The learning project organization

Abstract

We live in a dynamic, ever-changing world. Project objectives, requirements, and collaboration rules are subject to change, performance levels may fluctuate, and even the vision may vary. Knowing this is one thing. Doing something about it is another thing. One of the prerequisites for project success is to actively create a culture of learning. This article sheds light on project organizations and how they contribute to creating a learning culture for all projects in its organization.

The Need for a Learning Culture

We live in a dynamic, ever-changing world. We know that we can expect lots of changes in long-lasting projects. This is common sense. The same applies to the statement that we make mistakes and that knowing everything is an illusion. But, if we already know all this, why is it then that reflection, learning, and plan adjustments are not common practices in so many projects? Maybe it is not common sense after all, that learning is important in life and thus in projects.

Objectives, requirements, and collaboration rules are subject to change, performance levels may fluctuate, and even project visions may vary. Knowing this is one thing. Doing something about it is another thing. Do not fool yourself—you cannot account for every possible change! Indeed, it would be foolish to try to prepare for every single circumstance. Developing plans for every possible situation does not reduce uncertainty; it may give you some idea of what you could do, but there is no guarantee that it will work. We cannot foresee the future. A plan, therefore, can serve only as a road map, which itself is subject to change.

One of the keys in adapting to change is that you realize the need to do so in the first place. This involves reflecting and learning. If, on the other hand, you stick to a static plan without looking left or right, chances are great that your projects will be doomed for failure. Corollary, one of the prerequisites for project success is to actively create a culture of learning. It is an environment in which people are open for new ideas while at the same time staying focused on achieving their project visions. They are eager to learn something new, improve existing processes, and find new and better ways and means to achieving project objectives. It is an environment in which project teams are not punished when they make mistakes. Making mistakes is normal and is a pivotal element in the learning process. The key is that project teams are capable of learning from mistakes and mastering change. From this perspective, learning is a central element in securing project success.

This article sheds light on what it takes to cultivate learning in your project organization, whether it be the organization of a single or multiple projects. It starts with delineating critical success factors for a learning project organization. It then describes a number of pragmatic tools and approaches that help create a learning culture in your project organization. This is followed by a brief discussion of common obstacles to learning and creating a learning culture. Mastering such challenges helps reap the benefits of a learning project organization. This is explained in the last part of the article.

Critical Success Factors for a Learning Project Organization

Creating a learning culture cannot happen overnight; it needs to be developed and nurtured so that it can evolve into a dynamic, learning, and innovative organization. That’s why it is important that you come up with ways and means to cultivate learning from the very first day you start your project. This holds true for individual projects as well as programs consisting of several projects. Let’s take a look at a number of critical success factors for a learning project organization.

Build a Common Project Vision of and for Your Project Organization

The first and probably the foremost thing you have to do for your project organization, as a whole as well as for individual projects, is to build a common vision. You need to put your project organization into perspective. What is the purpose of the project organization and what is the driver for its existence? The vision of your project organization goes beyond the specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-boxed (SMART) objectives you try to achieve. The vision portrays a direction of the project organization in a way that people can relate to it. It sets the overall picture of your organization. The vision inspires your journey. It defines the purpose of your project. A prerequisite is that you and your teams know why the project organization was started in the first place. You and your teams need to find the answers to the following questions: What is the driver behind the endeavor? What are the issues it attempts to resolve? Who is affected by these issues and why? And, what would happen if these issues were or could not be resolved?

Understanding the motivation of a project organization constitutes the ground of its vision. The key to building vision is that that every person who is actively involved or affected by the project organization needs to be able to relate to the vision in their daily activities. Give them the chance to identify themselves with the vision. Involve them in building this vision and participate in making it real. This helps build rapport and the necessary buy-in from those people to realize the project.

Nurture Collaboration in Your Project Organization and Projects

Projects are not about individual accomplishments. Project teams deliver projects. Corollary, teams, and collaboration are central to a learning project organization. Effective leaders understand the value and huge potential of teamwork. This is why they actively nurture collaboration; they serve as role models and are parts of the team. They thus actively participate and contribute to teamwork for and within the project organization. Collaboration is necessary for the project organization to achieve its vision. By the same token, the vision must include the concept of collaboration. Collaboration is a means to achieving objectives and thus to come closer to achieving the vision. On the other hand, collaboration without common cause leads nowhere.

Nurturing collaboration can be hard at times. It takes a lot of effort and can be quite time consuming. The payoffs, however, are worth every minute invested. Having mutually understood and supported rules of engagement, which are characterized by open communication and effective collaboration, makes project life much easier. Once you have helped create an atmosphere of trust, team spirit, and fun, team synergy effects emerge. Magical things can happen, productivity increases, and the quality of the team’s deliverables is higher. Nurturing collaboration prepares the ground for performance on the individual and team levels. A project organization has to cultivate this soil of performance. This leads us to the next critical success factor for a learning project organization.

Promote Performance

Building vision and nurturing collaboration are prerequisites for a successful project organization. Alas, they are useless if you cannot move your teams to the performance stage. This is why you want to create an environment that helps promote performance. Lasting performance can be achieved. It takes practice, training, endurance, and a results-driven attitude toward project challenges to develop and sustain it.

Look at any sports team. Training (i.e., learning) is one of the key activities of the team. The goal is to become a better team. It culminates in performance on the day of the competition. The competition shows whether the preparation was good enough; it decides if the team’s performance is sufficient to ensure and deliver the desired results. Finding out that this is not the case can be valuable if there is another competition in the near future and the team can improve its performance the next time around. Once again, save for a very few exceptions, there cannot be performance without training or learning. Performance and project success do not fall from heaven. You have to prepare and work for them, learning from mistakes and failures. Find out how your teams can best perform, what is the most productive environment,and remove impediments that distract you and your teams from using your talents and showing your strengths.

Cultivate Learning on the Individual, Project, and Organizational Levels

Cultivating learning starts with the project organization, but it does not stop there! For learning and performance to yield the desired results, you have to involve your project teams. It is the responsibility of a project organization to help create a learning environment and culture in your teams. Set the expectation that you want everyone in your teams to join and support you. Empower your teams to perform, make mistakes, learn, and innovate. This helps reduce uncertainty as information flows more freely, people are not afraid of making mistakes because they see them as learning opportunities, and team members help. Promoting performance is an ongoing exercise as much as cultivating learning. Promoting performance and cultivating learning must go hand in hand. In fact, there cannot be lasting performance without learning, and there won’t be results without performance.

Ensure Ongoing Results

Ensuring results is not solely about final project deliverables. Instead, you want your projects to deliver interim results, giving them the chance to find out if they are still on track, adjust the direction if necessary, and learn from the feedback of the interim results. As such, ensuring the delivery of ongoing results offer excellent learning opportunities for everyone involved just at the end of each project but throughout the project life cycles.

Creating a Learning Culture in a Project Organization

As much as learning is a big area and creating a learning culture is an even bigger challenge, you can start out with simple steps, such as defining the learning standards for each project. Team synchronizations, status reporting, project reviews, and training measures serve as examples. Let’s take a look at each of them.

Team Synchronization

The team is the heart and soul of every project; as such, it is critical that every team member knows what the other team members are working on. Teams have to be synchronized. As complicated as this may sound it can easily be achieved. The project organization needs to ensure that every team synchronizes its activities on a regular basis. This may be on a daily or weekly basis, depending on the nature of the project. The following three questions define the structure of this meeting and need to be answered by each team member:

  1. What have you accomplished since the last sync round?
  2. What will you achieve until the next sync round?
  3. What impediments are you facing in your work?

Note that the questions don’t aim at finding out what the individual is working on; instead, they focus on results. Answering these questions should not take too long. As a matter of fact, in most cases such team sync meetings need not last longer than 15 minutes if conducted on a regular basis. It is not about requesting a work status. The purpose of team sync meetings is that every team member has an understanding of what has been achieved thus far. It is results oriented and serves the purpose of exchanging information within the team and thus learning from each other.

Status Reporting

One of the prerequisites of learning is the accessibility to information. This applies to both your core and extended project teams. The content you provide in project status reports is a sign of the amount and quality of information you are sharing with your team. It is a good snapshot of your project. As such, keep it simple and to the point. Next to an executive summary of the overall status of the project, list achieved milestones or key activities since the last report, any upcoming milestones or key activities, and the top issues and risks.

Keep the purpose of status reporting in mind. It is much more than a mere reporting tool. The mere act of preparing status reports should allow you and your teams to identify any discrepancies from the project objectives. The sooner you identify any potential gaps, the easier it is to realign your project. Asking the right questions will help you and your teams identify actual or potential discrepancies early on, giving you and your teams enough time to learn from your mistakes and move on. As such a status report fulfills the need of a learning tool. Don’t underestimate it.

Internal Project Reviews

A simple and pragmatic learning routine is to conduct regular feedback sessions with your project teams. You can have your teams conduct them daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on the nature of your project. The key question you want your teams to answer is what everyone has learned since the last feedback session. Personally, I like to start by asking everyone what is going well in our project, what we have to improve to secure project success, and how to do so.

There are a few things to keep in mind when you plan, prepare, and conduct review sessions.

Regularity: Make the feedback session a regular event for your project, starting the first day. Let it become an early and regular routine. Do not wait until your project or a project phase is completed. This will not allow you to find out what you could be doing better or differently while you have the chance.

Focused, results-driven lessons learned: Collecting feedback is a first important step. Next, prioritize the lessons learned and discuss the most important ones. Go a step further and ask what actions you can derive from these lessons. Consolidate them into a motto for the whole team to work on until the next feedback session.

Vary locations: In most cases, you will probably run your regular feedback sessions at the site of your project. From time to time, you may also want to consider conducting the sessions at an off-site location, away from your usual place of work. Ask a third person to facilitate this workshop, and allow project managers to actively participate in the workshop, not as a project member but as a team member.

External Reviews

Usually, project reviews or audits are perceived as bad. This is understandable. Nobody likes being criticized. As a leading project organization, however, it is a matter of attitude. Project reviews can be a great learning opportunity. They can help the project manager manage the project and bring it to success. An outside view offers different perspectives—fresh and unspoiled perspectives. In contrast, the longer we work on a project, the more likely it becomes for us to develop tunnel vision. Understanding the power of learning and innovation, we should avoid this by all means. Project reviews can help achieve this.

Sharing your lessons learned does not stop with your teams. Invite others to challenge you on your project visions and the progress of your projects. One of my former employers conducted project reviews of every project prior to the close of a project phase. The purpose of the review was multifold. For one, it ensured that the respective project manager and project team complied with the quality delivery standards. Second, reviewers wanted to find out if there were areas of improvement and where the reviewers or the organization could help the project team succeed. It was not the goal to find construction areas and blame the project manager and team for issues or risks. Instead, the company goal was that all projects were delivered to the fullest satisfaction of our clients. The project reviews were mandatory for all projects. Everybody expected them, although they did not necessarily like them. The bottom line was that they helped keep delivery quality at a high level. This, in return, helped the project manager and his team to become a better team. They were able to deliver the project on time and delighted the client, the team, and their own organization.

Training

The ideal scenario for your projects is that everyone on your teams possesses the right skills and competencies to master the challenges ahead. Reality, however, looks different. First, you may not be able find the people with the right skills. Second, you may think you have all the required skills and competencies covered and then find out that this is not the case. Or, individual team members may fall out or leave the project. The teams then have to compensate for the missing skills and competencies. This may work out, but there is no guarantee.

There may be times when you can compensate for missing skills. At other times, you have to fill the gaps because your teams are simply missing the required skills altogether. The sooner you can identify these gaps, the better, because it may give you sufficient time to fill them. Formal training may help; however, sending team members to such training during a project may cause them to fall behind schedule on their work packages. Therefore, it is best if you can conduct formal trainings before the start of your projects. If this is not possible, request that your project teams plan for sufficient time during the projects.

An alternative to formal training is team internal trainings, in which experienced team members help less experienced members learn the missing skills and competencies. You may organize teaching sessions for this purpose or pair experienced with less experienced team members. This allows team members to share information and expertise across your team.

It is not just the project organization calling the shots. In a functioning team, every team member is responsible for identifying and addressing possible gaps in skills and competencies and finding a solution. This is why it is important that you set up the expectation that all project teams be open and receptive to learning and sharing their own knowledge and experience. It is not enough that only you are sharing information—everybody has to participate. As a leading project organization, you serve as partner and coach for learning and information sharing. You facilitate learning. You are not the sole source of information. Help build a learning environment and invite all teams to join and support you.

Learning and Innovation

We do not live in a world of certainty, and projects are no different. We constantly face uncertainties, have to make decisions, and act on incomplete information. In such a situation, making mistakes is inevitable. They are normal and a part of our daily lives. If we learn from them, they are not a bad thing at all. They can actually enforce learning effects. From this perspective, punishing those who make mistakes is counterintuitive. If you want to be or even have to be creative in your project, you can expect to make mistakes. The key is to embrace these mistakes as learning opportunities and move on. Innovation comes from learning, and there is no learning without mistakes.

In some situations, you may actually want to encourage your teams to make mistakes if it satisfies a higher purpose. For example, if you want to find a new approach or develop a new technical routine, the only way to approach this may be by trial and error; in this case, you cannot learn if you do not make mistakes. It would be fatal if you punished your teams for errors committed. As long as they learn from their mistakes, this is a good process and valuable learning experience.

If you are seriously interested in creating something new, you have to go in new directions. Given that every project faces many changes, you must take paths that you did not and could not plan in every detail. You have to take new approaches and, yes, you will make mistakes. The big question is what you will make out of them. The way you react to mistakes makes a big difference. Learning from them and moving on to a higher level are the keys to innovation and innovative results.

You may have heard of Google and 3M’s learning models. In both companies, employees work four days on their assigned project. The fifth day is reserved for innovation: 50% of this time is project related, and the remaining 50% can be the team member’s pet project. In both cases, the team member is expected to produce a tangible result or at least an insight. It may be a bit far-fetched to claim that this time-sharing model is the most important key to Google and 3M’s innovation power, but it is certainly an important factor.

The neat thing is that we can apply this model of dedicated time for innovation to our project world, too. You can argue whether you want to or can reserve a full day each week for innovative exercises. I would say that you should plan a minimum of 10% of your time for innovation that is project related. Create room for your teams members to be creative, to try something new, share their ideas, and learn from each other. Note that the 10% is not a time buffer used to compensate for late deliverables. When you tell your teams that you have reserved 10 or 20% of their time for innovation benefiting the project, this sends out a strong and positive signal. You expect your teams to think outside the box, beyond the known path traveled, and to find new avenues to reach the goals of the projects. Since every team has the luxury of this innovation time, it helps create a team learning culture. It is learning for the purpose of the project. And the teams and each individual may benefit from it. This is a win–win situation.

In case you cannot reserve a full or half day each week for innovation purposes, “innovation labs” may be more practical in your environment. Innovation labs are loosely formed groups of people who work on a given or self-defined innovative topic. Such labs can be formed by team members of one project or across projects. These innovation labs are self-organized with minimum requirements; one of these requirements is that the topic should be related to the purpose of the project or company and it should be results driven. In other words, ask each innovation lab to present their results on a regular basis and show how it fits in with the company’s and/or project’s visions. Presentations can be in the forms of traditional presentations, publications, or wikis; this way, innovation labs can share their insights within their team, the project organization, and with others outside the organization. Individual learning becomes organizational learning.

Identifying and Mastering Learning Obstacles

Just as we can expect challenges to projects, we can anticipate tests to the principles set out in this article. The question is how do you cope with these challenges and overcome them? Let’s look at three common and exemplary challenges on the project level, identify likely sources, and sketch possible solutions and mitigations.

Project Environment Not Open to New Ideas

Challenge(s):

The challenge of leading a project in an environment that is not open to new ideas is at least twofold: the environment is hostile to new content or the organization rejects any new forms of leading and managing projects.

Likely Sources:

  • Option 1: There is a lack of understanding about the negative impact of hostility to new ideas on projects and their environment.
  • Option 2: People are skeptical about new ideas because they are afraid of them.
  • Option 3: People resist new ideas because they want to keep the status quo for personal reasons.

Possible Solutions/Mitigations:

  • Option 1: Develop a project motivation and a vision statement of the project(s) or project organization. This addresses the impact of the absence of change and identifies the potential benefits of change. Pay special attention to the added value of project results, then contrast the findings with the status quo. The greater this gap is, the more obvious it should be to embrace change.
  • Option 2: The first thing to do when you are dealing with people who are afraid of new ideas is taking their concerns seriously. You want to know where their fears are coming from and try to understand them. Developing a project motivation statement should help you identify the most prominent ones. Building the vision statement then is a process of developing a way to control and overcome the key concerns and letting the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
  • Option 3: It is simply not possible to please everyone in your larger project environment. You just cannot do it, and it would be futile to try to prove otherwise. This calls for prioritizing the stakeholders and their needs and how they relate to the project vision and objectives. Similar to option 2, pay special attention to those you find to be most important to the success of your project. Involve them in your project effort and win the support of these skeptics. The key is to show them the potential value of the project. If you identify the obvious disadvantages of the project to them, identify ways to overcoming them.

No Feedback or Learning Culture

Challenge(s):

  • Team members are not used to openly sharing constructive feedback.
  • Feedback is not constructive but focuses on blaming individuals.

Likely Sources:

  • Team members do not share feedback because they fear it could be used against them.
  • Team members take any form of constructive feedback as a personal assault, or people phrase feedback in a personally assaulting way. Team members are not receptive to any feedback except praise.
  • Team members are afraid of receiving “negative” feedback; hence, they too do not give feedback to others.
  • Team members are afraid their feedback is belittled and not taken seriously.

Possible Solutions/Mitigations:

  • Set the expectation with your team members in the beginning of the project, that all feedback counts, regardless of the hierarchical position of the individual.
  • On a project level, conduct one-on-one meetings with each team member in which you solicit and give constructive feedback.
    On a project organization level, conduct meetings with each project manager and/or key stakeholder in which you solicit and give constructive feedback.
  • Encourage your teams to conduct regular feedback sessions. Provide a third facilitator or ask the team to rotate the role of the facilitator on their team.
  • Instead of “negative” feedback, ask the team members to phrase their observations in delta statements, explaining what needs to be done differently.

Lack of time

Challenge(s):

“I don’t have enough time.” This is one of the most mentioned excuses you may hear when you encourage people to plan for and spend sufficient time to learn, to reflect on the past, and to create new ideas.

Likely Sources:

  • People have busy schedules, run from one meeting to another, and conduct their work in between.
  • The project schedule may not allow any time buffer for learning.

Possible Solutions/Mitigations:

  • There may indeed be times when there is no time to step back a little and reflect on our past doings, our accomplishments, and our lessons learned in our projects. However, there are usually also times that are less hectic and that leave room for active learning—use these quiet times with your team to nurture learning.
  • Set expectations that learning is a key part of your project and that you expect every team member to share lessons learned, contribute to the team knowledge, and help each other.
  • Combine feedback sessions with other events team members attend or don’t want to escape from, such as lunch or coffee breaks.
  • Revisit the project schedule and determine whether it is too tight, leaving no time for learning. Not having and taking sufficient time to reflect and adjust our actions may haunt us when we have to live with the consequences of potential mistakes. The longer it takes you to correct a mistake, the costlier it usually is, if you still have the chance to correct it.

Learning: An Investment for Project Success

Learning is important and is crucial for project success. This is why a project organization must create a learning environment. Establish clear and unmistakable learning and feedback rules, such as conducting weekly team meetings to reflect on what is going well and what needs to be improved. Plan regular external project reviews before the end of each major project phase or milestone. At the same time, review the rules of engagement, including roles and responsibilities, and make necessary adjustments. Following a major project phase, you may encourage project teams to conduct complete team re-norming workshops.

You may even want to consider setting aside 10% to 20% of your time for innovation similar to Google and 3M or introduce innovation labs. Whether or not you have the luxury of building in 20% for innovation, is project specific, but think of how much time you want to reserve for innovation and this includes reflecting on lessons learned and trying out new and innovative ways of work. The potential payoffs of learning can be great. Not only can you and your teams improve efficiency and productivity, but it will also strengthen team morale, boost performance, improve collaboration, and improve delivery quality.

Create an environment in which mistakes are not punished, but instead, team members admit mistakes, fix them quickly, learn from them, and continue to improve the other project-related innovations. Do not let mistakes question or even stop your innovation. Innovation without making mistakes does not and cannot exist. Don’t keep lessons learned all to yourself—share them within your project organization and with others outside the organization. For example, you can use wikis, not only does it allow you to share your experience, it also constitutes a great opportunity to market your projects and their accomplishments.

Making learning a stable part of your project organization serves as an investment and insurance for quality and project results. The longer your project, the more time you will need to plan on for learning and innovation. As things change over time, you will have to make the necessary adjustments. As a project organization, it is your responsibility to ensure project results are in sync with the visions of the project and the organization. Learning is the element that links project vision, collaboration, and performance with results. This is why learning is so important to project success, and this is why, as a project organization, it is in your best interest to cultivate learning and thus become a true learning project organization.

Juli, T (2010) Leadership Principles for Project Success New York: CRC Press.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© Thomas Juli, 2011
2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX, USA

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