Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pipe Cleaners, Post-Its, and Project Management

by BJ Larson, NEMA Deputy Director

Professional development, what a concept. We all know it is important, we all have a list of things we want to learn, but we often don’t get around to taking advantage of the opportunities that are out there to learn them. This is especially true when you are in the not-for-profit world. We feel as though we don’t have time to do our regular jobs, much less take on something new. Well, last week I had the rare chance of attending a three-day American Association for State and Local History workshop on Project Management for History Professionals at the Windsor Historical Society in Windsor, Connecticut, and what a treat it was. The setting was absolutely bucolic, picture-perfect New England.

Day One: First day of class—what will it be like? Who will be there? Who will I sit with? Walk into the room, and I see candy and pipe cleaners on every table. A good sign, and it turns out they were there just to help us when we were fidgety. The attendees were a wonderful mix of staff from familiar museums—the Abbe Museum, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut Historical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society—as well as personnel from institutions as far away as Houston. Our instructor, Lou (Mary Louise Russell to you) put everyone at ease with her warm style. The first exercise had us identifying the hallmarks of a poorly-run project—lack of clarity, poor communication, frustration and even anger. Contrast those with what you feel when you are involved in a well-run project—satisfaction, accomplishment and pride. It might sound a bit touchy-feely, but it set the stage for the importance of learning good project management skills. We were encouraged to use a real project from our work-life as we learned about project objectives, stake-holders and scope.

Day Two: I am in full student mode, cracking wise, raising my hand emphatically, smiling my biggest smile at the teacher. Turns out, this is part of my personality “type.” We learned a great deal about this through an exercise that I can’t really describe here (for that you need to attend the workshop). Later in the day, we were assigned to separate countries and had to negotiate with other countries for money and power. It was a lot of fun, but negotiating also pushed us out of our comfort zones. When all was said and done, we did some serious debriefing that taught us in memorable ways how personality type can help define our management and communication styles. It also illustrated some powerful ways in which we can better communicate with people that are different than us.

Day Three: The group truly feels like family at this point. Our projects are hung around the room on flip chart paper with multiple post-its and scribbles for all to see. We have bared our strengths and weaknesses and gone through a shared learning experience. Most importantly, we have acquired the tools to go forth and conquer our projects, saving the world in the process. The biggest lesson? Project management isn’t about Gantt charts or critical paths; it is really all about communication.

Many thanks to AASLH and Lou for a great opportunity, and to all who participated. It was a pleasure to learn from, and spend time with, a wonderful group of history and museum professionals.


  1. I attended this workshop in Atlanta in early March, and it was terrific!

  2. Organizations need to be assured the individuals that manage their projects can integrate methods to achieve sustainability goals and still achieve project specific objectives. Project Managers need credentials that validate their proficiency with these specialized qualities. PMP Certified and scrum certified project managers can learn, apply, and validate mastery of sustainability based project methods to meet these demands.