls, a rubber chicken, or a wizard suit make sense in the context of project management? They are powerful visual metaphors that David and Amy use to instruct.

You will be challenged to create your own powerful visual metaphor for your project early in the workshop. Think of it as designing a T-shirt for your project. One student admitted he was just going through the motions with this assignment. Nevertheless, by stating his project in such simple--even obvious--terms, he said he gained surprising new insights about it. Now, he says having a “shape” in his mind somehow helps him see the end result.

You will also see a powerful visual metaphor on all of your workshop materials: the compass rose, which helps you determine true north from the local magnetic variant. All the tools and aids of this workshop help you assess the differences between your expectations and what’s really the case. And this workshop is not just three days of theory: It’s designed with the final exam back in your office, where you will be able to choose what you really want, instead of all those things that have always gotten in your way. You will be able to find your true north.