Recently I was in Calgary for project management training. The great thing about EY, or rather, all professional services firms, is that they have nothing else to sell other than their people and therefore, it makes all kinds of sense to invest heavily in their people so that they can sell them at higher and higher rates. I was in one such training session where I spent two days learning about EY’s project management methodology.

A bit about my background – I’ve spent 5+ years in consulting now and have worked in a variety of roles on projects – everywhere from the grunt that is doing all the analysis and work, to being the lead of specific deliverables or work streams and even managed projects by myself. During those two days, I had a chance to reflect on what I really knew about project management and wanted to write it down, not so that you can learn but so that I can better understand what I have learned.

The most important stage of a project is the planning stage

Abraham Lincoln said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” It’s a nifty little quote that speaks a lot to where you need to spend the most time on projects – the planning and preparation stages. I know for a few of my past projects, we jumped right into the work itself because there really wasn’t time to plan. Did that make the project any worse? Not necessarily. Would the project have been better if I stopped to plan? Yes, absolutely. Planning gives you the time to pause, reflect on what the key activities are and helps you to see the bigger picture – things that you don’t get to do when you’re just executing or delivering work.

Project management weaves in with engagement management

Typically, when you are managing projects, you are managing a project on behalf of a customer. That relationship and rapport you have with the customer is what EY calls “engagement management”. Project management falls within engagement management but is very closely tied to it because as you deliver work, you may receive inputs or feedback that will change the direction of your project and this is something you have to manage as a project manager (e.g., things like scope creep or accelerated timelines). I learned that even though we were learning and focusing on project management, you must not forget that managing the engagement can be equally as important and can make or break projects if done well / done poorly.

Don’t promise anything to the customer

EY is extremely risk averse, which can be a good thing as we always enter projects or engage with clients in a cautious manner. As a project manager, you’re going to be the one who will have the tough conversations on scope, budget and time and I realized as I watched other project managers that there’s no definitive answer when the client asks you for different scope, budget or timelines. Sometimes you suck it up for the relationship and say yes. Sometimes you say no because it is too much work. Sometimes you negotiate and come up with a happy compromise. There’s no right answer and unfortunately, this is something that comes from experience rather than a textbook.

Don’t BS your customer

Along the same lines, don’t BS your customer with vague or weasel language. Your customers / clients are smart enough to see through it and if they are particularly nice about it, they will call you out on it. If they aren’t nice about it, they won’t hire you again. When I first got into consulting, everyone went through what I thought was an improv class: “say yes to everything, even if you don’t know it and then figure it out later”. I did say yes and I did figure it out later but over time, I learned that sometimes it is okay to say “I don’t know”.

I still have a long way to go to be an awesome project manager – what have you learned managing projects that you didn’t learn from a textbook?