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Are Project Managers Born or Made?

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Every so often, I hear theories from team members on how their project manager became effective at leading projects. Sometimes they say something like, "She was born to be a project manager." 

This got me to thinking whether some people are naturally predisposed to be project managers, or if they have a specific set of experiences that shapes them to become project managers. It's almost a question of anthropological proportions: Are good project managers born or made? 

To help answer it, let us look at some key competencies of project managers and see if these skills are innate or developed over time.

  1. Functional knowledge. Understanding the fundamental business processes that are added, changed or impacted by a project is an essential competency. An understanding of these business processes allows a project manager to make more effective decisions when it comes to design considerations as well as resolving project issues. But it is a set of skills that one is not necessarily born with. It's typically acquired through training -- many times on-the-job training, for example, in a business process analyst role or a functional role such as manufacturing operator, company accountant or human resources representative. 
  2. Technical expertise. In addition to understanding fundamental business processes, a project manager must also understand the core technologies and supporting tools that enable a successful project outcome. As with functional expertise, we are not born with technical knowledge. Software developer, content designer or software package configuration specialist are just some of the roles where one can accumulate technical expertise. 
  3. Project management experience. Back when I became a project manager, the only real avenue for gaining competency was by serving as a project manager. Today, there are many outlets for gaining exposure to project management in preparation for actually leading a project. Acquiring a certification such as a Project Management Professional (PMP)®, taking training courses on specialized project management practices or serving in a project management office (PMO) role are some examples of professional training opportunities that exist today. 
  4. Leadership. Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, once said, "I had all the necessary disadvantages to be successful." Mr. Ellison struggled from modest beginnings to lead a global software company. It is common for project managers to face uncertainty, adversity, conflict and many other challenges every day on a project. Their personal tenacity, durability and creativity can have a large bearing on the overall success of a project. To a great degree, being a leader -- the foundation of a project manager -- is born of our inherited behaviors as well as our early position and experiences in life. 

So coming back to the question of whether project managers are born or made, I think both are true. While nobody has yet found a project manager gene, we all seem to be born into a journey that leads us to being a project manager. This journey starts with the skills and behaviors we're born with, and continues with the functional knowledge, technical expertise and professional training we accumulate over time. This essential mix of what we are as well as how we grow is key to becoming an effective project manager. 

Do you think you were born to be a project manager or became one over time?

Running a Marathon, Running a Project

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Four years ago, I transformed from weekend warrior to running enthusiast. First, I started running short-distance races, a 5K here and a 10K there. Then I tried my first half marathon in 2009 and my first marathon in 2010. After those great experiences, running became part of my lifestyle. 

People always ask me, Why do you run marathons? Are you a masochist? You really need to run the race and experience the challenge and pain -- as well as the indescribable sense of achievement when crossing the finish line -- to understand why I run marathons. The feeling is actually similar to when a project manager finally completes and delivers a project. And after running six marathons in less than four years, I have some lessons learned that apply to project management:

Hills happen. Up your strategy.
Hills complement the race and make them more interesting and challenging. At first sight, they impact the runner's state of mind and even consume his or her energy before the uphill trek. But I like to view hills as an opportunity to slow my pace and save energy that will be required in the final miles of the race. 

As a project manager, you may face "hills" (i.e., project challenges). You may want to attack them, but I would recommend slowing your pace and regrouping with your team to define a new or enhanced strategy to address the hardship.

Stick to the numbers.
Marathon runners use gadgets to track time and distance. Sometimes the distance reported by the gadget exceeds the 26.2-mile (42-kilometer) marathon distance, which may be confusing, especially for first timers. But keep in mind that major marathons in the United States are certified by USA Track & Field, the sanctioning body that makes it an official race. The course distance is accurately measured and is the shortest route of the course.

Project managers should not attempt to create metrics or rules that may not be aligned with the sanctioning body. Follow the rules that are already in place and do not jeopardize your project.

Stay humble.
Having run a marathon a couple of times doesn't make you an expert. Even when the course may not change, there are many external factors that can make it a very different race. I have run the Austin, Texas, USA marathon for three consecutive years, and every race has been a different experience. 

As a project manager, you may have implemented the same enterprise resource planning or tool several times, but every project has its own twist. Do not be arrogant or a know-it-all, and take that new project as an opportunity to learn something.

Stop and smell the roses.
A personal record, the number of marathons run in a particular year or participation in a prestigious race -- these are all factors that motivate marathon runners. Whatever the purpose, these stakes tend to increase the runner's stress during the race. While running, I take some time to enjoy the scenery, high-five and greet spectators, say thanks to the volunteers at hydration stations or help a fellow runner in pain. All those things help me enjoy the race. 

When managing a project, it is important to meet stakeholders' expectations. But it is also important to have the right work-life balance. Simple actions -- such as taking that training that you've postponed several times or simply going to the gym -- will recharge you and give you new ideas to tackle project challenges.

As both a marathon runner and project manager, I could say that the reason I run is to be able to combine my experiences in races and projects to strive for excellence. And that would be one of the reasons. But just between us, the top reason I run marathons is because I like to be cheered by people.

What hobby has provided you with valuable lessons that you have applied to project management?

Translation Series: Culture Shocked Into Action

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To reach a global audience of project professionals, Voices on Project Management presents a blog post every month translated into Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish and Simplified Chinese. 

This month features Conrado Morlan's post on recovering from culture shock and turning it into an opportunity for professional growth.

Read it in your language of preference and share your thoughts in the comments box below.

Culture Shocked Into Action

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During my project management career, I have experienced many culture shocks. But the one that changed my life happened when I joined a global corporation in Mexico in the mid-1980s.

I was a recent graduate and had just finished my internship with this organization when I got a job offer. During immersion training, all the new hires visited the boardroom, lined with awards and honors that the Mexican branch had won in the past. Most impressive was the mahogany table, where many major deals went down. It was cared for like a museum piece.

After several months, I adjusted to the corporate world with the help of a great manager and mentor. Soon enough, prep work started for the quarterly review meeting, when executives visited our office from the company's U.S. headquarters. To my surprise, my manager included me in the prep team, which meant I would be a presenter.

When the big day came, I arrived at the boardroom a few minutes beforehand to ensure everything was in order for my first presentation to senior executives.

There, I found one of the visiting top executives -- with both feet up on the mahogany table. When the meeting began, we commenced introductions. The visiting executives threw their business cards across the table as a casino croupier would, while my Mexican colleagues and I handed our business cards to them. 

The meeting progressed, and when the time came for one of the visiting executives to present, he tossed a copy of a handout not only to me, but also to the general manager of the Mexican branch.

I was in total shock. I wondered, how could this be happening? They were high-level executives, and their lack of good manners -- by my standards -- took me by surprise. I also felt frustrated. This was not interaction I had hoped for with headquarter executives.

It took me some time to digest the experience. But by the next quarterly review, I was ready to take action. I tossed my business card at each of the U.S. executives during the introductions. Before my presentation, I slid handouts across the table at them but handed them to my Mexican colleagues. My actions raised a few eyebrows among the latter.

By the end of the meeting, the executive I saw with his feet up on the table months prior asked me to stay in the room. I expected to be reprimanded, or even fired. But he said: "Thanks, Conrado. Your actions during the meeting made me realize that business behaviors need to be adjusted according to location. What may be okay in my country may not be okay in yours. You taught me a great lesson. Employees like you make this a great company."

That was the "wow" moment that had an impact on the rest of my professional life. I'm not recommending such drastic actions, but I felt strongly enough about my experience to take the risk. The moral of my story: Culture shock does not have to be a negative or incapacitating. I used my experience as a source of motivation, introspection and change. 

It led me to a lifetime of researching organizational and national cultures and sharing my experiences of working with multicultural and multigenerational teams.

As a project manager, how have you recovered from culture shock and turned it an opportunity for professional growth? 

Share your thoughts below along with your Twitter handle, and Voices on Project Management will publish the best response as a blog post.

Three Timeless Project Management Rules

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We all seem to have our own set of "durable" project management rules. We rely on them again and again to help guide us to a successful project outcome, regardless of the type of project, technology or environment. 

Years ago, I read Kelly's 14 Rules & Practices, which to me made sense for any project. 

Authored by Kelly Johnson, the founder of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works® for Advanced Development Projects, the rules helped teams on pioneering aircraft projects produce innovative deliverables under budget and on schedule. 

I plucked three from this list and adapted them to apply to my project management career:
1. The number of people connected to the project must be aggressively restricted. For me, it has been quite common to have people seek a connection to a project, especially if it has had a high degree of executive visibility. Project managers who invest in aggressive stakeholder management -- that is, blocking non-essential roles -- have clearer communication in their projects and better-defined roles, which also helps new team members know their role relative to others on the team. 

2. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly. I have been on some projects where the effort put into status reporting almost exceeded the effort put into project activities. Too much in the way of project reporting is just as dangerous as too little. Based on the type of project, the most successful project managers focus on a small number of essential metrics (schedule, budget, milestone, deliverable variances, etc.) that are easily understood by both the project team and the stakeholders.  

3. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed, but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. It is typical for project managers to host meetings to review prior project spend as future spend forecast. The crucial term in this rule is "what has been committed" to the project, both in terms of funding and resources. Many times, project managers fail to include funding and project resource commitments during a cost review.  

Even though I read them long ago, Johnson's rules still resonate today. This October marks the 70th anniversary of the 14 Rules & Practices. Talk about durability!

What are your "durable" project management rules?

Skunk Works and the 14 Rules & Practices references courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

A Project Management Wish List for 2013

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Another year for project managers has come and gone. And while this is the time for all the usual year-end activities (budgets, status reports, etc.), it's also a good opportunity to look toward the future.

To project managers around the world, I wish you health and prosperity. I also thought I would share a few other dreams I would like to see come true in the New Year:
1. Talking project plans. From GPS systems to smartphones, just about every device offers a verbal communications mode nowadays. The same technology should be applied to project plans. They could alert you to urgent issues: "Your resources are overloaded" or "You need to add more tasks." A talking project plan could even present an entire status report without you speaking a word. Think how much fun your meetings would be when the project plan says, "Just go home because your project will never make its projected end date."
2. Project issues that solve themselves. Project managers know that early detection of project issues is the key to staying on schedule and budget. We hold resolution meetings. We collaborate with leadership to craft brilliant solutions. Yet every so often, it would be great for issues to just solve themselves. For example, say your project is over budget. Then suddenly you get an e-mail from your project sponsor that grants extra funding due to your company's outstanding performance this year. A project manager can dream, right?

3. Resources ready, willing and able to jump into the action. We spend a considerable amount of time identifying resources and negotiating for their availability on a project. And still, we see our schedules fall apart when they're pulled away by other demands. Just once I'd like to have a project where everyone is fully dedicated, with no other distractions to threaten the schedule. It would make me very happy to hear a project team member turn down a meeting with the company president to work on my project.

4. No change requests. During the early phases of a project, we work to create the most accurate set of requirements possible. We consider it all — the many functional needs and the hidden complexities. After all that work, wouldn't it be nice if everything remained precisely the same throughout the life cycle of the project? Think of the time you could save by canceling those painful weekly change-request meetings.  

5. Give back all contingency funding in the project. We typically reserve contingency funding to guard against unforeseen events. Imagine the sheer joy of having no project risks that required budget or schedule relief. Just think of the satisfaction of telling your project leadership "We have no weather, people, software, hardware or network risks, so we are returning all contingency funds!"

What's your project management wish for 2013?

What's Missing?

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When a project manager or team member is unsure of what to do, it's often because there's something lacking. And in my experience, it's usually lacking in all or some of these key areas: knowledge, experience and the project's intended benefit.

In an IT project, for example, let's say you are in charge of the rollout of new computers and rearranging the workstations. You would need to be clear on the requirements first, and you would have to assess if the budget is sufficient for all the required resources and activities you will need to execute. It's your project management knowledge and experience that will aid you in completing the required tasks correctly.  

You may have had experiences where you felt that you were clear on the goals and direction of the project. But depending on where you got the information, and if you don't understand how a particular organization operates, you might be going in the wrong direction.

No matter how much project management knowledge or experience you have, if you don't have knowledge of or experience with the stakeholder or project owner, you will end up failing or negatively impacting the business.

While this might seem like common sense, my experience shows that many people are struggling and looking for creative and advanced solutions to something that is simple. They spend countless amounts of energy and time to figure out a complex solution rather than just looking at the obvious.

In reality, they are missing something in their knowledge, experience or understanding of the project goal or direction.

Use examples from your life to validate this for yourself. Look at an area where you are actually having trouble or an area that is not working as well as you'd like it to. Something is likely missing in your knowledge, experience or project comprehension whether you want to admit it or not.

Have you ever been unsure of what to do in a project? Was it because you were missing something in one of these key areas?

If Project Managers Had Life Tenure...

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I recently heard an interview with Antonin Scalia, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, regarding the rulings he has handed down over the years. The reporter wondered if Mr. Scalia ever worried about public backlash or the opinions of his fellow justices.

Mr. Scalia simply replied that he didn't worry about that. He has life tenure, given to him by the U.S. government. He believes that tenure allows him to do and say what he thinks is right and not worry about how it will affect his career or colleagues.

This answer had a profound effect on me.  I often wonder if I am "doing the right thing" when I make decisions at work. I try, but I would not be honest if I did not admit that the career survival instinct hasn't kicked in once in a while. Perhaps sometimes I compromise on issues that I know are not good for my projects or my team. But I'll give the client the answer they want to hear, or perhaps tone down the weekly status report to avoid stirring the pot when there are real issues to discuss.

I've now started applying what I will refer to as the "life tenure" rule to all of my decisions and activities. I try to look at a decision or situation through the lens of "If I did not have to worry about politics or personalities or self-promotion, would I still make this move?" I have to say, thankfully, that I appear to achieve that about 90 percent of the time. But clearly I think that can improve.

I know it is naive to think that someone could or should perform their job as if they could not get fired.  Or to think that if we all had that freedom, that we would always make the right decision. But it is an interesting concept to ponder, and a fascinating test to apply.

Think about it: How would your professional life change if you had life tenure as a project manager?

7 Project Management Trends to Watch

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Each year, there are new trends in project management. I wanted to weigh in with a few of my thoughts on what they might be this decade.

1. Beyond the triple constraint 

Organizations have been looking to have a good mix of project, program and portfolio managers. Organizations should re-design and build project management systems thinking beyond the triple constraint.

The combined power of project portfolio, program and project management enables delivering business results not limited to the triple constraint.
For example, if a project was delivered on time, within budget and with required quality, but the project outcome doesn't provide expected value, then in my opinion, the project should not be considered successful.

As such, it behooves project managers to expand his or her career growth to acquire new skills and experience in the areas of program management and portfolio management.

2. SMAC project management
Due to the emergence of new projects in the social, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC), organizations must make sure their project management approach includes new or refined project lifecycles, templates, checklists, best practices, lessons learned, estimation techniques, risk registers, etc.

Organizations must train project managers to prepare them for managing these SMAC projects by educating them on these trends and how (or if) they will affect them.

3. More projects, different business functions 

Projects will start to be identified in different business functions where they might not exist very often, such as sales, marketing, alliances, human resources, etc. Marketing managers, sales managers, HR managers, finance managers and the like have to acquire project management skills to deliver better results in their respective functions.
Organizations should refine their project management strategy to include project lifecycles for all projects and training for all managers. Project Management Centers of Excellence (COE) have to focus on creating special learning assets to train managers on project management in other functions.

4. 'Project-ized' education 

In academics, course curriculums will be increasingly 'project-ized.' An engineering course, for example, could have more than 40 projects in the span of four years. Implementing those projects will enable students to learn through multiple and cross-discipline subjects. Students could look back on all of the projects in those years as a "project portfolio."

5. Every employee is a project manager

Project management means having a mindset of systematic planning, execution, monitoring, controlling and closure. Every task should be considered as a tiny project.

For example, writing a software code as part of a larger IT project should be considered a tiny project. Project management principles will be applied to successfully deliver the code on time and with high quality.

Creating this mindset across an organization requires cultural change. In many organizations currently, only a few people focus on project management. With the practice of considering every task as a tiny project, the need to have 'self project management' becomes prominent.

The best way to train employees to think like project managers is through on-the-job training. Teach employees to create mini-work breakdown structures, mini-schedule, self-reviews and corrective actions.

6. Project entrepreneurship 

Project entrepreneurship means project managers must develop an "entrepreneurial" mindset. This enables project managers to take on risks, foster innovation and focus on business value rather just looking at the traditional triple constraints.

7. Program management offices (PMOs) as profit centers

PMOs will be transformed from cost centers to profit centers. PMOs will build very high-end consulting skills and offer services to business units on a profit basis. PMOs will focus on an 'outside-in' perspective and move away from an 'inside-out' perspective. PMO drivers will be around customers, markets and the economy, and not just limited to internal efficiencies

This means that project managers have to understand the outside-in perspective. They have to focus on outcome and the value to be delivered to customers.

Project Success: Elements of High Productivity

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I've been in the project management profession for more than a decade. Admittedly, I've had my share of times when I was less productive than I would like to be.

While I haven't figured out an exact formula for having superior productivity at all times, I have noticed what contributes to both success and failure in high productivity, for me. These four elements help me stay on track.

When you are coachable, you can easily adapt. You are willing to learn something new and possibly change something about yourself in terms of how you work, react or approach tasks.

Clarity of the overall goal
When I'm working on a project, I want to be clear on what we are working on, what the ultimate goal is, or final result that is expected. With the clarity of the goal, it's easier to commit.

With clarity, commitment and coachability, you're halfway there. What gets you to the end game is two other elements: discipline and self-control. I'm not perfect at either, but I've noted that when I am most successful, these two elements are present. When I fail or get close to failing, they are lacking.

Discipline allows me to focus on the right activity and to motivate myself to do what needs to be done on a regular basis. While I might be good at "catching up" on what I'm behind on, if I have the self-discipline, most of the time, I'm on task.

Self-control is an act of controlling one's impulses to do something other than the task at hand. I catch myself now getting distracted by some activities, but ultimately, self-control allows me to avoid the wrong ones.

We have to remember that what we do is guided by how we think. Every day, I set a goal to have all of these elements in check for any specific project or task. It opens up actions and the things I need to do right away to either stay on track, get back on track or even outperform what was planned.

How do you stay productive?

Read more from Dmitri.

Rediscover Project Management Knowledge

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Do you ever notice how after learning a concept many years ago, when you come across it again, you understand it either differently or better?

As we experience "life" in project management -- managing various projects, working with new teams and wearing different hats on those teams -- we get to see various aspects of project management in action. We add to that knowledge from our own successes and failures.

We usually refer to those experiences as growth and development. The experience alters how we see things and how we communicate with people: our teammates, suppliers, third party partners, customers and clients. It also alters how we perform work because we gain a new point of view or change in our current point of view.

As such, it's valuable to review what you already know by reading through chapters of A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) to focus on the key areas that you work in, be it in risk management, scope management or resource scheduling.

When you review the material after having had some experience, you not only remind yourself of what you learned initially, but you see it differently. You catch some elements that you didn't see how to implement before, or you recognize how to relate to something in a way that you didn't before. Having that "life" experience in project management alters how you see the material and how you apply it in everyday work.

This happened to me when I reviewed the PMBOK® Guide recently.  After reviewing the chapter on risk management, I realized that my company needed to include additional steps for how we handle a backup or restore operation. While many companies have testing strategies, ours only documented this step conceptually. I may not have noticed this if I hadn't reread the PMBOK® Guide.

I challenge you to review the knowledge in the PMBOK® Guide and see how you can apply it to your active projects. Areas that you can improve on will turn up and will add value to your project management practice.

How do you rediscover your project management knowledge? Have you rediscovered practices from the PMBOK® Guide recently?

Editor's note: From 17 February - 20 March 2012, the exposure draft of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) -- Fifth Edition will be open for public review. Find out more and provide your recommendations and comments on the draft.  

Read more from Dmitri.

Take a Purposeful Break from Your Project

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Project managers take various breaks throughout the work day: lunch breaks, coffee breaks, meeting breaks, and so on.

Maybe you need a break after reading an intense project plan, or conversely, you need to take a break from working on a project to read the plan.

No matter the break's impetus, it ultimately comes down to having a distraction from what you were doing.  

Consider taking a purposeful break -- one that isn't simply a distraction or escape from a previous activity, but, as the name implies, that has a purpose and therefore achieves a desired result. I find that doing so allows you to be more productive and to re-energize faster.

It's the same approach that we use for effective project meetings. Making sure that we focus on the agenda, follow all the topics and cover the intended elements. What works best in this case is staying focused on the task at hand, remembering the purpose and the planned or expected outcome.

To take a purposeful break, I suggest you do exactly what you want to do. For example, if you need five minutes to unwind after an intense meeting, do nothing else but listen to music. Don't try to figure out something about the project activity you were just involved in or what you are about to do next. Just sit quietly.

By allowing your mind to truly rest and disconnect, I find you are more effective at whatever activity you take on next.  

When we focus on an activity completely, it reduces multitasking, and we are able to complete the activity in less time, at a higher quality and with a sense of accomplishment. It's contagious: the more you get done in less time, the more you feel you can do.

This information may seem like common sense, but taking purposeful breaks regularly is what is going to contribute to one's effectiveness in project execution and time management.

Answering the Loaded Question in Project Management

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In project management, loaded questions can cause massive problems on project teams.  As the project manager, it's your job to keep things under control.

Loaded questions usually carry some form of presumed fault. Here's an example: "Why didn't so-and-so provide us a project update on time?"

When someone -- project team member, stakeholder or client -- asks you such a question, how do you react? Do you answer it directly or do you try to defend yourself or your team, escalating the situation further?

In my opinion, the fastest and most effective way to respond to a loaded question is to address its underlying concern. When you address the issue rather than what is being asked on the surface, you create a safe environment where a person is understood.

Recently, I was in a situation where my first reaction was to defend myself and completely bash the opposing view. I stepped back and looked for their concern about the incident that occurred rather than jumping into defense mode.

As a result, I was able to see more clearly why in this situation, the project process was defined the way it was, without pushing my own agenda. Instead of seeing holes in the process, I started seeing what actions I needed to take. When I acknowledged this to the person that raised the question, the original concern disappeared for both of us.

The next time someone asks you a loaded question, answer the concern and not the question. The original issue may simply disappear.

Think about a recent encounter with a project team member or stakeholder where you may have gotten a bit defensive. What would be different in that situation if you listened for the concern behind what they were saying?

Read more posts from Dmitri.

Project Management at Work -- And in Life

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Let's face it -- although we may not see ourselves as the great organizers we'd like to be, we are often more organized in our projects in the workplace than we are at home in our own lives.

Of course we're trained to do what we do at work, which isn't always the case for everyday life. We seek out specialized training for our field, and then we get to obtain certifications and credentials, continue our education and earn professional development units (PDUs) to maintain our designation. Meanwhile, there's no training for how to live an organized life.

Having project management knowledge allows us to be better project managers in our lives -- not just in our workplace. Indeed, project management processes can be applied to life's personal projects and activities.  

When I was studying for my Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® certification, for example, I realized that my knowledge of the PMBOK® Guide applied to everything I was up to -- not just the management of projects at work. I became more organized. I worked on more projects of my own and had structure that allowed me to progress faster, and with better concrete results and more confidence.

All that came from this preparation. When I obtained my CAPM®, I was convinced that every single person that worked in the office could benefit from this education and certification, including project managers, project team members or department members that don't even work on large projects.

How do you apply project management principles to your life?

See more on PMI certifications.

See more posts from Dmitri.

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