13 Key lessons learned in project management

by Sylvie Edwards

At this time of year, I often get to reminisce about my past experiences in project management over the course of more than 25 years. The reason for this sentimental journey? This is the time of year when we have a cohort or two of students completing their certificate program and heading into the job market, which can be full of questions and uncertainties for them. I get asked all the time about my past experiences, the work, and the trajectory that I took to lead me to where I am today. In this article, I decided to share the top 13 things that I gravitate towards recounting as project management lessons learned and examples. I do wish someone would have told me these little gems before I started rather than now…

I do not know about you, but I am quite surprised at how fast time has passed and how much I have seen and done over the years. I am reminded by people all the time, but more so by my students at graduation, as quite often, they will ask for advice on what to do next or going forward in their search for a position. I cannot believe that it has been more than 25 years, during which I have seen, heard, and learned a lot about project management going at it in different ways. I keep telling everyone it is 20 or more years, but I am even pushing on the 25, heading towards 30 or so years at this point. I still do not look a day over 20!

When I started the Post-Graduate Certificate program at my local College in 2013, another professor and I created for our graduating class a booklet of lessons learned to take with them into the job market. It was a nice little present for our graduating group, and we hoped it was going to guide them along the way as to what we had learned to do or not to do ourselves. There were themes that came up over and over in our discussions, and now, a few years later, I can tell you that 13 major themes come to mind. I wanted to share these with you all so that you can use them for yourself or share them with someone who is thinking of starting out in the profession.

Lessons learned: Project management examples

Here are just some valuable examples of lessons learned in project management over the years.

  1. Be a sponge – Learn from every experience, good or bad, and look at it as new knowledge to carry with you. I also encourage my students to remain in the same job for more than six months at a time when they start so that they can exhaust what there is to learn in one place before jumping to the next
  2. Things can and will change quickly; do not just adapt. PIVOT – With the pandemic, a new word got added to our frequent vocabulary – pivot – well, that term is not new, and this is exactly what, as a PM, you need to learn and to learn on the fly, quickly. A person who can pivot and take on change will be suited to anything that is thrown their way. 
  3. Volunteer—Volunteering is how I gained confidence in being what I am today. There are a great number of opportunities to volunteer. Start with PMI® locally with a Chapter and then see where else your expertise might be needed. Do not see it as wasting your time; see it as building your character.
  4. Be glad for failures along the way, they are redirections – Every project cannot be 100% successful all the time. A bit of turmoil defines how you handle yourself in stressful times and builds some qualifications that are only gotten by being put to the test. If, at first, you do not succeed, get back on that horse.
  5. Learn something new every day and, more importantly, find a way to put it into practice – Most great PMs that I know are generalists and grow by learning bits of something that make them be the best they can be in a variety of situations. This one theme is related to the sponge and the pivot as well. The more knowledge about different things learned over and over and applied makes a PM better when decisions might be difficult.
  6. Never think of yourself as superior in anything but rather as average in most – This provides you with a chance to recognize how others can be better suited to take on some of the work and help you delegate work more efficiently. If you always believe you are the best, then why let someone else do the work? This is the stuff that builds you into a leader of people.
  7. Be honest – There is not one thing that cannot be solved by being honest first with yourself and with the rest of your team. This goes a long way into establishing trust, and trust is the foundation of any great team building.
  8. Always take work that is half a step above what you can easily manage – This pushes your limits in many ways and allows you to grow. If you stay in your “safe” zone all the time, you will remain in your “safe” zone for the rest of your career. Beware of the imposter syndrome.
  9. Find someone you trust as a mentor – and keep her/him in your life. You will have someone to turn to that can, in a phone call, answer simple or not-so-simple questions. Also, recognize the power of being a mentor yourself when you get to a certain point in your career where you have lots of valuable things to share.
  10. Physically write things down – A few studies have shown that the act of putting down on paper your thoughts, your ideas, your plans, or simply your to-do items goes a long way to ensuring that you have them top of mind. Project Management can get complex and hectic, learning to write it down, even if it is just staring at you from the paper, is a good way to allow for prioritization and clarity.
  11. Pick up a hobby – Yes, there will not be a lot of time, but a side hobby is how most PMs that I know survive and keep their health, both physical and mental, intact. 
  12. Be clear and deliberate in your communications with others and have data to back you up – Yes, you will be tempted to respond in a hurry, especially in heated conversations. Remember that you cannot “unsay” what was said out loud. Learn to take your time with your communications with others, use the 7 Cs concept, and always have something that proves or backs up your words.
  13. Finally, and this one can be a tough one – Balance time with your family, find something to be grateful for and enjoy the small moments along the way. Aim to get some balance in this crazy profession that we call project management. Your family and friends will appreciate that you are making time for them even if that project takes up about 100 hours of your week.
  14. I am certain if I were to poll seasoned PMs on these 13 themes that some people would come up with countless others. The point of these is that it is important to share and to learn from your past and from other’s past to clear your path to success. Start with these and jot down some of your own. You will be the only one in charge and able to steer your ship in any direction, but half-knowing where to aim is the beginning. Trust me… things will change, and so will your direction in the years to come.


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