At first I was disappointed in the quality of action plans prepared at the end of professional development short courses and seminars. We’d covered the material. I provided a template of key areas where action was required. The assignment was to reflect on the material and describe what actions would be taken by each student to apply this material to his or her work environment. Since learning takes place in the movement between reflection and action, and because short term memory tends to fade if not applied within the next six hours, the assignment intended to quick start the process.
Why did these very smart, professionally engaged people not put together meaningful plans? What they presented tended to be general, vague on specific actions, and unrelated to what we’d covered. It finally dawned on me that they needed an example, something that sets the bar on what is expected from a good action plan.
The problem is similar to what happens at many presentations and training sessions; it also occurs when assigning tasks within a project. Much attention is placed on what to do, such as get upper management support for every project. Often the words “must” and “should” accompany the message. Possibly a little bit is covered about why project sponsorship ensures a project is defined, funded, and supported from beginning to end. But the miracle occurs in how do you do this. How can a project manager cut through the confusion around project start-ups to determine why the project was initiated, who is the sponsor, what does the customer expect from the outcome and when?
The complexity and uniqueness of each organization means there are no simple answers to these questions. However, many successful project managers triumphed in the face of these common challenges. How did they do it? The training environment has this imperative: tell stories and present examples. People tell me, “I can listen to stories all day long about how people solved a problem that was similar to mine.”
So I filled out the action plan template myself. I put steps into bullet form, highlighting how concepts from the course convert into action, such as “meet with each key stakeholder on my new project and ask how they would define project success.” Not only did this prompt students to think about what they could do, it also provided a means to summarize key concepts from the course.
Some areas of the plan may not require much work, so the example just says, “continue to monitor the situation for triggers that something is changing.” Other areas may be very difficult and require a phased approach. In that case, the example reads: Interview all stakeholders over the next month. Prepare a proposal for a project office. Line up upper management support, and get explicit commitments from each stakeholder. Define the project sponsor role and conduct training for new sponsors. Talk up the features, benefits, and advantages of an environment where excellence in project sponsorship contributes to competitive advantage. Select strategic efforts leading first to small wins before taking on more responsibilities over the next year.
I made my examples generic yet indicative of how to proceed. Early in the session I point out the action plan template and example. Whenever possible I spread the course over a number of days to allow more “think time.” I show a video clip of an exemplary presentation by a previous student. I make a number of references to the action plan during the course and ask how they’re coming on it. Whenever grades or credit are required, 50 percent of it is determined by their action plans. Criteria are: relevant application of course concepts; clear, convincing, compelling arguments; fit to organizational environment; and thoroughness of coverage.
The result: Wow! Each student shares his or her action plan with the rest of the class. Most of them blew us away and exceeded the examples: some with their creativity to challenging problems and others with complete coverage for unique organizations. We all engage in discussion about the approach and alternatives. The sharing reinforces and extends the learning process. Providing examples makes a big difference.
Randall L. Englund is an author, trainer, and principal of the Englund Project Management Consultancy. Read more about these topics in the books he’s co-authored: Creating an Environment for Successful Projects, Creating the Project Office, and Project Sponsorship. Contact him at englundr@pacbell and on the web at http://www.englundpmc.com.