Advanced Project Management Training: Focus on Local Complexity, not PM Esoterica.

(Note: The primary audience of this chapter is the person who is responsible for establishing and maintaining an organization’s training and development efforts – particularly as these relate to project management (PM). A secondary audience might be someone working with an organization’s project management office [PMO] who wants to create a structured PM career path to be monitored and supported by the PMO.)

The choice: cosmic theory or local challenges?

Let’s face it: Formal training for experienced project managers is expensive! In addition to the cost of the class and instructor, pulling these seasoned PM veterans away from their jobs can place the projects they are managing at risk. What’s more, when you multiply the class hours by the hourly labor rate of that group of high-value “trainees,” you are likely to find that your investment is huge! So, when you decide to provide an Advanced PM class, you need to make sure you are getting your money’s worth!  But how do you do that?  This chapter provides some perspective.

Well… It’s Always About You, Isn’t It?

Recently I was asked by a client to present an Advanced Project Management workshop. I had been working with this organization for more than a decade, providing Basic PM training for medical, clinical, IT, and administrative people as part of a comprehensive leadership development program. In these PM Basic classes, we always encourage people to bring real-world project concepts to class so they can apply the PM theory and tools directly to the challenges they face on the job.  And, most of the time, people leave these classes with a big ol’ stack of flip chart pages and yellow stickies and other notes that they created in class — and which they intend to put to work immediately with their project teams.

So the emphasis in each PM Basics class is always local. It’s about applying formal PM techniques, using practical tools, to real-world projects. This way we can be sure they know how to connect their new PM skills to their work. What’s more, the feedback from attendees indicated that they appreciated the opportunity to use class time to “get something done” about that project they were facing.

But what about an Advanced Project Management workshop? Would a similarly localized, hands-on training strategy work here? Or would we need to focus on topics that were so complicated they didn’t lend themselves easily to the real-world, bring-your-own project approach?

To answer this, we reviewed all sorts of alternatives related to the content and skills needed. Would we focus on the high-level (sometimes esoteric) PM stuff, such as the formal analysis of earned value, risk, critical path, variance, etc. Or would we maintain our emphasis on the local organization and its unique PM challenges and weirdnesses? After considerable debate, we finally made this strategic decision:

“Advanced Project Management means PM that handles the challenges of large or complicated projects within the context of a specific, locally-unique set of organizational complexities.”

People who attend our Advanced PM workshop would have to learn how to handle really big or complex projects that jump across all sorts of real organizational boundaries, departmental silos, conflicting missions, etc.  So achieving this immediately relevant local focus became our broad training goal. But we needed to drill a little deeper regarding that issue of complexity.

Unique Features of Complex Projects

So, what do we mean by “complex projects?” Here’s a summary of what we decided:

  • Deliverables are more complicated. That is, the deliverables involve:
    • More units (more pieces to be built)
    • Greater variation in units
    • Finished units that must be integrated & synchronized
  • The “people stuff” is more complicated. Specifically:
    • Stakeholders are drawn from more organizations.
    • The project must satisfy more organizations’ needs.
    • The project & team must please more senior managers.
    • The project & team must beg, borrow, and fight harder for resources.
    • The project manager must coordinate people who don’t necessarily know each other or share each others’ values and missions.

With a clearer picture of our target (i.e., “complex projects”), we were ready to define the broad strategies needed to cope with them more effectively.

Two Broad Strategies for Coping with Complex Projects

In addition to applying all the usual PM strategies and tools that are addressed in our PM Basics class (Charter, WBS, Scope statements, Effort/Duration tables, schedules, etc.), there are two broad strategies that seem particularly important to the success of complex projects:

First, develop a shared vision of “our” project — With so many people involved in complex projects, it’s more important than ever to make sure everyone is “singing from the same song book” regarding:

  • Work processes (phases, checks & balances, etc.)
  • Finished deliverables (look & feel, user expectations, synchronization of results, etc.)

Second, acquire the “management muscle” to get things done across all the boundaries — Any project manager who must jump across organizational boundaries, silos, or departments needs the power to be effective wherever s/he goes! And that means acquiring the management muscle to:

  • Take action (quickly, decisively)
  • Get & use resources
  • Get timely, meaningful approval (closure) of deliverables as they evolve
  • Get timely, meaningful senior management engagement in “tie breaking,” and other strategic decision-making
  • Acquire broad senior management support of the work process

The Training Design

After carefully defining what we meant by “advanced project management” and “complex projects,” then defining some broad strategies for coping with complex projects, we were ready to design our home-grown, locally-relevant training experience for our Advanced PM Workshop attendees.  In general, the class would be primarily hands-on, case-study driven. There would be very little presentation of concepts, but instead many small assignments that allowed people to engage key Advanced PM issues in the context of local organizational complexity. In developing this highly-customized class, I worked in two domains:

  1. Created a locally-realistic case study that was rich, complex, and could be subdivided among 2 or 3 work groups whose deliverables and work processes had to synchronize. — Unlike the PM Basics class, where everyone brought their own real-world, stand-alone projects, the Advanced PM students would need to practice dealing with a complex project that would require subdivision, then convergence, of deliverables as well as cross-fertilization of several different teams, and the seeking of approval from many different authorities.
  2. Created a series of more than a dozen step-by-step small group assignments that forced the work teams to create the usual project artifacts (Charter, WBS, etc.) while adding the appropriate complexity. — After each assignment, the work teams would debrief and compare notes to see that these artifacts (Charter, WBS, etc.) would “hang together” as a large and complex (but cohesive) project. Special emphasis was placed on the selling and reselling of the project, as well as techniques to achieve the shared vision and management muscle described above.

It’s outside the scope of this chapter (and would violate my confidentiality agreement with my client!) to provide much more information about this class. However, if you’d like to see a complete list of the agenda items, including the small group assignments, please click here:  Advanced Project Management:  A Fully-Customized, Hands-On Workshop for Your Project Teams ( )


When you invest a ton of money and time in training your high-value PM people in your Advanced Project Management class, your training should be immediately relevant, challenging in complexity, and provide lots of opportunity to struggle with, then overcome, real-world (i.e., “advanced”) PM obstacles.  By focusing your training design on local PM and organizational complexity, instead of the esoterica of formal PM processes, you’ll likely get more bang for your buck!


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