The Difference Between Learning and Doing Project Management

By Mike Raia Posted May 31, 2018


Project management is a multi-faceted discipline that has evolved rapidly to accommodate the changes brought on by new technology, new approaches to running organizations, and the pressures of modern business cycles. Despite what most PMs learn in school and training, it's exceedingly difficult to prepare for "the real world of project management."

I recently posted a question on asking a group of PM pros. I asked, "What are the biggest differences/misconceptions that you've seen between what you're taught and what you actually do?" The answers I received are below. (Note: I've made some minor edits for clarity.)

"I think it is a complexity of the real project and how many things must be managed in parallel. In training, you learn about processes, tools, and techniques, and everything is presented in a way for you to understand and learn one by one. But in the real world, everything is often happening in parallel. For instance, you manage your team, you deal with stakeholders, manage risks, manage plan... in one day you may encounter issues in several areas and you cannot say ok, let’s wait a minute, let me spend two days just dealing with the team and after I’m done I’ll look at the risks."

"The classes I've taken in school have been more academic, pardon the pun. They covered the nuts and bolts, but there was rarely a feel for practical application, and in some cases, it wasn't helpful. For example, I've never used COCOMO II or Function Points outside of the classroom. Estimating outside of the classroom is a lot more art than science until you have more hard data to work with, later in the project. The training classes I've been to have been more practical and hands-on; we'll see if that holds true next week. I'm going to a two-day class on change management; I'm hoping it balances theory with practical application. You can never tell by the syllabus."

"The training provides you with the theoretical side of the project management processes while real-life experience provides you with the practical side and how to apply those processes in real life."

"I think the biggest difference between what is taught and what the 'real world is like is how politics plays a significant role in project success."

"The biggest gaps I perceive in most PM courses are 1. They present the "happy path" when you almost never encounter that in the real world and 2. they don't delve deep enough into tailoring of what you've learned to fit the context of your project."

 "I think one of the major gaps, is the influence the organizational structure and PMO play in managing projects. If "Upper" management & PMO managers aren't knowledgeable in newer techniques/approaches and applications to make proper management "easier"/ more effective that can lead to quicker disengagement from the PMs."

"Training is more theoretical, while in practice managing a project is a more complex task wherein a lot of things are happening simultaneously. The PM has to manage a lot of tasks in parallel whilst ensuring all of those activities are done on time with less noise."

"Education is to support knowledge in a way that is understandable, sort of like a blueprint of tools. If you can understand the majority of that knowledge and tools to utilize when situations arise, you are already ahead. Experience is the best teacher in life. Most of us will get our butts kicked and learn some hard lessons, but the key is to LEARN from those mistakes to be more efficient. I'm in an industry where things can literally change at the drop of a hat and you have to react quickly. This includes planning and taking any additional measures to resolve the issue quickly. If I end up in PM work outside of my field, I already expect it to be a learning curve and will just have to dive right in, be present, and learn from any mistakes along the way. Skillset and building those tools are what's most important. Credentials just help get you in the door to apply what you have retained."

"The biggest things would just be the day-to-day issues that pop up that are merely described in a few sentences in most training. Risks, conflicts within the team, delayed decisions, difficult stakeholders, basically all the things that make a PM run around that are not talked much about in training."

"That's the reason PMI says that you must use what is best for a specific project, we don´t have to follow all the rules all the time. It is a framework which provides us with the best practices."

"The training provides you with the systematic approach side of the project management processes while real-life experience provides you with the practical side and how to apply those processes in real life. I have met many PMs around here without qualifications and without a systematic approach, and they think themselves successful, but as a matter of fact, if you scale their results in reality, they will score really low. It is not about the theory as much as the systematic approach. These types of people, in general, have a short life of success and they will fail in the long run, or at the change of circumstances. On the other hand, Without real-life experience, training and education don’t add lots of value. Training and education give the framework and the foundation for real-life."

"I agree with everything everyone else is saying. In class, one of my professors was really good; questioned your responses to questions, and continued to ask more questions testing your understanding of the theory or concept we were discussing. He even brought in real-world examples. The difficulty in listening and discussing the examples is far different than being in the middle of it all and trying to manage it. I just completed a 6-month project and many of my stakeholders and team kept asking "How can you handle and keep up with everything? I would be so lost!" Keeping up and handling everything is hard to simulate in a classroom.

Mike Raia

Marketing the world's best workflow automation software and drinking way too much coffee. Connect with me on LinkedIn at


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