Going solo: The project management way!

Last year I watched my daughter make her first solo flight in a light aircraft.  That means she took off in an airplane on her own, and landed it. She was just 16 and had ten hours training.  The first I knew it was happening was when the instructor said quietly to me,  “You might want to stay around to watch this lesson!”.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

If you haven’t experienced going solo in a airplane, this is pretty much how it works. After you’ve made three perfect landings in a row, the instructor casually remarks: “Not bad, why don’t you do the next three circuits on your own?”  They then climb out of the airplane leaving you alone with the engine running and ready to go.  At that moment the airplane seems tremendously quiet, the right-hand seat looks tremendously empty and the runaway looks tremendously short!

I was talking with a portfolio manager who was concerned about bringing on a new junior project manager.  She was worried; “I know she has done the course. And she does know about project management. But I just can’t let her on a project on her own yet. What if she’s not ready?”

That decision – the decision to let somebody ‘go solo’ – is one of the most difficult judgements made by any instructor.  How can you be sure the student is ready?  And it’s an important decision. Too cautious and the student becomes frustrated and loses heart; they don’t understand why the instructor is not letting them go, as they ‘know’ they are ready.  Too careless – well the consequences don’t bear thinking about.

From project learning to project execution

Project management is a core skill in many disciplines, and graduates I work with have often been exposed to it as a component of their course, or even as the main element of their degree.  However, when they get their first job there are a few surprises for them.  Firstly, what they have been taught is rarely the way it’s being done in the workplace.

What’s taught on courses is rarely what’s done in the work-place

On courses, students are taught the ‘know-what’ and to a certain extent the ‘know-how’ of project management.  They learn about life-cycles, about risks, about planning, about monitoring.  They may even have completed a mini-project, but they lack genuine experience in the ‘know-do’.  They have not had exposure to a sufficient range of projects to realise that their approach must be adapted to suit the differing contexts of their projects. 

A project life-cycle, which starts with a business case and is carefully stage-gated through to a formal closure, is a wonderful model.  But try applying that to a project to write a report, or to organise an office-away-day, or even to manage a simple office move.  You quickly begin to wonder what all this project bureaucracy is about and why on earth you need it!

Which brings us neatly to the second problem.  The projects that are typically given to new-to-project project managers are often so low in complexity that many of the principles and techniques they have been taught are neither applicable nor necessary.  The net result can be that they succeed on easy projects by discarding some processes – do you really need to plan in detail how to write a personal report? But this strategy, once learned, can be mistakenly applied to all projects regardless of their complexity. That means, while running simple projects does provide valuable experience, it does not expose the project manager to the range of challenges that are really the hallmark of professional project management.

When a pilot makes their first solo flight they haven’t finished.  It’s just the first significant milestone. There is much more to achieve; more knowledge, greater skill and proper attitude to demonstrate before they can join the ranks of qualified pilots.  So it is for the individuals developing into project management. The challenge for those responsible for the delivery of future project capability is to ensure that there are project opportunities that effectively and safely deliver the level of project management competence required.

Flight instruction has evolved over the past hundred years.  Today the training programmes are pretty much the same around the world.  That’s not true for project managers. Today there are three main entry points.

Being a project administrator

The project administrator (PA) role offers what appears to be a safe route into project management.  Often situated within the project management office (PMO), the PA role usually takes one of two forms:

  • Assistant to a project or programme manager – aiding the manager in administrative tasks such as meeting follow-throughs, report preparation and project data collection
  • Administrator in the PMO – supporting project office activities such as the collation of portfolio status information and PMO process improvement projects such as preparing templates and mini-audits

In both roles, the PA gets exposed to a variety of projects – they probably are exposed to more lessons learned than most project managers, and that’s a great start.  However, it still sits in the know-what and know-how range. 

There is also a potential catch-22.  If they are good at administration, nobody wants to lose them, and their progress into project management is held back.  If they are poor at administration there is an assumption that this means that they will not make good project managers, and their progress is held back.

The catch-22: If they are good, nobody wants to lose them and if they are not good, nobody will promote them!

So if the PMO is to use the PA as an entry point for developing project managers there needs to be a pre-figured set of experiences laid out with criteria that allows for the PA to take on responsibilities and have their performance evaluated as a precursor to taking their first solo flight in project management.

Being a junior project manager

Many organisations I work with have junior project manager (JPM) roles, sometimes referred to as project coordinators.  The JPMs lead small projects and often report into senior project managers who are expected to provide them with support and guidance. 

This is a great way of providing exposure to projects, protected by the oversight provided by the more senior project manager.  But ask any JPM and they will tell you that what they learn and how they develop depends entirely upon the disposition of the supervising project manager.  Some use the project coordinator as their personal assistant. Some willingly delegate away as much responsibility as possible, and some are at a bit of a loss as to what exactly they are supposed to do with a JPM!

Some project managers make great coaches but…

Not all project managers make great coaches.  Indeed, there is evidence that being a coach does not sit comfortably with other fundamental project manager traits such as being task-focused and achievement-driven.  Moreover, project managers are not instructors, so do they know how to recognise when it is appropriate to let their JPMs take the next steps, to move on to the next stage?

Once a person takes on a JPM role, the commitment to becoming a project manager is already made.  The question is now, where are the instructors?  What is the trigger to fly the first circuit without direct supervision?  Can this decision be left to the senior project manager or is this a decision to be made by an individual or process better equipped to make that judgment?

Learning on-the-job

The Hout Bay Young Adult Development Academy (YADA) is a skills link programme with the goal to help young people overcome barriers to employment and develop a broad range of skills and knowledge in order to participate in the current and future labour market.

Extract of sizing estimates from YADA plan

As a tutor on the programme, I took the group on a 12-week journey to develop project leadership skills.  This involved them in the tendering and planning of a fairly big refurbishment project – the restoration and external painting of a large coastal home.  If the quote was accepted, they were then to implement the plan they had created. 

There was a master builder available who validated the estimating and planning.  What was made clear to the group was that the responsibility for getting it right – getting the job, and getting it done – was theirs.


The students’ growth was spectacular.  They sorted out the techniques.  They sorted out the interpersonal issues.  They communicated with the client.  And they secured the contract!

In the end… it’s about giving responsibility

There is no substitute for placing responsibility on the shoulders of emerging project managers.  As with a student pilot making their first solo, it should not be a drama but a natural next-step – a positive indication of the increasing trust and belief in their ability to perform. 

The delegation of responsibility must be real – it’s not letting somebody walk with reins, or riding a bike with training wheels.  The project must be real – Mickey Mouse projects just make Mickey Mouse project managers.  And just like my daughter landing after her first solo – it is not the end of the journey, but the start of an even more exciting future!

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