Accelerated learning techniques in project management education
Michelle LaBrosse,CEO,Cheetah Learning LLC (PMI REP)
In an information-driven world, moving quickly in business is vital. Pundits speak of an Internet year taking only one-month. Others have declared that what used to take a decade can now be accomplished in a year. Business professionals need a simple approach for launching their ideas, initiatives, and projects. They need one consistent way to launch projects so they can spend their time getting their work done, rather than each project team member using a unique way of planning how to get that work done. They need a project management process that enables them to think, react, and change fast.
Using Accelerated Learning techniques to teach project management works for today's fast-paced environment. Project teams need a fast way of coming to consensus on customer requirements, project scope, project schedules, and project budgets with a process that is simple and reliable. Fifty percent of all product failures are attributed to poor project management—many project teams have not adequately undertaken the necessary activities for project management because those activities have been time consuming,without the perceived return on time invested. Project teams to quickly launch their projects can also use the accelerated learning techniques that are used to teach project management.
Simply being fast today is not enough.Businesses must also get to their target markets before the competition does. Increasing the speed at which people learn is only part of it—improving retention, that is to say their ability to implement immediately that, which they learn, is equally critical.Creating new skills and having them become habits to be used instinctively are the keys to responding fast to changing market forces.Accelerated learning provides a mechanism to ensure, what is taught, is quickly learned and easy to apply. Accelerated Project Management Base Camp is a one-day course developed using accelerated learning techniques. It was designed to develop habits that can be used instinctively to respond fast to new opportunities using proven project management methodologies.
In the sections that follow, you'll see a brief history of accelerated learning and its benefits. How it was applied to project management training and the results from the initial research developing the program and the subsequent applications in a variety of industrial applications.
Accelerated Learning—What Is It?
Accelerated learning is a proven way to teach people new skills …
• In a way that will improve their retention and their ability to apply the new knowledge
• So they can rapidly use what they've learned
• To benefit their projects and ultimately their customers.
Accelerated learning was pioneered over 40 years ago in the teaching of foreign languages. It has since been applied to a wide variety of fields in business and in academia. The military has used it to rapidly train people in a variety of areas. It uses a combination of teaching principles to make the learner comfortable and create an environment where participation produces learning almost without any conscious effort on the learner's part. Actually, an accelerated learning program looks like the participants are playing a game and not actively engaged in a typical learning event.
There is a lengthy testing and revision process of courses developed with accelerated learning methods to assure that every technique used achieves the desired learning outcomes for the participants. The environment is tightly scripted in courses using accelerated learning to assure that participants leave with a high level of competency.
Application to Project Management Education
The one-day project management course that we developed using accelerated learning principles teaches a simple project management process—that some call project management “lite” or just enough project management. With the simplified, accelerated approach, it makes it easy for project teams to develop:
• Better teaming relationships due to a shared understanding of how to get things done
• Better distribution of work amongst team members'work by an understanding of what it is going to take to create specific deliverables
• The right team by having the right people working on the right tasks based on their skills
• A documented agreement between the team members and with the project sponsor on the scope of the project and a mechanism for adjusting the project based on changing requirements
• A better understanding of the resources necessary to accomplish the tasks to create the deliverable thus preventing cost overruns and slipped deadlines
• Coordination between other projects on sharing joint resources.
The project management launch methodology the author developed over a 15-year career doing project launch and project disaster recovery facilitation fit in well with the accelerated learning principles to create the one-day course. It uses a technique adopted from process mapping facilitation to quickly help the project teams come to consensus on:
• Customers’ needs, requirements, and acceptance criteria
• Business case for pursuing their project
• Teaming protocols
• Processes needed to create their deliverables
• Conflicts facing their project
• Significant milestones of the projects and the reviews necessary
• Risks facing the completion of their deliverables
• Timing of their deliverables’ completion
• Dependencies of their respective deliverables
• Tasks needed to complete their deliverables
• Resources (labor and budget) needed to produce their deliverables.
Accelerated Learning Framework
To teach this approach, techniques were adopted from accelerated learning augmented with Gardner's work on multiple intelligences. Exhibit one shows the mind map of the approaches used to develop an accelerated learning framework for teaching project management.
There are three main elements of this accelerated learning framework—keeping people safe (based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs), focus on improving retention, and having multiple learning modes for people to grasp the concepts.
Keeping People Safe
The key to people's success with accelerated learning is in their participation that leads to self-discovery of the basic project management learning objectives.However, the simulations created to accelerate learning push the boundaries for many people. In order to be psychologically prepared to participate, the course is structured to ensure the participants basic needs are met.
As outlined in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, people need to have their basic needs met in order to reach higher levels of self-actualization. We use this hierarchy in structuring the course so people can reach the optimal state of self-actualization through self-discovery. Illustrated below is each of the hierarchical needs with examples of how that need is addressed in the construction of the project management course.
Physiological Needs—In Maslow's book Motivation and Personality, the first need he identifies in his hierarchy is fundamental physiology—food, water, oxygen, etc. Anything the physical organism needs to survive. Very fundamental life or death needs. In the course we provide food throughout the day, ensure that there are comfort breaks every hour, take care in ensuring the physical space is comfortable, and prepare people ahead of time for the course by recommending they get adequate rest.
Safety Needs—The second of Maslow's hierarchical needs is safety—according to Maslow, “If the physiological needs are relatively well gratified, there then emerges a new set of needs, which we may categorize roughly as the safety needs (security; stability; dependency; protection; freedom from fear, anxiety, and chaos; need for structure, order, law, and limits; strength in the protector; and so on).” In the course, we develop the course structure, explain the course structure in our precourse preparations, explain the course structure at the beginning of class and have several props in the class for continual referral regarding the course structure. Additionally—we use an emotional gradient t-up for every new activity—this ensures that people feel psychologically ready to participate in the upcoming activity. All this is done to ensure that people's second need for safety is met prior to moving forward.
Belonging Needs—The third of Maslow's hierarchical needs is for belonging and love—according to Maslow, “If both the physiological and the safety needs are fairly well gratified, there will emerge the love and affection and belongingness needs, and the whole cycle already described will repeat itself with this new center. The love needs involve giving and receiving affection. When they are unsatisfied, a person will feel keenly the absence of friends, mate, or children. Such a person will hunger for relations with people in general—for a place in the group or family—and will strive with great intensity to achieve this goal. Attaining such a place will matter more than anything else in the world and he or she may even forget that once, when hunger was foremost, love seemed unreal, unnecessary, and unimportant. Now the pangs of loneliness, ostracism, rejection, friendlessness, and rootless ness are preeminent.” In the course, to address the need for belonging we have the participants in teams the entire day. To create an affinity for their team, we have them competing with the other teams. Also, we have them selecting personas that are part of the simulation, very early in the day. The personas have quirky personality characteristics (these are developed based on personality types for the industry with whom we are working). The personas create an environment where the participants create a number of shared jokes about their characters. Situational, and shared humor further enables the participants to feel an affiliation to their team and increases their sense of belonging.
Esteem Needs—The fourth of Maslow's hierarchical needs is esteem—according to Maslow, “All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, usually high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. These needs may therefore be classified into two subsidiary sets. These are, first, the desire for strength, achievement, adequacy, mastery and competence, confidence in the face of the world, and independence and freedom. Second, we have what we may call the desire for reputation or prestige (defining it as respect or esteem from other people), status, fame and glory, dominance, recognition, attention, importance, dignity, or appreciation.”
“Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability, and adequacy, of being useful and necessary in the world. But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness, and of helplessness.”
“The most stable and therefore most healthy self-esteem is based on deserved respect from others rather than on external fame or celebrity and unwarranted adulation.”
The way the course is structure does several things to meet the esteem need. The first one is with finding out in the precourse preparations what people think they do well with project management and what they want to improve (their esteem need is therefore met as a prerequisite of the class). The second element to meet the esteem need is with the personas the participants select as part of being engaged in the simulation. The persona aspect of the course is introduced by finding out where people's expertise lies in their particular field. They are then told that they are going to build off this expertise to develop an expertise in project management. And one of the premises of accelerated learning to being an expert is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, the personas are constructed to be some element of an expert in project management. The last thing we do is to help people ground themselves in their true expertise throughout the course further developing their self-esteem so they are more open to self-discovering project management concepts that may be new to them. Exhibit two shows a model called the awareness vs. knowledge grid. As noted in Maslow's last quote—stable esteem is based on deserved respect rather than on unwarranted adulation. Many people unwittingly think there is absolutely nothing to project management—and because they have achieved a level of respect and mastery in one field they deserve the respect in the project management arena as well—even though they may not have demonstrated consistent competence in the project management arena.Many people are unconsciously incompetent—they are not aware of what they don't know with respect to project management (quadrant three). Likewise, there are many people who are also unconsciously competent—they aren't aware they know so much about project management (quadrant four). People operating in quadrants three and four are not operating in stable self-esteem. Through participating in the course simulation, they move up to quadrants one and two—they self-discover areas where they have mastery and areas where they know they need to learn more.
Self-Actualization Needs—The last need in Maslow's hierarchy is self-actualization—“Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he or she, individually, is fitted for. Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What humans can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature. This need we may call self-actualization.”
We use this last need in the premise of learning. When people are learning, they are in a mode of discovery. Self-discovery leads itself to the highest level of learning—when people are self-actualizing their innate growth. By meeting the earlier needs with the course structure and the simulation, people are open to self-discovery and the pace of their learning is accelerated.
When constructing a course using accelerated learning techniques, there are a number of elements that are done to improve retention. Exhibit one shows the four main areas where we use the course structure to improve retention. The first area is with creating the course scenario. People remember by making links to what they already know. Creating metaphors develops strong links from new concepts to “old themes.” In creating project management simulations to teach project management for specific industries, great care is taken to develop the scenario of the simulation. The first criteria for the simulation scenario is that the simulation needs to be close enough to their day-to-day projects, but far out enough so they won't get caught up in the technical nuances of setting up the project. The scenarios are also developed to stimulate humor amongst the project teams since laughing is a very strong mnemonic.
The other two elements of the course to improve retention are in the way the whole day is structured. People remember the most at the beginning and endings of sections. Therefore, the course is arranged in eight, one-hour-long modules. And within those hour-long modules there are four rituals that happen. The rituals in and of themselves improve retention, but also add to the beginnings and endings phenomena. Each module has a T-Up—this is where the participants are engaged in a question and answer session to establish their preparedness for the module's activities. Once all the participants are prepared to participate in the module's activity, then they are given instructions for the activity and allowed as a group to work through the activity. Once they are done with the activity, then they go through a debrief period where they answer questions about their discoveries during the activity—individually and as a team. The last ritual of every module is the segue—where the current module is briefly linked to the next module and the participants are given a time for Q&A and a break.
A Note About Improvisational Comedy
While developing this accelerated learning framework to teach project management, an ancillary effect of the approach used was that it created an environment where improvisational comedy was the norm amongst the participants. At first it was presumed that the early participants were just by their nature funny. As more and more groups participated, it was obvious that the course structure stimulated the improvisational comedy. It worked to improve retention since laughing is a strong mnemonic and people laugh the most at their own jokes. It also worked to increase the participant's feeling of belonging. It was an accidental by product of the accelerated learning framework for teaching project management, not an initial conscious creation.
Using Multiple Learning Modalities
The framework of the course was designed for people to be able to self-discover the project management concepts through many different learning venues. The premise of Gardner's work on Multiple Intelligences is that all people can learn from different intelligence domains, but some have an easier time learning or are more dominant, in one intelligence over another. The way this course was developed, there are opportunities to learn the project management concepts from many intelligence domains. Exhibit one shows the multiple learning modalities used in the accelerated framework for teaching project management. Many of the elements here also tie into accelerated learning theory.
Musical—The first learning modality listed on the mind map in exhibit one is musical. This also addresses one of the premises of accelerated learning—classical, baroque, and romance music can stimulate different aspects of the brain and make it easier to learn new concepts. Various classical, baroque, and romance musical selections are played during the numerous activities done throughout the course. Each one is selected based on the type of activity and the level of engagement of the participants. Music is also used to ground people in the rituals with the course—during the breaks, theme music that is related to the simulation scenario is played. Starting the theme music signifies the ending of the “structured” learning and the beginning of the break. Stopping the theme music signifies the end of break and the beginning of the next module.
Kinesthetic—People learn by doing hands on manipulative activities. The course starts out with a ballgame to teach the concept of procedural knowledge and how to create solid project management “instincts.” That gets everyone moving and realizing that there will be a large kinesthetic component to learning the material. Additionally, the teams record all their agreements on the wall. As the course progresses, the participants move between their team space, on the wall, and their team table. They create their project plans; do risk assessment and quantification, scheduling, and budgeting with a series of kinesthetic activities on their wall templates. The last element of kinesthetic learning happens at the ending of the breaks—part of the break “ritual” is stretching exercises that the participants lead themselves. The stretching gives an opportunity to rejuvenate and relax—a critical element of accelerated learning.
Logical and Spatial—The course uses a color-coded system with post-its that the project team participants use to build up their project plans and schedules. There is a logical progression how they use their color-coded post-its and by the time the scheduling section is done, they can see the clear step-by-step progression of how to launch a project. It becomes an immediate aha for the participants and brings alive the project management concepts they self-discover participating in the simulation.
Linguistic—This type of learning happens where people learn by communicating. In the course linguistic learning happens through writing, brainstorming in their teams, and in presenting the team's work to the other teams. Each team participant is involved in the writing and the brainstorming and they self-select the level of presentation participation—with ample opportunity for presentation for all those inclined to participate in learning through that realm.
Mathematical—People who learn through mathematical expression get cued into the learning objectives through the very way the course is structured. Every activity and the breaks in the course are timed. Participants who are mathematically oriented learn many of the fundamental team dynamic concepts because of this timing. They are motivated toward completion the project management task at hand through effectively working with their teammates because of the focus on the timing measurement. This heightens their awareness of the project management task at hand, of the importance of sharing team leadership roles, of engaging in positive conflict resolution steps, and of setting appropriate team guidelines. Additionally, learning through mathematical expression is an aspect of estimation in budgeting and in manipulating the schedules based on the dependencies.
Intrapersonal—This learning is represented by how well someone understands himself or herself. At the end of every module, there is a debrief of the activity in that module. Adults learn and retain what they learned by reflecting on what they experienced. Participants are asked to reflect on four questions as part of that debrief:
1. What did you feel doing the activity? (When you link a learning experience to an emotion, it improves the retention of the learning experience).
2. What happened when you did the activity?
3. What did you learn doing the activity?
4. How are you going to use this?
Interpersonal—This is where people learn through their participation with other people. In the course, the participants are in a team-based simulation the entire day so they can take advantage of interpersonal learning.
Emotional—We are all emotional beings and emotions can stimulate or block learning. One of the strongest emotional catalysts for learning is competition. In the class the teams are competing with each other based on timing of the activities, coming back in time from the breaks, and with an end of the class simulation of executing their project plans. This competition element keeps people focused on participating in the simulation—if not for themselves—then for their teammates. It's been found that people will do the right thing because they want to protect their teammates more so than it's the right thing for them to do. This fact is used also to stimulate the motivation through competition amongst the teams.
While there is a great deal of background work that goes into crafting an accelerated learning project management simulation, it is transparent to the participants. The feedback received from a number of former course participants was that they were surprised they had so much fun and they were amazed how much they learned. They report back that it is easy to implement what they have learned back in their work environments on projects within their circle of influence. Since the participants have password protected access to downloadable customized project management templates on the course website, it's also noted that 90% of course participants access the templates for later use. This approach to teach project management is unconventional from the standard classroom approaches used today. However, it's been proven highly effective for a wide spectrum audience—people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience levels.
Gardner, Howard. 1993, March. Multiple Intelligences—The Theory in Practice. Basic Books.
Maslow, Abraham. 1987. Motivation and Personality, 3rd Edition. Addison-Wesley Publishing, Co.
Rose, Colin. 1985. Accelerated Learning. Accelerated Learning Systems.
Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville,Tenn.,USA