Monday, March 1, 2010

A perfectly executed project is but a flawlessly directed play…

To briefly set the scenario, I had been involved in a project where an organization was rolling out e-learning for the first time, making a shift from pure instructor-led training (for the formal learning bit) to a web-based environment. The key people involved—the trainers, the business clients, managers, target learner groups—were all folks in their late forties and early fifties, and their average tenure in the organization was 15+ years.

It is easy to imagine the radical shift this move to an e-learning environment meant for them. Most of them had no idea what it entailed except that the training would now be available on their desktops—click and access. The whole experience was wonderful for me because I got an opportunity to consult, guide and handhold an organization into taking the steps necessary to make the transition.

What ensued:
The actual development and delivery of the e-Learning Program started. However, I soon realized that although things appeared to be moving smoothly with deliveries, deadlines, SME calls, and all the other stuff common to an e-learning project, there was something radically wrong.

For some time, I just could not isolate the problem. It was a nagging ache that I could not articulate. Eventually, I stopped thinking about it telling myself that I was being over-analytical, a navel gazer.

Probably because I had stopped thinking, a very small incident led me to the answer. It was one of those innocuous comments that suddenly made everything crystal clear. I was onsite along with another colleague. We were in a meeting discussing process flows and project-related tasks when a comment from my colleague startled me.

The comment was innocuous enough. “I will complete the Course Design Document before I return,” she was telling the client. I was too startled to react (and good I didn’t since we were with the client)…At the face of it, there is nothing startling about this comment.

However, to the best of my knowledge, a Course Design Document is a high-level instructional design work that instructional designers with quite a few years of experience in organization and learner analysis, mapping of performance to business outcome, and understanding of learner levels and content can effectively perform. It requires rigor, analysis, and experience. I won't even go into what Dr. Karl Kapp would say.

Hence, the casual comment coming from someone who is not an ID caught me off guard. Furthermore, the client’s acceptance of it set my brain spinning. The following thoughts raced through my mind in quick succession:

  • My colleague doesn’t know what she’s talking about
  • The client doesn’t know what course design entails
  • My understanding of my task was seriously flawed
  • We don’t have clarity on our roles and responsibilities

The moment the last point occurred to me, I realized I had hit bull’s eye. To me, this confusion of roles and responsibilities, however inadvertent, seemed like an ominous portent, and I realized where the void lay.

There was no one sitting the client-side stakeholders and the project team down and setting expectations and goals. Each individual was doing his/her bit with sincerity, but no one was gluing it together. There were too many disconnects and parallel tracks; too much of "ad hocism", which led to constantly shifting expectations and a sense of confusion.
The project lacked a leader. The project had a project team and a project manager, but there was no project leader. This play was running without a director.

The role of a project leader was all the more important since the client was transitioning to a medium of training that was new to them. Just as someone had to handhold them through the transition, they also had to be introduced to the functions and roles of the project team. Similarly, the project team internally needed to know who was responsible for what.

To me, a project resembles a finely scripted play where each individual has a unique role to fulfill. The cohesiveness of the play comes from the melding of individual performances into a unified act. Just as the success of a play depends on picking up the right cues, perfect timing, collaboration, and following the right sequence of events, the same applies to a project. And this is what a director enables.

This project was lacking a director. The players were all set to act but the script was not distributed. No one really knew which script to master and which role to adopt. The actors were present but no one knew when to enter the stage or exit, and when they did enter, exactly what their dialogue should be.

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