Practice versus Experience

by Geof Lory

In my last article, I compared experience and practice and referenced project management simulations as an extremely effective method of training. Simulations are effective because they allow teams to practice both the hard and soft skills of project management by compressing 20+ weeks of experiential learning into a few days. This repetitive approach, simulating a week's worth of work with each iteration, affords the opportunity to stop a team at key points throughout the project to do a status report and assess learning.

One of the goals of this exercise is to extract and report from the simulation the project's metrics: schedule, budget, scope and quality. This is both reasonably easy and highly empirical. We also use this exercise to encourage the individuals to reflect on how they are performing as a project management team. In software development we call this a milestone review, a chance to catch our breath and reflect on where we are at and how we are doing as individuals on a development team.

The dynamics of creating and presenting a status report to executive management (which is the scenario I create for this exercise) reveals interesting insights into the organization's culture and people. As different as the presentations are, several things are common in almost all status reports:

  1. Most status reports illustrate a point in time and miss the importance of trend data.
  2. Few organizations and inexperienced project managers have a common frame of reference for what constitutes a project in trouble.
  3. Most teams can explain or create excuses for why they are in trouble, but are not as driven to create an actionable plan to remedy the situation.
  4. In spite of what is said as most important at the onset of the project, making the scheduled date is always the most important because for most organizations it is the most easily measured criteria for success or failure.
I was recently guiding a simulation (in our simulations instructors are called guides because it is a more appropriate description of what we actually do) at the same time parent/teacher conferences were occurring for my two high school daughters. While I was out of town, my wife, Beth, handled getting the girls ready for conferences. As we talked on the phone and she shared with me some of the pre-work that the girls had done, I began to draw a strong correlation between the parent/teacher conferences and the process of conducting a milestone review.

Here's the process we use. A week before conferences, Beth prints off our school conference form for each of the girls and has them each record four simple things:

  1. What grade they think they are getting in each class (a column is left blank for the actual grade if different)
  2. Any specific comments about that particular class/grade/teacher
  3. What they are doing in their classes that is working well for them overall
  4. What they plan to change or do differently in their classes for the next quarter
These forms are then used during the discussions with the girls and their teachers (yes, the girls do attend conferences with us), where the actual grades are plugged in and any additional suggestions from the teachers are added.

I have to admit, Beth's suggestion of initiating this process was not comfortable for me, or for the girls. Even some of the teachers were taken back but pleased by the deliberate nature of the conversations and documenting the agreed to next steps (which often included a commitment by both the student and the teacher). But now this process has become second nature; the girls even remind us to print out the form. The tone of the conferences has moved from contestable to an opportunity to learn, even when that has meant the girls have had to make commitments to change behaviors that were comfortable but were not be getting them closer to their goals. What moved this quarterly process from an exercise in accusations and defense to one of learning had a lot to do with how the process was set up and how the "acquired data" was managed after the fact.

This is where milestone reviews are similar. Most milestone reviews and post project reviews (the final milestone review often appropriately called a postmortem) can be filled with contest. They tend to bring out the defensive side of participants who have already been designated as the guilty parties to be flogged as sacrificial lambs to management. You cannot ignore -- nor is it wise to -- the documented facts of the team's performance against the iron triangle of schedule/budget/scope. However, beating team members over the head with it rarely promotes the change in behavior management believes it will. It doesn't work for children so why would it work for adults? Our motivations are not that different.

The most positive and productive approach I've seen begins with creating a safe environment. By using a familiar form for key information, both objective (grades) and subjective (their comments), this tells the team two things. First, your performance is being measured, and second, we are interested in and value your perspective. Most of all, this approach focuses on the future by letting them know we want them do their best, and that they are the major architects and builders in creating their success.

With this similar foundation of safety established for the girl's school conferences, we are now better positioned for deliberate learning. It is usually a short drive home, so Beth and I try to refrain from ad hoc analysis in the car and allow the girls to formulate their plan on their own. Once home, we work to create the action plan. A section at the bottom of the form is left blank specifically for this purpose. Here we work together with each daughter to create just 1-3 tangible and measurable action items that she is willing to commit to for the next quarter, and which we all agree to support.

I have been a part of many milestone reviews where the action plan sounds something like "we need to work smarter not harder." This is certainly a great idea, but hardly an action plan. We never let the girls get away with this because none of us would know how to measure or support it. Goals are necessary to provide direction, but measurable and specific action items provide the daily concrete guidance that creates change in behavior. Without action items, success hangs on wishful thinking and optimism.

Whether guiding simulations or managing real projects, I don't let project teams get away with such a vague approach either. Together we deliberately document action items and assign resources, deliverables and due dates (my three basic requirements of an action item), and then we can track each item's progress. At home, the conference form is posted on the refrigerator, right next to the family calendar.

To further create a learning environment, this review process uses a protocol for giving and getting feedback called The Perfection Game. It is extremely effective at creating a positive environment and forward focus for improvement. In my next article I will address The Perfection Game in detail.

Until then, may you experience lots of learning in the New Year.

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