How to Design Work Projects for Maximum Learning

How to Design Work Projects for Maximum Learning

07.22.15Jonathan Stearn

Learn how to design projects that develop skills and deliver bottom-line gains - a “twofer” every leader can embrace.

Skill development is clearly a major priority for companies and managers these days. Enrollment in learning programs has surged over the last few years to generate a global executive education market of over $70 billion a year. People are also being asked by their bosses or HR to attend conferences, read case studies, watch videos, and try their hand at simulations, all with the goal of picking up new ideas and techniques.

As valuable as these experiences can be, they’re all at least one step removed from practice. At some point, you have to stop listening to experts and start doing something real. That is why live business projects can be powerful vehicles for learning, especially when they aim for dramatic outcomes on a tight timeframe.

Consider, for instance, the talent development program at Ascom, a global telecommunications company. In addition to receiving traditional training, each participant designs and carries out a 100-day project that targets an important business challenge, such as increasing the firm’s footprint in the health care segment or developing new software to enhance mobile phones (these are real examples). While delivering millions of dollars in profits, these projects have helped develop a cadre of leaders who can inspire teams to achieve big goals. Managers learn how to articulate a business opportunity in ways that energize team members. They get better at devoting attention and providing support — without micromanaging. Because they often have to collaborate across units or functions to achieve their objectives, they become more skilled at leading without formal authority. And they learn how to make it safe to fail in small, fast ways to discover the best solutions.

Designing projects as learning tools is a fairly straightforward process. You’ll want to:

  • Select an area where improvement is a must. Leaders and team members alike should feel a need — and enthusiasm — for tackling the challenge. That will give urgency to the learning.
  • Tie goals to concrete results. The project team must commit to achieving a concrete goal that actually moves the needle on performance and learning. “Call on 50 customers who are prime targets for the product” won’t cut it, because even if people call on that many customers, they might not make any sales or learn how to sell more effectively. The goal is hollow — it can be accomplished without generating any gains for the organization or insights for team members. This sort of limited assignment is a disappointment for most ambitious employees.A better goal would be something like “Sell $100,000 worth of the new product.” Now the team is tasked with both identifying and carrying out the right activities to make the required sales. This may include calling on customers but also quickly assessing the strong and weak points of the current offering, testing different value propositions, targeting specific customer segments, adjusting the product, modifying marketing materials, and so on. Team members must push themselves to figure out the right solutions — in real circumstances, in real time.
  • Make it a stretch. The project goal must be a major step up from what is considered normal. If a goal is too easy to achieve, it will not prompt sufficient ingenuity and skills development. (If the goal can be achieved through business as usual, it will.) The aim here is to compel people to behave differently — to try new things and figure out how to get the needed results. Of course, a goal that is too ambitious will break the team’s spirit. The key is to strike the right balance between challenging and achievable.
  • Do it fast. When faced with an objective six or 12 months out, most people will delay working on it until it becomes more urgent. Instead of fighting this trait of human nature, set a tighter deadline. Projects that are completed in 100 days or so are ideal. This gives the team enough time to achieve something dramatic — but not so much that members will struggle to keep it top of mind. In addition, the urgency creates the conditions for rapid skill development. Team members must quickly learn about the issues at hand and find ways to work smarter.
  • Deliver a microcosm — not a “phase one.” Many organizations construct short-term projects by simply carving off the first few months of a multi-year implementation plan, and then the next few, and so on. These projects often focus on delivering outcomes related to data collection, data synthesis, development of recommendations — and when they’re diced up like that, it’s hard to apply early-days learning down the road. But a short-term project that delivers its own meaningful outcome right away — within a certain region, for example, or for a particular market or product group — allows the team to do something better in one context and then see how well it works in other settings. As it rolls out the solution each time, the team gains experience and confidence, and learns what works where and why. It becomes more and more adaptive.

Let’s look at an example that shows all these principles in action. A few years ago the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), the not-for-profit organization responsible for assessing and classifying more than five million properties in Ontario, Canada, needed to find better ways to manage its budget. Leadership also wanted to improve service delivered to property taxpayers and municipalities. They knew that achieving these aims would require some skill building in the work force. People would have to learn to move faster, for instance. They would also have to become better at understanding what customers and stakeholders need and how they work. And there was a general need to execute with more discipline using concrete goals, clear work plans, formal results tracking, and so on.

The company’s president convened a meeting of the executive management group to organize the improvement effort. Rather than design an overarching program that tried to address dozens of opportunities at once, the group opted to use a few short-term projects to make fast progress and generate new ways of working that could be rolled out across the organization. They zeroed in on two high-priority areas: land severances (changes in property size, property use, or both) and condominium assessments (calculating the value of a unit when the owner takes possession).

The severances team aimed to increase the number of land parcels processed per day by 50% in one field office in 100 days. The condo team set the goal of completing valuations within 30 days of occupancy for 10 high-rise condo projects in Toronto. It was taking an average of around 600 days to complete valuations.

Both teams exceeded their targets. The severances team increased parcels processed per day by 175%. The condo team completed the 10 valuations in 27 days. On both, people worked smarter, not harder. They learned how to set clearer goals, engage senior executives, mobilize resources, and lead through influence (which is especially important in a public sector environment like MPAC’s). They also found better ways to work with stakeholders outside the organization.

Drawing confidence from these successes, MPAC launched additional projects in the same two areas to rapidly expand the proven innovations into other geographies. Then they launched projects in other business areas. Now, several years later, these kinds of projects are a core element of the organization’s performance improvement program. They have been used to drive progress on a wide variety of opportunities including product development, software release, organizational restructuring, and succession planning. And each project typically includes both a team performance goal and individual development objectives.

Accelerating the development of management skills and delivering bottom-line gains to the organization at the same time is a “twofer” every leader can embrace. And live business projects provide both benefits. When forced to deliver an important outcome on a tight schedule, people can’t help learning and growing. They find that they can do more than they’d thought, and that keeps them reaching.

Jonathan Stearn's blog post on Harvard Business Review. Join the discussion.

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