Should Nurse Managers Take Project Management Classes?

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Nurses work on a project A 2006 study noted that four of every five health-care projects were failures and one of every three was never completed. A decade later, that study led by Rebecca Rutherford Kitzmiller is still cited frequently, as is the conventional wisdom that nurse managers are not taught project management.

It’s probable that both the success rate of health-care projects and the project-management knowledge and skills of nurse managers have improved in the past 10 years, but there’s still not much emphasis on such training.

“One thing you don’t learn in nursing school is project management,” wrote Ruby Gealan of Hamad Medical Corporation in 2014. “Or do you? Although nurses may not receive formal training on business topics, there are many skills you do learn that can help you conceive and manage projects in the workplace. In fact, the nursing process provides an ideal background for using project management techniques. The nursing process incorporates a systematic method of assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation.”

But that means project-management training is still seldom a part of a nurse manager’s education, when perhaps it should be.

More than a scheduling tool

“In the past, project management primarily focused on providing schedule and resource data to top management in just a few industries, such as the military and construction industries,” said Minnesota author and teacher Kathy Schwalbe at the outset of her 2013 book “An Introduction to Project Management.”

“Today’s project management involves much more, and people in every industry and every country manage projects,” she wrote.

The business world merely has provided the model.

A project is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result,” according to David Stanley and Linda Malone in their Nursing Management article “Project Management Supports the Change Process.”

“Projects are commonly a way of handling activities that can’t be addressed within an organization’s normal operating limits,” they wrote.

Stanley and Malone define project management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet a project’s requirement,” adding it “is a methodical approach to planning and guiding project processes from start to finish” via five stages:

5 stages of project management

  • Defining the project
  • Actually starting the project
  • Planning and scheduling the project
  • Executing the project
  • Closing the project

Those steps may seem like an oversimplification, but many projects that don’t follow that blueprint proceed in a haphazard way.

“Project management can be applied to almost any type of project and is widely used to control (manage) the complex processes involved in any developmental project,” Stanley and Malone found.

Schwalbe cites estimates that projects account for about one-fourth of gross domestic product in the United States and the world, and thus sound principles of dealing with them are vital. But are projects such a large part of health care?

Nurses practice informal project management

“The health-care industry has been engaged in projects for a long time, but not necessarily using formal project management techniques,” Schwalbe says. “Health-care organizations are realizing that to remain competitive, they must develop skills to effectively select and manage the projects they undertake. They also realize that many of the concepts of project management, especially interpersonal skills, will help them as they work with people on a day-to-day basis.”

Nurse managers would therefore benefit, it would seem, from a rise in priority for project-management training.

“Projects are not undertaken only by those in management, administration or construction. Many clinicians and nurses are excellent project managers because of their skills in managing patient care,” wrote Joanna Phillips and Lorraine Simmonds for Nursing Times.

“While many books exist on project management in health care, most are written from the perspective of a hospital’s upper leadership,” author and nursing informatics expert Carolyn Sipes wrote in a promo for her 2015 book “Project Management for the Advanced Practical Nurse.” “This is the first resource to encompass the specific knowledge base and skills required for graduate-level nurses and students to effectively perform the duties of a project manager.”

That strongly suggests that nurse managers mostly are managing projects in a seat-of-the-pants manner.

The same point was made in a similarly commercial way in a 2013 article in the Canadian Journal of Nursing Informatics, which compared three software programs.

“Managing projects in nursing or health care is becoming more difficult as projects continuously grow in size and complexity. Project management using conventional ‘pen and paper’ methods is slowly becoming obsolete.”

10 roles in project management

Actual project management goes far beyond spreadsheets. There are numerous skill sets involved, and a large project might need these 10 managers, according to Schwalbe.

  • Project integration management: coordinating the other nine
  • Project scope management: involves working with all of the project’s stakeholders and includes drafting written agreements
  • Project time management: determining a schedule and adherence to it
  • Project cost management: preparing and managing the budget
  • Project quality management: making sure everyone will be happy with results
  • Project human resource management: effective use of those involved
  • Project communications management: keeping everyone in the loop
  • Project risk management: identifying, analyzing, and responding
  • Project procurement management: acquiring equipment from outside
  • Project stakeholder management: identifying stakeholders and keeping abreast of their needs and expectations

No wonder, Schwalbe notes, found that 44 percent of U.S. employers listed project management as a skill they looked for in new college graduates, behind only communication and technical skills.

It’s a weapon nurse managers need.

“Despite being expected to act as change agents and leaders of both small and large projects, many nurse managers aren’t instructed in the formal practice of project management,” Stanley and Malone conclude.

“Gaining a greater understanding of project management may streamline or facilitate more effective change at all levels of nursing and health care, allowing nurse managers to play a greater part in initiating change projects and manage them with confidence and competence.”

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