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Scheduling Her Day

Project Management: Q&A With Elizabeth Harrin of A Girl's Guide to Project Management

Posted July 12, 2018 by Hannah DeBevoise - Coordinator, Social Media - AACSB International

Project management, a skill widely valued in the business world, is a tool that all students can take advantage of, regardless of what discipline you're studying. We talked with Elizabeth Harrin of A Girl's Guide to Project Management to get her take on the importance of project management and how it can shape not only your education but your future career.

1. Why is project management important for business school students of all disciplines?

I think project management is so important for business school students because it helps you structure and organize your work.

So much of what’s required through the education system is effectively projects. Whether you are working on an assignment alone or with fellow students, you have to decide what is to be done, create a plan for the work, follow through on that plan, and then deliver the end result.

That’s basically what a project is, and a project manager is someone who uses tools and techniques to deliver the work in the most effective way.

Project management gives you the skills to be able to work efficiently and effectively. You stay organized. You hit deadlines. You’re trained to think about what might derail your work and what you can do now to stop that from happening. You learn how to work with other people and how to get work done through other people.

Project management is a great skill to have for people in all industries because so much of knowledge work—the kind of activities subject matter experts and managers do—is driven by projects. Whether they are given the label “project” or not, those initiatives that your boss gives you to work on are discrete parcels of work. That’s a project too.

2. At what point in a person's education do you think they should begin to learn project management skills?

I think it should be taught early in primary schools. I suppose I had leanings toward project management as a young student, without knowing what it was. I made homework timetables and lists. I planned out my time and I got good at working in teams.

PM is taught in some schools, and some professional bodies have outreach programs that work in an education setting. I think knowing how to get work done in an effective way can be a huge stress-buster for students of all ages.

And the great thing is that it is not difficult to teach or to learn! I wish more schools had it as part of the core curriculum.

3. How has technology changed the way project management is done and the way people perceive it?

Technology has had a huge impact on the way project management is done. If you think back to the days of Henry Gantt, and the famous Gantt charts that visually show when tasks are to be done, all of those had to be plotted out by hand. Every time something changed, someone would have to make those painstaking changes. Now you can update your schedule with the click of a button. It’s easy.

Tech has also changed the way that teams work together. At a business school, you may all be in the same lectures or classes. But for many students, like those in executive or professional MBA programs, their business education is part-time and they return to their jobs during the week. Technology gives them the opportunity to work on their projects while they aren’t in the same room as their peers.

It’s the same with project teams in the workplace. We use collaboration tools and enterprise project management software to work remotely. In a way, this has given managers far greater opportunities than ever before. It’s easier to source the right skills because your resource pool is not limited to people who live within an hour’s drive of the office.

Tech has changed how people perceive project management as well. Now that so much of the “routine” work, like updating schedules, takes hardly any time at all, we can pour more energy into the difficult stuff: communication, collaboration, and stakeholder engagement. People are the key to doing good work successfully, so the more time we spend on that side of project management, the more likely it is that we’ll end up with the results we want.

4. What are the biggest challenges facing current and future project managers today?

The world is changing at such a rapid pace. The advent of new technology changes how we work, and it’s hard to keep up.

I think we’ll see more and more people doing project work without the formal title of project manager—this has always been the case, but it will be even more so in the future. People who can equip themselves with project management skills will definitely be at an advantage, simply because they’ll be able to get their work done in a more structured and less stressful way.

5. What made you decide to focus on project management for girls and women when beginning your blog?

I felt, at the time, that there wasn’t enough out there that spoke to my experience. I worked in a 50/50 environment with equal numbers of men and women managing projects. And yet at conferences and in the trade press, it was always men whose voices were heard.

As an individual, I can’t speak for all women, but I did think that there were particular challenges facing women at work that weren’t being addressed. For example, being a young woman in charge of a team of older men, being a young woman with a powerful male project sponsor, maternity leave, and even the issue of traveling to work by foot or bicycle and having to change into high heels at the office. These aren’t necessarily big things or things that only affect project managers, but it felt to me like I had something I could offer from my experience to women finding themselves in similar situations.

Over time, I’ve written a broad range of articles addressing lots of project management and career topics, and I know men find them just as useful.

6. For students who struggle with productivity, what tips can you offer?

Know when you are most productive. If that’s the morning, schedule your difficult work for then. If it’s late at night, push your challenging projects to then.

We’ve been discussing productivity recently in my Facebook group, and that was one of the tips shared. Think about managing your attention instead of your time. When your attention is waning, don’t go online. Do some low-focus tasks instead, like filing emails, doing your expenses, tidying up your records—stuff that doesn’t take much brain power.

7. What tools or resources are available for students to use to effectively manage their projects and workload?

There are lots of project management tools that will help you track your tasks. The trick is to find one you love and that works the same way as your brain.

Mindmapping tools are very good. Software like Trello or Asana is free (at least, for individuals), and these programs are helpful for plotting out what needs to be done. But then, so is a notebook! If planning things on paper is useful to you, do that.

The most useful “tool” I have is spending 15 minutes every Sunday working out what is happening this week. I look at upcoming deadlines and meetings I have to prep for and then plan in when I am going to do that preparation. I can go into the week already feeling like I’m in control. It used to feel odd to plan when I was going to call certain people or which day I was going to type the minutes from a certain meeting, but now I know that having these small tasks planned out gives me so much more peace in the week. Knowing what I have to achieve helps me get it done.

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin has over fifteen years’ experience in leading IT, business change and process improvement projects in the UK and France. Today she works in healthcare and also runs her own company providing copywriting services to project-related businesses. Elizabeth is the author of 5 books and the award-winning blogger behind Find Elizabeth on Twitter @girlsguidetopm.