Succeed at Project Management Training

Jan. 11, 2012
Choosing the right techniques is key.

So you've done your homework, identified that your project personnel can benefit from project management training and even received approval to roll it out. Now, it's your responsibility as the sponsor of this training to do everything in your power to make the training as beneficial, effective and enjoyable for the attendees as possible.

A large part of being a good project manager is interacting and communicating with other people. So, improving communication should be a primary objective of any project management training.

Numerous training delivery methods are in use today — including virtual classrooms, computer- and web-based training, and webinars — with variations introduced each year. One tried-and-tested method, facilitator-led reality-based training, offers several benefits for training project management personnel:

• dedicated and focused learning time without interruption from day-to-day activities;
• peer interaction, networking and shared experiences;
• ability of the instructor to adapt the delivery of the subject matter to the specific attendees' interest and project specifics; and
• immediate feedback from the instructor to the attendees.

In addition, the organization's allowing people the time demonstrates the importance placed on the training.

Facilitator-led training typically takes place in a large room with one or more instructors working with attendees grouped into teams, to create a real-life project environment. This spurs interaction both informally and through formal situations like workshops and exercises.

A reality-based environment (reflecting engineering, procurement and construction) is key to effective project management training. Creating such an environment while remaining in a classroom setting requires using hands-on interactive activities to reinforce the content delivered in presentations (e.g., via flip charts or PowerPoint slides). This enables the attendees to apply what they've learned to actual scenarios. These learning activities typically are called workshops or exercises. The sessions take an attendee or team member through a real-life project from its inception to hand-over to the end user. Each progressive workshop provides the attendee with information typically available at that stage. These exercises allow the attendee to practice selected aspects of project management at appropriate times during the project planning and execution phases.

Workshops typically аrе designed for teams of four to six people. These teams answer questions, analyze and solve a problem or sometimes work together to synthesize information so they can reach an outcome. At the start of a workshop, the facilitator details the workshop learning outcomes and then provides support and guidance to the teams during the session to assist them in achieving the outcomes.

Workshops are most effective when the situations or scenarios are based on real-life work activities the attendees see on a daily basis. Using actual ongoing or completed company projects works best. Learning how to perform in a "safe" environment an activity relevant to an attendee's job function tends to make the person pay closer attention, bе more receptive to the training, and interact more frequently and more positively with team members and fellow attendees. Attendees instantly саn see hοw their learning will benefit thеіr day-to-day jobs; thе impact οn productivity іѕ almost immediate.

For most facilitator-led training events, I recommend that workshops make up at least 40% of the time. However, project management training deserves more workshop time, 50%–70% of the total, because of the high degree of communication needed and the constant interaction a project manager encounters every day.

You can incorporate four different workshop techniques:

1. Team-oriented workshops. These are especially important in project management training. Such workshops offer an opportunity for individuals to apply learning through a team experience right in the classroom. Providing a safe environment to test and apply learned behaviors will spur attendees to push the limits of their creativity and to try alternatives they otherwise wouldn't consider. "Learning by doing" or hands-on learning has been proven to increase retention of information. The peer interaction that inevitably occurs helps build collegiality, encourages examination of multiple points of view, points up there may be more than one right answer to a problem, and enhances listening and cooperation skills.

This technique often is used when trying to demonstrate how a team dynamic should function in a real-life situation. Team members get the opportunity to experience the benefit of addressing a project situation and assessing alternative solutions through team interfaces. It also can demonstrate the impact a project manager has in this team environment.

2. Case study workshops. These detail a situation or event that contains some type of problem or issue — and typically are based on organization-specific examples. By using a relevant project, the attendees can quickly relate to the situation and understand the problem. This is critical so that they can focus on how to use the learned principles to help solve the problem. Such case studies also provide opportunities to think about application and practice, not just theory. They help with the development and application of critical thinking and problem-solving skills and encourage attention to, and self-consciousness about, assumptions and conceptions.

This technique is extremely effective for rolling out company or industry lessons learned. Most organizations strive to incorporate project-related lessons learned into their project delivery work process, but many struggle in getting these lessons back out to the project teams. Case studies provide an opportunity for the attendees to see what was done well, what was done wrong and how things can be done better.

3. Scenario-based workshops. These involve providing attendees with a problem or "what-if" issue that may have expected or unexpected impacts on the project. This technique helps to develop higher-level problem-solving skills, promote analytical thinking, provide an opportunity to synthesize previous learning into a single combined learning experience, reinforce and build upon previous team-building skills, stimulate an engaging learning experience for the attendees and foster positive competitiveness among team members and teams. Such workshops are extremely effective for advanced project management training — because they help train project managers to "think on their feet" and react to different situations by analyzing and taking into account multiple data points from a variety of project and organizational stakeholders.

Most organizations handle many aspects of project management very well. However, because there are so many aspects to address, they often tend to fail through omission rather than commission, i.e., overlooking something rather than executing it poorly. This learning technique enables the facilitation team to target problem areas while accentuating what already is done well.

4. Role-playing workshops. Here, attendees take on a role and act out specified behaviors related to that role. The technique helps develop greater involvement with the issues and deeper knowledge. Behavior during the activity is a good indicator of how well someone understands and can apply what's learned. Role-playing also allows attendees to hone skills in an environment where mistakes have no real-world consequences. A person can practice a part of an actual skill to be learned, which may lead to quicker mastery of that skill. Such workshops also help foster empathy for others on the project team and a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

Attendees may benefit from taking on a role that they impact or that impacts them. This allows them to appreciate how others view their role in the project team, better respect others' roles, and see first-hand how their actions affect others. Often, attendees are asked to play the "other side" in a project dispute or claim or the end user.

Knowing when and where to build these techniques into the training may seem challenging but it's not as difficult as you may think. It's always a good idea to use a blended approach. For example, an organization looking to make the skill set of its project professionals more well rounded might choose the role-playing and team-oriented training techniques. However, if the goal is to disseminate project management lessons learned, it might select the case-study and scenario-based techniques.

Using combinations of training methods and workshop techniques gives you a better chance of keeping your audience engaged and interested in the information you are trying to convey, thereby increasing retention.

So, the simple answer is to include as many of the techniques as possible into each training session. Time available will determine what's realistic. For instance, in one-day courses, which include roughly six hours of training, it may be impossible to accommodate four workshops. When designing any facilitator-led training session, you may want to consider a few factors before deciding when and where to use the four techniques:

• training duration and workshop timing;
• number of attendees;
• classroom size;
• proficiency of attendees in the subject matter; and
• subject matter.

Typically role-playing and scenario-based workshops take more time — for set up, to allow attendees to understand the situation and to provide each attendee with feedback.

The rule of thumb is to dedicate at least 60–90 minutes and, in some instances, up to two hours for any workshop. This assumes a class size of 16 to 24. Keep in mind that the key to a successful learning experience is the feedback attendees receive from the instructor and other team and class members. So when planning your training event and workshops, build in enough time for plenty of team interaction and individual one-on-one feedback from the instructor.

In addition, to make your workshops successful, avoid a few common mistakes:

• allowing too little time;
• not providing enough information for attendees to understand the scenario or situation;
• giving too much information, which makes the workshop unrealistic;
• not having clear training objectives and workshop learning outcomes;
• putting too many or too few attendees on each team (four to six is ideal);
• getting minimal or limited feedback from each attendee; and
• covering subject matter unrelated to the topic covered in the lecture.

Facilitator-led training techniques can improve project management skills. Training attendees will be receptive, engaged and focused, interact more with peers and instructors, and improve communication and cooperation skills. Using real-world situations will allow attendees to fine-tune their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, practice "thinking on their feet," and analyze and react to issues from a variety of project and organizational stakeholders. A good training facilitator, whose courses and programs are practical, relevant and based on attendees' real projects, will send project management personnel back to their jobs with the ability to immediately apply what they have learned.

JAMES CHIARELLO is general manager of the International Project Management Academy at Pathfinder, LLC, Cherry Hill, N.J. E-mail him at [email protected].

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