PMP Part IV – The Wisdom of Experience

By Paul Brooks, PMP®, EIT, Validation Engineer, PSC Biotech™

This past weekend, I found myself thinking about a follow-up to my last blog article which was, frankly, very content-heavy. I found myself wondering how many PSC employees were still in the hunt for their project management certifications and wondered what advice I could offer to them in my next article and I wondered if I could offer it with a new perspective. After jotting down a few ideas, I became frustrated – the article was drifting towards becoming very content heavy and I didn’t like where it was going. Hoping to distract myself from my thoughts for a while before I took another stab at the article, I dug through my drawer of DVDs and decided to pop in a fantasy movie: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It had been a few years since I had last seen the film and it seemed like the perfect movie to watch in order to wind down from a very hectic week at work.

Now, why are we discussing the wizarding-world in a blog-series that is supposed to be about preparing for the project management exam? Perhaps I had been primed by my recent blog article on incorporating the “Spiral Method” into exam preparations, but while I sat on the couch watching the film, I found that several of the film’s themes were commensurate with the themes contained in my PMP® study plan, in particular, the confidence that can come from hands-on learning and the wisdom that comes from reflection on one’s own experiences – and that gave me an idea.

So, while I watched the rest of the movie, I started jotting down a few ideas for how I could use this well-loved tale to help me convey the importance of the three core tenants of my study plan and to explore the role they play in mounting a successful campaign against your next professional certification exam. Let’s see how I did.

1 – Learn by Doing

First, I found that this fantasy story is a case-in-point in what I believe to be one of the keys to my own success while preparing for the exam: learn by doing. When you have completed all of your training requirements and are finally sitting in the testing room ready to take your exam, what is going to give you that final boost of confidence that you will be able to answer any question they throw at you? It is simple – it is nothing more or less than the realization that you have done it all before.

Why? Because during your studies, you realized that there is more to this project management exam than just reading books. You can’t afford to wait until you have earned your certification before you try out the tools and techniques of the PMBOK® Guide – start implementing these best practices now. The reason that the PMI® requires several thousand hours of project management experience before they allow you to earn the CAPM® or the PMP® certifications is because they realize that there are some lessons that can’t be taught from books alone. Sure, books can tell you why you should make a stakeholder register and a communications management plan for each project you are involved with, but, just like Harry and his friends, until you actually try out these magical ingredients and start to apply them to real-life situations or projects with real-life consequences, you will be hard-pressed to understand their true value to a project team.

2 – The Spiral Method of Studying

Second, just as Harry discovered on the shore of the Black Lake when he realized that he already possessed the ability to conjure the Patronus Charm to save his own life and that of Sirius Black from the dementors’ attack, it is one thing to learn a concept and to practice a magic spell in a classroom setting and but it is something entirely different to use that spell in a real-world setting, with true consequences at stake and all of the adrenaline pumping through your veins. While second chances abound in the classroom, in the business world where the stakes are high, opportunities for second chances are slim and often very expensive. In that type of high-pressure environment, it can be easy to become swept up by negative thoughts and to lose site of the project’s goals.

The same thing can be said of the topics on the project management exam. With all the time, energy and resources you have put into exam preparation, stakes could feel like they couldn’t be higher. However, as you start to read the exam problems, nothing seems familiar. So, how do you translate the problem into something you recognize?

As with all projects, success on the exam is dependent on good preparation. During your preparation, you must learn to see topics and problems from new angles, to anticipate the various ways in which questions can be asked, and to engage the material using multiple learning modalities – a method I termed the “Spiral-Method” of studying in my PMP® exam study plan, to borrow a phrase from one of my high school teachers. As I elaborated during Part III of this blog-series, when following the spiral method of studying, your goal is to purposefully approach course material multiple times during your studies, engaging the material in a different manner with each pass. Success on exam problems often boils down to your ability to discern the actual question from a verbose problem statement. By following a method in which you purposefully approach topics from new angles and learn about its small nuisances, you will be more prepared to recognize topics that appear in alternative formats in the exam and be more proficient at spotting the actual question from among a cloud of unnecessary details.

3 – Study to Learn, Don’t Study for an Exam

Throughout the book series, Harry and his friends were known to clash with professors and other students who kept a narrow perspective on the content they were teaching and who refused to see the broader implications of the lessons they learned. Particularly in the later books, when it became clear that there were true dangers outside of the school that were being hidden from the public’s eye, learning magic had little to do with passing the dreaded O.W.L. exams. For the series’ protagonists, learning to apply the magic they learned had turned into a life skill that was necessary to ensure their survival.

Similarly, if you only review the PMBOK® guide with the aim of passing your certification exam, you will find your path to be quite arduous. Instead, as you study, make a point of considering the broader implications and consequences of the PMBOK® guide and seek to apply your newly-developed skills during your later passes through the material. As I discussed in Part III of this blog-series, your final pass through the material should strive to link the new material to other areas of your experience. Discussions with fellow PMI® credential holders have confirmed that as of late, very little of the certification exam has been definition- or calculation-based. Although there have been a few exceptions, most have expressed that the majority of their own examinations were composed of situationally-based questions that challenged their ability to apply their knowledge of the PMBOK® to a myriad of fictitious project situations in order to arrive at the best course of action for the project team described in the problem.

If this is to continue to be the case going forward in the certification exam, then you shouldn’t be satisfied with your ability to simply regurgitate the list of all 49 PMBOK® processes. In order to set yourself up for success on the exam, you must also consider how the PMBOK® processes, inputs, tools, techniques, outputs and documents could be applied to improve the performance of a project rather than simply memorizing their textbook definitions.

In the final chapter of this blog-series, I will explore what it takes to build upon the wisdom of your experience in order to develop a winning mindset for your next certification exam. I will also introduce you to two plans that are critical to your success on your next certification exam, but that are rarely discussed in PMI® literature. I hope that you will join me as I bring this series to its conclusion.