5 ways university did not prepare you for real projects

When I started working on my first project as a project manager at a consultancy firm I thought I was up to the task. Surely university had prepared me for this. I had already worked on many team projects and experienced plenty of difficult situations, from teammates slacking off to last-minute crunch time to meet a deadline. I thought that university had educated me well for working on projects in a professional setting.  

I was wrong...

During my very first work project, I discovered there are many challenges to working on and managing a project that university had not taught me how to handle at all. Real-life projects are radically different from school projects and approaching them the same way you would a school project is doomed to fail. Here are 5 ways university did not prepare me for real projects. So you don’t have to learn the hard way, I mention 5 tips I discovered to help you handle similar challenges.

1 - You have to figure out what you’re supposed to do

Teachers often go to great lengths to ensure their assignment is clear and unambiguous. Any confusion that does occur is often solved by next year. Real projects are radically different: figuring out what you have to do can be difficult. You will often encounter clients who have some idea of what they need but who are incapable of describing exactly what deliverable will satisfy that need. Most of the time requirements aren’t even written down yet. If you are lucky enough to receive a document, you might be tempted to take it at face value and proceed to implement it immediately. This works for school assignments as the teacher was able to refine any ambiguity out of the assignment over the years. However, a client might not be able to articulate all their needs and wants perfectly for a project that will happen only once. You will discover at the end of the project that you have built your interpretation of what the client said they wanted, but it does not match what they actually need.

Tip -  You need to ask the right questions to the right people to get important information the client might not realize they need to provide. During lengthy meetings, phone calls, and emails you end up piecing together the requirements as well as an understanding of why we need to do this project. Managers or team members often get impatient and push you to ‘just get started’ but you cannot take any shortcuts in this step or you will end up working on the wrong thing. You are better off working towards the right goal slowly, than working towards the wrong goal at full speed.

2 - You have to figure out who is involved

At school, it’s clear who is involved: your teacher, your team members and you. There are few lines of communication and agreeing on a regular meeting and exchanging phone numbers might be all that is required to cover effective communication. A real life project is a different beast entirely. You have to carefully think about who is affected by your project and how to involve them. Overlooking a party can have severe consequences:

  • You need to figure out which managers have sufficient power to help or hinder your project. A manager who is not informed of progress believes none is made and can even convince his peer that the project should be abandoned entirely!
  • You might be making changes to a system which means you need to inform the current users of the system. Users who are unexpectedly disrupted in their work will complain to your manager or show up at your desk, forcing you to improvise a solution.
  • You have to identify specialists who need to be consulted for their expert opinion. Failing to get important information can result in poor decision making. At some point, a specialist who was not involved might ask if a specific alternative approach has been considered. You don’t want to be forced to admit that you had not even considered it and that you should have sought out his advice at the start.
  • You have to identify people who will test your work. If testers weren’t told in advance when they will need to test the system they might be on vacation or busy when you need them, delaying the project.
Tip -  As a project manager you have to do a stakeholder analysis (Wikipedia entry) to identify all parties involved and determine who needs to be consulted and informed throughout the project. Drawing a communication matrix (Template and explanation) can help you figure out how frequently you will communicate in what way (e-mail, phone, meeting) with each stakeholder. For example, you can decide to inform users once a month by email, whereas you telephone the manager who is responsible for the budget every week.

3 - You can’t save the day last minute

Have you ever put a school assignment off until the day it was due and still managed to get an A through a heroic last-minute effort? I know I certainly have. Unfortunately, starting a work project on the day before the deadline is a recipe for disaster. What goes wrong when you don’t start on time?

  • You discover you need input from another team and they need a week to get it ready. Now you’ll be late no matter how hard you work.
  • You notice that you don’t have permission to access the data you need. By the time your request for access is processed, the deadline has passed.
  • Your coworker who is supposed to help you out is on vacation and you forgot to incorporate that into your planning.
  • The approach you had in mind doesn’t work due to a tiny but disastrous technical bug in the system.
At work there are dependencies on other parties and technologies outside of your direct control. These dependencies can result in unexpected delays that jeopardize the project. 

Tip -  A key task of a project manager is to identify risks, figure out how to mitigate risks, and monitor if the risk materializes. A great way to do this is an exercise called the premortem: fast forward a few months and imagine the project turned into a huge disaster. The deadline was missed, you went over budget and the quality of the deliverable is atrocious. What went wrong? This mental exercise forces you to identify potential risks during the planning phase so you are not caught by surprise during implementation. Armed with insights into the factors that can cause delays, you can figure out when you need to start working on the project in order to finish on time.

4 - You can’t expect the scope to stay the same

Have you ever had a teacher who would suddenly call you a week before the deadline of the assignment to tell you they want you to add a section on 19th century French architecture to your paper on the American Revolution? Neither have I. In real life projects, however, changes to what activities and deliverables have to be included in the project, known as the scope, are the rule, not the exception. Often the client simply hasn’t thought everything through in advance. At other times more information becomes available as the project progresses and the client will demand changes. 

Tip -  Although some changes are inevitable, scope creep due to a poorly defined scope can be avoided. Before starting the project you will want to extensively discuss which deliverables are included in the project. Write the scope down as exhaustively as you can. Don’t just mention what will be within the scope of the project, but explicitly state activities that are out-of-scope. Place yourself in your client’s shoes: what will they assume is included but is not? Have the client confirm the written scope document and communicate that any deviations from the scope (which will happen no matter how bulletproof your document) will be treated as ‘changes’ that increase costs and time needed and have to be explicitly approved.

5 - You can’t cover for slackers

We’ve all been there, our teammate fails to do their part: the quality they deliver is subpar or they simply vanish off the radar, expecting their team to carry them. At school, you can usually work harder to compensate for their lack of effort and still get a good grade. Fortunately, this behavior is less common in professional settings. That said when it does happen the impact is much worse. The person slacking off might have skills no one else in the team has so it’s impossible to compensate for their lack of effort. Moreover, you will not have time in your schedule to do the work of two people. 

Tip -  How do you deal with this? You have to confront your colleague and escalate to management when needed. Avoiding conflict will be tempting, but you have to deal with such situations head-on to save your project. 

Project management is a skill you can learn

If you are reading this and you are new to managing projects you can avoid learning all of this the hard way. It is critical to realize that project management is an important skill that you don’t automatically pick up along the way. You might get away with improvising for now, but a time will come when projects demand real project management skills. Once you understand this you can decide to do an online course (for example Project Management Principles and Practices on Coursera),  listen to a podcast (PM Happy Hour), or read a book (such as The Deadline) on project management. Hopefully, you can apply the tips in this post to help you handle, and even enjoy, challenging projects in your career.

Please share the challenges you encountered in working on or managing projects you were not prepared for in the comments below.