Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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Your Project Management Certificate Is Worthless

In 1985 I was in the midst of the Duke of Edinburgh program in the UK, a fantastic program for developing young people (I highly recommend it).

Anyway, as part of the program I had to learn a new skill; I chose canoeing. It was something I really fancied doing and something I thought I’d be good at.

I spent six weeks practising on a local lake, culminating in a 3km paddle down the Leeds and Liverpool canal

At the end of the 3km, we were presented with our certificates. The week after, we were invited back to the local lake to take the first class of the intermediate program for free (a clever marketing ploy!), so as a certified canoeist I headed back.

Twenty minutes in I toppled over, promptly panicked and forgot everything I had learned. I was about 15 seconds from drowning – in the most disgusting dirty water, it has to be said – before being pulled out by two instructors.

I never canoed again. But I still have the certificate.

The Forgetting Curve, developed by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885, demonstrates that most people forget an average of 70% of what they’ve learned within 24 hours of learning it. Within a week, 90% of it is gone. By those statistics, I was lucky that I was able to remember how to get into the canoe.

The thing is, learning how to canoe by rote wasn’t the thing to get a certificate for. Quickly applying the knowledge that I’d learned, bouncing back from mistakes and becoming a role model for others should have been what I demonstrated in order to get a certificate.

Yet all too often, particularly in project management, we make it about the piece of paper.

‘Are you MSP registered?’ ‘Have you got your agile yet?’ ‘Do you have letters after your name? You’ll get enhanced recognition if you do’.

At an event I spoke at recently – about the need for project management to get its act together – I chatted to two project managers about the challenges they faced. When I asked them to describe their project management style they both said ‘I’m a PRINCE2 project manager’. I died inside a little bit, then recovered to tell them that they were much more than that.

I reminded them that they were a complex web of feelings, emotions, relationships and knowledge. That they didn’t yet have all the answers, but that they should never stop looking. That a single course about a method was the least important thing they could do to improve their chances of delivering projects successfully (though still important). And that the method they were championing was taking all the credit for the work that they’d put in over the years.

Having a certificate is great on your CV or LinkedIn profile, in that it shows you’ve invested in your development, but unless you’re a role model for others it all counts for nothing.

Vacuuming up certification courses is all too common in the project management profession and the lazier organisations still use them as a way to recruit. Having armies of ‘certified’ professionals hasn’t improved the rates of project delivery in the last 11 years, yet it’s still the default action organisations take when they look to bring in new people or develop their existing ones.

I’ve recently started working with a client on improving their project delivery culture and the first thing we’ve done away with is ‘hiring by certificate’. The best way to fill your organisation full of good people is to hire them for exactly that first, not their ability to pass a multiple choice exam. Demonstrate the behaviours, be accountable, use common sense!

Now of course I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do these qualifications. It would be fairly hypocritical of me given that I’ve got lots of them and we give one out as part of the Conscious Project Leader program (although ours are ‘accountability statements’ – check it out here). I’m simply saying that if they’re not accompanied by a willingness to change some things immediately, having the courage to be different, developing the ability to build lasting relationships and to contribute positively to the organisation’s culture then they are not worth the card they’re printed on.

Changing your approach, your language, your ideas, your contribution and your personality should be the thing that you get rewarded for. That’s the stuff that people want to see when you’ve spent two days out of the office. However, more often than not, people blame their workload, culture or line manager for not taking action and quickly slide on down the Forgetting Curve.

In project management we need inspiration over certification, perspiration over accreditation and letters of recommendation not letters after your name.

Your project management certificate is worthless, however the immediate action you take from the course you’ve been on can be priceless and a demonstration that you take your personal development seriously.

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