Rapid Practical Learning in the Intensive Workshop in Project Management

This article is an updated version of an interview conducted with Marius Cloete in 2013. It relates to the Intensive Workshop in Project Management, which now forms part of the Practical Certification Programme in Project Management (PCP).
What makes these Workshops so successful?

We’re constantly learning and unlearning, so that we can keep increasing the long-term practical outcome for each Workshopper.

Workshoppers are our co-producers—we can’t let them down. We must continuously improve the way we do things. We’re always working on ways to break free from stereotyped, stale and unchallenged training methods—not to be faddish, but because they’re bad for learning.

What you do differently?

Some of the obvious differences include the following:

2013-12-cpt-04We don’t use PowerPoint.

In most cities, we use up to seven flip charts on a rostrum, and we’ve developed our own collaboration tables.

The illustrated workbooks are unique and fun to work through.

The group composition, from the number of people around a table to their selection based on their backgrounds, is based on accountable, studied principles.

We do a lot of thinking around how to optimise the experience for different sensory profiles, cultures and thinking styles, not to mention industry requirements and individual goals.

Every person fills in a short questionnaire before coming, and we sometimes spend many hours before a Workshop putting together optimised work teams based on their responses.

The list is so long that we’re now developing a training programme to teach others how to conduct such workshops, explaining the entire approach and the reason for each component. Even this idea, to have such a workshop, came from a Workshopper.

Why do you publish even the negative comments?

All comments are possible sources for change and improvement.

Unfavourable comments often point to a factor we didn’t consider. By analysing the answers, we can align the Workshops to the needs of the greatest number of people without negating the specific requirements of others. Participants are very diverse. We must understand their expectations and be clear about whether we can fulfil them before they sign up.

What happens when you’ve finally perfected everything?

I don’t think we’ll ever reach such a plateau! Prospective participants who read the comments of previous groups, have ever-increasing expectations, raising the bar for us every time. We expect an increase in the discernment and the demand that we should exceed excellence, with constant suggestions for refinement.

Previous participants build a connection to the Workshop. We’ve become the custodian of quality and sustained excellence, so we’ll let them down if we get slack now. When a Workshopper says we can publish her name, photo and comments, we have an obligation towards her. We’d dishonour her if we didn’t live up to her recommendation that others should attend.

Who is the typical Workshopper?

Our quest is to make the Workshops remarkable, but the Workshops are not for everyone.

2015-03-jhb-4Our qualifying criteria for participation are that the person should really care about their career or organisation, and have the desire to up their skillset. A great number of Workshoppers have their own businesses, and more than 90% of them pay for themselves, even those who work for corporations or for the government.

A typical Workshopper values excellence, rather than the 80/20 principle. Training materials which are 80% cool, a presentation which is 80% good and content which is 80% great would not significantly elevate the Workshops above most other training options out there. Which of the remaining potential 20% of relevance or excellence would you choose to forfeit?

In life, as in business, it is that which is in excess of the 80% that makes the real difference, that distinguishes ‘excellent’ from ‘good enough’. In training, ‘in excess of 80%’ means the things that distinguish crucial insights or skills from useful-to-know facts and ideas. Unless the outcome of the training is practical implementation, it remains just that: training.

Our typical Workshopper wants to implement as much as possible on the Monday following the Workshops, and is prepared to sacrifice money and time to achieve that.

Aren’t you rather ambitious about what can be achieved in 15 hours of weekend training?

(Editor’s note: In Cape Town and Johannesburg, the Workshop takes place over a weekend. In Windhoek, the Workshop is held over three days.)

The attainment of Project Management skills is about implementing the principles. More theory does not translate to better proficiency at implementation. (In fact, the contrary is often true!) The purpose of the Workshops is to give you the insight into what you, at your level and where you are now, need to do first as you work towards becoming a great project manager or project team member. We strive for a Workshop that entrenches relevant Project Management skills that can be applied immediately. It’s designed so that each person can leave with what’s relevant to that person.

What do you impart?

Let’s start by stating what we don’t impart: We don’t try to shed a huge mountain of impressive and daunting information that may possibly be relevant someday. It’s easy to burden people with a bewildering volume of ‘knowledge’, but this would serve no purpose.

Rather, the Workshopper leaves with a solid foundation in Project Management to build upon immediately.

It’s not easy to achieve that! Striving to be the best requires a lot of introspection and self-examination. In the world of Project Management training, we don’t offer a wandering, vague general academic outcome; we provide very meaningful, implementable specifics.

‘Foundation’ sounds like it’s for beginners only. Why do so many experienced people attend?

Project Management consists of ‘Project’ skills and ‘Management’ skills. The techniques and tools of Project Management, the ‘Project’ component, can be learned through skills training. The ‘Management’ component is a different story altogether.

Experienced project managers and PMP® candidates attend the Workshop to experience the dynamics of teamwork (the essence of Project Management) and to observe the approaches used to support the learning process.

Some also discover that they have massive gaps in their fundamental knowledge of the principles at play in their projects, and many find that they’ve been using suboptimal protocols when they apply the regular Project Management tools in their work.

At some stage they will have to lead teams who are less informed and less skilled than they are, or who just have a different way of thinking. These Workshops give them the ideal opportunity to experience and to observe first-hand the power of structured group dynamics for the transference of skills and knowledge.

You’ve mentioned teaching approaches. What models you use?

We employ three main learning models. One of them is Bloom’s taxonomy, where the learning process starts off with the available information, and then moves through the enquiring stages of comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and finally to evaluation or insight. Bloom’s taxonomy is not a learning methodology, but a way of saying where you are in your learning. We know that there are people at every level present in a Workshop, and we design things to ensure that each participant will have their needs met at their own level.

It sounds very academic. How do you do it practically?

Amongst other things, we tell a story. Storytelling is powerful.

Instead of teaching the theory, and then trying to figure out the application, we use a story from which Project Management theory is extracted and onto which the application is practically applied.

As we dissect the story, the aim is to move from level one, the mere information level, through the different levels of learning to the highest level, the level where the participant evaluates with insight. It is at ‘insight level’ that we make our best decisions, where our contribution adds the most value and where we start to value that which we do not know. Such learning is normally a very slow process, but in the Workshop, there are instances in which this happens very rapidly. That’s the benefit of our Rapid Practical Learning Framework.

So do you use a case study then?

No, the only case studies we use are the participants’ genuine projects, and those who don’t already work with projects, get into it quickly during the exercises. Even when explaining principles and techniques, both the participants and the facilitator constantly describe and refer to situations in real organisations and specific projects, particularly those which they’ve experienced first-hand.

When I said ‘story’, I really meant story: the training material is based on our own cartoon series. A picture is worth more than a thousand words, and with a compelling storyline, we engage participants from different cultures, enabling them to cut through different backgrounds, mother tongues, work experiences, academic proficiencies and gender issues. The training material focuses the Workshopper’s mind on the process and the content. A humorous approach raises creativity within the groups.

What’s the most important next milestone for the Intensive Workshops?

We just want to keep adding further value to the package. We’ve received very insightful recommendations from previous Workshoppers, and we are looking at ways to incorporate them.

The real question is: What’s the most important next milestone for someone who has participated in a Workshop? In all that we do, we’re trying to ensure that what we do helps someone with that. For certain participants, it means further study, for others, it means changing a couple of major things at work.

For some, it means making fundamental changes in their lives, and walking away from an irremediable situation. It’s that important.


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