Project Management Insights: an Interview with Professor Adel Zadeh
By CYNTHIA MACNEIL
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
Professor Adel Zadeh is approaching his second year with Northeastern’s Toronto campus as both a teaching professor and curriculum developer for the Master of Science in Project Management program. Before becoming an industry expert in project management, Prof. Zadeh had a successful geotechnical and environmental engineering career. Over time, his interests shifted from engineering and design to construction management. While managing and overseeing construction projects, he saw the tangible impact of project management. Whether the success outcomes were measured by meeting deadlines, remaining in scope, or staying within the pre-assigned budget, he observed how vital project management was to reaching success, especially from a stakeholder perspective.
Prof. Zadeh consulted on numerous projects and spent several years teaching project management at Ontario colleges before joining Northeastern University’s Toronto campus. He is also the current Director of Academia at PMI Toronto, the Project Management Institute’s second-largest global chapter with 5,700 active members. He’s taken time out of his busy schedule to share how he got involved in teaching and curriculum development, his advice for anyone looking to become a better project manager, and the trends he hopes to see emerging in project management education.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How has your role with Northeastern grown and evolved since you first joined?
There were three instructors and about 20 students in the MS in Project Management program when I started. Now we have two full-time and 15 part-time instructors supporting 300 students each quarter. That’s a considerable increase for the Project Management program. In addition to teaching, I’m now involved with supporting the Cooperative education and Experiential Learning Network (XN) departments. For example, we’re teaming up to determine how to best assist students with their job search and help them to find internships and co-op opportunities. I’ve also supported the faculty lead by interviewing and hiring all instructors in Toronto. So it’s been quite challenging and rewarding to work in a growing team. We launched the program for on-ground students in Toronto quite recently, in April 2020. And now we need to help these students communicate and connect with industry here in Toronto. We have more resources coming to our local campus, which is very exciting. These days, if Toronto students have any questions about the program, we have advisors right here in Toronto. We’re building a team and promoting a program from the ground up. I’m the kind of person that I really like that sort of challenge. It’s really like starting a new project from scratch. And now we are almost there—wow!
How did you begin shaping the Project Management curriculum?
I got a request from an Ontario college to develop a two-year program for construction engineering. Though it was not for project management specifically, we had several project management courses. I was coordinating a team of curriculum developers. The intent was to have numerous courses defined and developed to prepare students for a construction technician or project coordinator skill set. It was exciting to see how curriculum overlaps with industry needs—to understand recent advancements in the field and to prepare students for those skill sets accordingly. Matching industry demands with education and getting insights on what is required is very interesting to me. Later, I developed a four-year Bachelor in Construction Management for another college in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
“It was exciting to see how curriculum overlaps with industry needs—to understand recent advancements in the field and prepare students for those skill sets accordingly.”
You’ve consulted on numerous projects. What’s the biggest or most common project management challenge you’ve witnessed teams run into??
One of the main questions students ask me is, “What is the most required skill for project managers?” I always say “communication.” The recurring challenge I’ve seen is not having clear communication with key stakeholders—especially those with high impact and low interest—that is to say, someone with considerable influence (impact) but less concern for the final outcome (low interest). In so many cases, it was not investing enough time to identify the key stakeholders at the beginning of the projects. This results in miscommunication and conflict. Corrective measures and completing the work can sometimes be very costly because managers did not involve key stakeholders and identify precisely what those parties want to accomplish. It’s about asking questions like “Do we understand why we are going with these specifications?” or “Who asked for these requirements?” Formally, this is all part of having a requirement management plan. This is a step that not enough project managers take seriously. They might go directly to budget planning, scheduling, and the scope–not investing enough time to identify those stakeholders.
Whether you’re an official project manager on a team or someone who needs to self-manage, what else is critical on top of communication skills?
I’ve been a guest speaker about emotional intelligence at several schools here in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). It’s not easy, but working on emotional intelligence improves communication, relationships with people, and your decision-making process. The first step is self-awareness—challenging yourself and understanding: “Why did I make that decision?” or “What makes me frustrated with my team members?” Evaluating and challenging yourself over and over results in a better understanding of yourself. If you’ve made a not-so-great decision, you can figure out why and not repeat it the next time. We have emotional intelligence theory and suggested reading material, but what we need is practice. It’s about building relationships with your team members. Students often come to me and ask, “Why do we have this many team assignments in one course?” And I say, “It’s practice.” When you enter a workplace organization, you cannot select your team members. Instead, you’re assigned to a project, and you need to learn how you can work with different people. You can read dozens of books about emotional intelligence, but really, it’s about practicing self-evaluation.
Which trends do you hope to see rising in project management education?
I’m seeing project managers shift from focusing heavily on execution to being leaders who can connect with their company’s vision and mission. Emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills—these are essential skills that I see coming to the forefront of project management—not only from the perspective of educators—it’s what I’m hearing from businesses. There is so much more to project management than technical skills, that is, scheduling, budgeting, and so forth. What we have going at Northeastern is unique in terms of mixing theory with practice. We’re connecting with industries and providing students with an opportunity to practice what they’ve learned. It’s more of a hands-on experience. We’re also connecting with the software companies making the latest project management apps and tools. More and more often, software companies like Autodesk BIM360 and BlueBeam Revu are offering free licenses for students and educators to use. Overall, it’s a big emphasis on workplace readiness.
“Emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills—these are essential skills that I see coming to the forefront of project management—not only from the perspective of educators—it’s what I’m hearing from businesses.”
Learn more about Canada’s only project management Master of Science program with experiential learning here.
Adel Zadeh is an associate teaching professor in the Project Management program. A civil engineering and project management educator and consultant with more than 10 years of experience, Dr. Zadeh has managed complex public/private construction projects including planning, estimating, engineering, procurement and construction. He is a certified Project Management Professional and accredited LEED BD+C (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – Building Design and Construction). Dr. Zadeh’s research and teaching focus on organizational transformation, construction management, sustainability initiatives in green building construction, and how sustainability trends impact the building and construction industry. He previously served as program director and lecturer at a number of colleges in Ontario, teaching and supervising students in advanced project management and strategic leadership, construction management and engineering, and applied research. He is the director of the Toronto chapter of the Project Management Institute. Dr. Zadeh lives in the greater Toronto area and teaches in Toronto and online.