Project management for Idiots: Part 1 – Some Basics


pm for idiots

Here are five thoughts about project management from my recent course at the Business School at Auckland University.

  1. All knowledge work is project work.
  2. Tidying my room is not a project.
  3. Other people are necessary.
  4. There is a budget.
  5. There is a framework.

This is part of my non-MBA, MBA. It’s the second in my mini-series of project management.

And it’s “for idiots” because I’m an idiot for not looking into this seriously before now.

1. All knowledge work is project work

 

I kinda despise the term, but these days I’m a knowledge worker. At least until I run away to sea and join a band of pirates.

My job now is more or less digital and I often work with people who are geographically dispersed.

I’m not sitting on the beach in Bali sipping cocktails. At least not yet.

It’s a far cry from the couple of thousand hours of classroom-based training that I did through the late 90s and early 00s.

But here is my recent realisation – a pithy aphorism that I’m certain that I’ve plagiarised from somewhere:

  • All knowledge work is project work.

2. Tidying my room is not a project

Tidying my room or cooking dinner is not a project.

I’m might consider it to be a project, but it’s not. At least not in the language of project management.

It’s a task.

A task is the lowest building block of a project. A task typically involves one person, it’s just little and often the timeframe is short.

In other words, it’s just me.

Tasks require time management and projects require project management.

3. Other people are necessary

Project management implies other people. Other people are a necessary evil in project management.

For proper project management methodology to make sense you really need to be working with 6 to 12 people over 6 to 12 months.

Projects contain multiple tasks and project success is often driven by the actions of others.

4. There is a budget

A project has a budget and a good project manager needs to be across the budget.

This is another blindspot for me personally. I’m OK with basic stuff, but anything that starts to sound like accounting gives me an instant headache.

This is on my list of things to fix. I don’t need to become and accountant, but I’d like to understand how it all works a bit more than I do now.

4. There is a framework

Project management has a recognised framework from a recognised body of knowledge. I didn’t realise this was the case.

It’s a new discipline relatively speaking. But it’s highly formalised. The body of knowledge is about 1000 pages long.

I haven’t read it, but here’s a summary in three lines:

  • Organise. Why and who for?
  • Plan: timeline and costing
  • Control (paperwork) and Direct (getting people to do stuff). These last two are in parallel.

Thoughts…? Let me know in the comments.

The Future of Work is Project Work


The future of work, at least for me, is project work. At least it seems that way at the moment.

So… welcome to the new work order.

But project management is really one of my blindspots.

Working in education, I have a background in training, not project management, or any kind of management really.

I’m Ok with deep domain knowledge in my obscure field, but I’ve always felt out of my depth when it comes to project management.

It’s weird because in education we are constantly surrounded by the language of project management but my impression is that no one really knows what this language means.

As part of my DIY non-MBA, MBA, I’m trying to get some new ideas but also address my blindspots.

I’m slowly working through a list of things that interest me or that I think are going to help me:

Shoe school is a little left-field, I admit but that’s gonna have to wait for another time.

Most recently, I took the two-day Project Management course.

Afterwards, I caught up with the super wonderful, Wen Goble – Programmes Advisor at the Business School’s Education Education division.

She asked me a couple of questions which we recorded for the video above. Notes and other takeaways will follow soon.

 

 

How to Build a Do-It-Yourself non-MBA, MBA


Certificate of who's got time_

Who’s got time to do an MBA. Not me… that’s for sure.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of great people out there with great skills. Some of these people even have MBAs.

I can see the need to reskill and upskill. Especially in this weird economy. However, I haven’t got time for another qualification. And I don’t want a divorce.

Google it. MBA often correlates with divorce. It’s a real thing.

What I really need though is some new ideas. And some new tools that allow me to move forward in uncertain times.

And not everyone cares as much about degrees and qualifications as they used to. 

I decided all of this at Christmas time this year. Christmas is always a great time for introspection.

And by introspection I mean the general disillusionment and existential distress that follows too much eating, drinking and time with relatives.

But what I realised is that the best way forward for me was to look at building myself my own MBA.

And not really an MBA at all. A kind of DIY non-MBA, MBA. So I put a very fuzzy plan in place earlier this year.

What I needed, I decided, was some new inputs… a combination of things that made sense to me.

I’m sure research would suggest that eclectic approaches lead to incoherence. However, while this might be true for groups, eclecticism works on an individual level.

In other words, my choices for my DIY non-MBA, MBA don’t need to make sense to anyone except me. And I can choose them intuitively if I want to or let one thing lead to another.

So that’s what I’m doing.

Everything around me seems to be changing anyway. And rapidly. If I know one thing is true, it’s that I need to adapt to this pace of change and change too.

I also know that the toolset that I’ve been using for the last 10 years is no longer enough. At least that’s my perception.

I mean… I’m sure that I can get by on my existing toolset. But I’m no longer sure that I want to. I’m looking forward to the change and disruption that lies ahead.

Well, kinda.

What I’ve seen though, when I gaze into my crystal ball, is a mixture of opportunities and problems that I want to understand better. But I feel like I don’t have the tools to analyse them or manage them.

So here’s what I did. I had a look at what I’m interested in personally and professionally. And then I booked myself into a series of short courses over the last six months.

Three were with the Executive Education programme at the University of Auckland’s Business School. I already had a relationship with Auckland because I’ve studied and worked there.

The three courses I’ve undertaken so far have been excellent and I’ve blogged about two of them.

One I wrote about extensively. This was Service Design Thinking.

Then a few months later I picked another one. This time it was about Critical Thinking.

The one I haven’t blogged about yet was Project Management which I’ve just completed. I’ve got a lot to say about this in future posts.

One nice thing about these two-day workshops is that they keep the disruption of my life to a minimum. Each of these has been a two-day intensive in Auckland.

This timeframe is about right for me. I love Auckland, but too long and the traffic gets to me.

I’m going to write more about this soon, but the short version, for now, is that I got a lot out of the Project Management course.

It was just an introduction. And I don’t have any real desire to become a project manager.

However, I think the future of work – for myself, anyway – is projects. I know this is true for me for the last 12 months. And it certainly looks that way for the immediate future.

And managing projects is really hard.

I struggle to manage my own time and projects, let alone projects involving others. But I feel that I’ve got a basic toolset now to make sense of my own and others’ projects.

So… watch this space for more on projects and project management.

And if you’re good at maths, you’ll realise that I’ve only accounted for three of the four short courses so far in my DIY non-MBA, MBA.

The other one feels a bit weird to write about here.  But in the interests of full disclosure, I did a weekend course on sandal making at Shoe School in Wellington.

Before you judge me, there is a connection to all the other stuff I’m interested in. But I’ll have to leave that to another day.

In the mean time, check out the sandal workshop gallery here. If you see some black ostrich leather men’s scuffs. They’re mine. I designed them, cut them out by hand, then stitched and glued them together.

So much fun.

Critical Thinking in the Age of Disruption: Executive Education at the University of Auckland


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One of my goals this year has been to try and put together a kind of DIY MBA for myself.

Not really a proper MBA, mind you… who’s got time for that? I like my marriage.

What I mean is more of a collection of training and inputs from sources outside of what I would normally have access to on my own. Things to help me think differently.

My first step was to take a course in Service Design Thinking through the Exec Education programme at Auckland Uni.

The university has changed a lot over the nearly 20 years since I studied and worked there, but it still feels very familiar to me.

I like it there and I really enjoyed engaging with the Service Design content. I had done a little bit of reading beforehand, but much of it was new to me.

Professionally, those two days have laid the groundwork for a methodology that I can implement over the next couple of big projects I’m hoping to be involved with.

Because the first course was such a buzz, I enrolled in a second one in March. This time the focus was Critical Thinking.

My relationship to critical thinking is different to service design, however. Service design was a new subject area for me personally.

Critical thinking though is something that I’ve been reading about and working on for a long time. At least since my studies at Auckland as an undergraduate.

One of the things that really resonated with me with regards to this course was what provoked it. This was two things according to the course facilitator:

  1. The requirement for you (i.e. me) to change.
  2. To enable you (i.e me) to influence, lead and coach others.

This pretty much sums up where I’m at right now.

I’m aware of the need to foster a kind of radical open-mindedness about what I need to be working on. This applies personally and professionally.

As Bob Dylan almost said: “The times they are a-changin’ and in fact accelerating more rapidly everyday…”

For me, this means I need critical thinking skills more than ever. So the course seemed a good opportunity to brush up on things I thought I knew but also expose myself to some new thinking about thinking.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the course spent a lot of time defining critical thinking. So I’m not going go over that ground here apart from to say there are some really great definitions out there and lots of frameworks that people can tap into.

What I want to get to is some of the key takeaways for me that made the two days really worthwhile.

Here’s one: The connection of critical thinking to the age of disruption in which we live right now. Here’s an illustration:

The largest taxi company has no taxis – UBER.

The largest accommodation company has no real estate – AIRBNB.

The largest telephone company has no infrastructure – SKYPE.

The largest retailer has no inventory – ALIBABA.

The largest movie theatre has no movie theatres – NETFLIX

Eric Schmidt – Executive Chairman

Alphabet Inc

2018

 

If you don’t recognise where the reference is from, Alphabet Inc is the company that owns Google.

Here’s another below. This relates to the need for all of us to become better critical thinkers:

As we enter what has been termed the 4th industrial revolution (a period of rapid and fundamental change brough about by the convergence to the internet and technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics) there are a few skills that are becoming more valuable over time.

The 10 Skills You Need to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Future of Jobs Report

World Economic Forum 2016

I looked up this report… Here are there conclusions in summary form, by 2020:

  • Over one third (35%) of skills that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed.
  • Advanced robotics, autonomous transport, artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced materials, biotech and genomics will transform the way we live and work.
  • Some jobs will disappear altogether, others will grow and there will be jobs that don’t exist today that will be commonplace.

Based on their compared the top 10 skills needed by global employers in 2015 when the survey was done, to their predictions. Here’s what you get:

In 2015

In 2020

1. Complex problem solving 1. Complex problem solving (no change)
2. Coordinating with others 2. Critical thinking (+2)
3. People management 3. Creativity (+7)
4. Critical thinking 4. People management (-1)
5. Negotiation 5. Coordinating with others (-3)
6. Quality control 6. Emotional intelligence (new)
7. Service orientation 7. Judgement and decision making (+1)
8. Judgement and decision making 8. Service orientation (-1)
9. Active listening 9. Negotiation (-4)
10. Creativity 10. Cognitive flexibility (new)

Keep in mind these are just predictions, but it’s interesting for lots of reasons. One is that the need for critical thinking isn’t going away. It’s just going to increase.

Another thing is that this need for critical thinkers is going to be coupled with a need for the same people to be highly creative and good a solving complex problems.

Things that disappeared off the list for 2020 include quality control, judgement and decision making and active listening.

I don’t think that these are going away anywhere. But some of this will simply be automated and overshadowed by the need for a different skillset.

Also, new to the 2020 list is emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

Food for thought: I’m writing this right now in 2018. This means we’re somewhere in the middle of these two lists.

  • How well prepared are you? Not for the next 20 years, but for the next two years?

If you want to brush up on your critical thinking skills there are plenty of great books and online materials.

However, if you’re after something more “hands on” that can set things in motion for you, you’ll find it hard to go past the Critical Thinking in the Age of Disruption short course at the University of Auckland.

 

Te Niho Taniwha – A Framework for Promoting Strength and Resilience in Education


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This is an idea for discussion. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now:

  • What’s a model that allows us to bring together all the things that we know and do in education including the infrastructure tools and support mechanisms?

Here’s a possible answer above. I’m not an expert on Māori design, but this just seemed to click for me.

Meet Te Niho Taniwha… or “The Teeth of the Taniwha”. Niho Taniwha can symbolise – among other things – strength and resilience.

This is how I currently see a way forward that allows us to integrate and encompass all that we’ve learned in foundation education since 2006.

I’ve recently called education a “wicked problem”. In short, this means that education is a problem that has no easy solutions and often we have no way of knowing whether we’re even on the right track to a good solution.

What we need are solutions that have some bite, if you excuse the extended metaphor and pun.

What we’ve lacked in our search for solutions is a way to conceptualise the whole…. To pull all the parts together in a way that is coherent.

Looking to frameworks of professional standards is part of a solution, but as good as this is it doesn’t really encompass the bigger picture which involves various support mechanisms and practical tools for working with learners.

My model above seeks to bring together everything that is required for a professional standards framework but sitting on top of a system of practical tools and support mechanisms including professional learning and development (PLD) and Communities of Practice (CoPs).

The practical tools and support mechanisms are customisable in the sense that you could swap them out for different tools and resources depending on the context.

But because my context is foundation learning above, the tools across the bottom include the TEC infrastructure for foundation learning: The learning progressions for adult literacy and numeracy, the assessment tool and Pathways Awarua.

Would this model work in a higher education setting? I think so. Here’s a more generic model that could be customised for a university or polytechnic:

IMG_2468

Different components could be swapped in across the bottom layer of the tapatoru including other tools, platforms, resources and initiatives.

The top two layers still align with professional standards frameworks including the HEA system or variants like Ako Aronui.

Te Niho Taniwha would make a great framework for wider capability building across the education sector. But even if no one thinks this is a good idea, it has provided me with a lens for analysing what’s happening across educational contexts when it comes to understanding and comparing capability building approaches.

Any thoughts please let me know in the comments.

Hat tip: I’d like to acknowledge and thank Veranoa Hetet (@whaeavee) for kindly answering my questions on twitter about Māori design including the use of triangles and showing me what Niho Taniwha looks like.

 

What is cultural competency? What does cultural competency mean in education?


JDP-385

Here’s one definition adapted from what others have said:

Culturally competent means possessing the knowledge, skills, and values required to achieve a better understanding of, and enhance relationships with learners of different cultures.

I wanted to share this for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s more topical than ever. Another is that it’s potentially confusing.

Mainly though, I wanted to compile my notes for myself and put them somewhere where I could remember where they were.

This is also to remind myself how I arrived at some definitions in the process of trying to get some clarity on the issue.

My context is education. So, for better or worse, I started with NZQA. I went looking to see what others had already said and done. This led me to Unit Standard 26953 which has a health focus.

In the explanatory notes, it says under note 7:

  • Culturally competent means possessing the knowledge, skills, and values required to achieve a better understanding of, and enhance relationships with, members of different cultures.

If you swap out “patients” or “health care clients” from the health context and substitute in “learners” you get something like my definition at the top of the page.

I like the fact that the definition references knowledge, skills and values.

These three components make up almost any kind of professional standards framework. This includes the new Foundation Learning Professional Standards Framework that I have been working on for the TEC. It’s laid out slightly differently, but it’s the same three things:

  • Ō tātou uara – What we value.
  • Ō tātou mohiotanga – What we understand.
  • Ā tātou mahi – What we do.

This means that cultural competency should permeate every part of who we are and what we know and do as educators. It’s not something you can separate out and put in a box.

There’s more. The same NZQA document also states that:

  • Māori cultural competencies refer to the practical steps for providing services and relating to Māori in a manner that recognises and respects Māori values and beliefs, as outlined in the Nationwide Health and Disability Advocacy Service publication referenced in explanatory note 4 above.

The notes reference an expert that many of us in education are already familiar with – Professor Mason Durie. He describes cultural competence as about:

…the acquisition of skills to achieve a better understanding of members of other cultures.

Some further digging – this time on the ACC website – led me to this explanation, also by Professor Durie. He reinforces what he says above and adds another element. This is that the goal of culturally competent care in Health with Māori clients is to do two things:

  • Improve understanding and relationships, and thereby;
  • Achieve better clinical results.

I think clinical results transposes to education as outcomes, broadly defined. And assuming that this is workable and makes sense, I think that you can do several things from here.

One is that you can link the definition to specific cultural or indigenous groups. Another is that you could assume that what works well for one underserved, priority group possibly serves the mainstream as well. And the other is that you could link it to a set of outcomes, whether broad or specific.

I’m gonna leave off specific outcomes for now, but here’s what it might look like if you specify two groups identified by the TEC as priorities using some of the wording discussed above.

  • Māori cultural competencies refer to the practical steps for providing education and relating to Māori and other learners in a manner that recognises and respects Māori values and beliefs in order to achieve better teaching and learning outcomes.
  • Pasifika cultural competencies refer to the practical steps for providing education and relating to Pasifika and other learners in a manner that recognises and respects Pasifika values and beliefs in order to achieve better teaching and learning outcomes.

Would some version of this approach work for ESOL learners? What about for a “united nations” group of mixed ethnicities? What about Deaf learners?

I say yes to all.

So… a couple of other questions… What if you wanted to bring a high-level, big government focus to this? Or what if you wanted to bring a more personalised regional, even iwi-specific focus to this?

Then you could add some wording like “… as defined by XYZ” or “as outlined in ABC” and reference where these outcomes have already been articulated. Fill in the blank yourself. No big literature review required.

I’m sure that government agencies, specific iwi-facing organisations working in education and others can tell you what the outcomes need to look like for the learners they are concerned about.

What’s the point of this exercise…?

Well, it could be just semantics. However, because of the mixture of serious interest plus confusion about what cultural competency means, I think the following truism applies:

A problem well stated is a problem half-solved. (Charles Kettering)

I’m not proposing any answers here. I think these will vary depending on context.

However, if I’m serious and want to move forward with this in an educational setting, I need specific answers to at least these questions:

  • Who are the learners that I’m concerned about?
  • What are their values and beliefs?
  • What are the teaching and learning outcomes that I want to achieve?
  • What are the knowledge, skills, and values I need in order to achieve a better understanding of and enhance relationships with, these specific learners?
  • How does my improved understanding of my learners, values, beliefs and outcomes translate into practical steps for teaching and learning?
  • How do these factors influence or possibly transform the manner in which I teach or otherwise support their learning?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Education is a wicked problem (AKA What’s broken in education and how do we fix it?)



This is a soapbox rant

Click away now while you can. You have been warned…

Houston we have a problem

From primary school to higher education something ain’t right… Like Neo, you know there’s something wrong. Even if it’s hard to pin down.

Actually, there’s no shortage of description.

Just google “education broken” for a quick look. Nearly everyone has something to say about what’s wrong.

And there’s no shortage of prescriptions for fixing the problems either. But these tend to be complicated, contradictory and emotionally charged.

Learner problems

What I see in my own work is that we have learners of all kinds in all educational settings struggling with things like reading comprehension or understanding what’s required in assessments.

Most learners can read, but many lack the literacy skills needed to succeed in their studies, let alone in the real world of 21st work and community life.

That’s aside from the fact that many of the assessment tasks seem trivial or meaningless.

And then there are numeracy issues.

This is not just the inability to deal with fractions, decimals and percentages.

We’re all crap at those…

But basic maths as well. And an inability to apply maths outside the classroom.

In fact, I have an unsubstantiated nagging worry that a lot of classroom-based maths and numeracy training doesn’t actually transfer at all to the real world.

And what about all the factors that we associate with poor literacy, numeracy and low employability?

Learners with drug, alcohol and behaviour problems… Enduring cycles of family poverty… Poor housing and other societal factors. Second and third language issues… Learning-related anxieties… The impact of repeated academic failure…

And that’s just the tutors.

Damn it! I mean the learners. It’s the learners.

Tutor problems

Teachers, tutors and trainers face their own problems too.

This includes overload and overwhelm, not to mention problems with the content that they have to teach while somehow trying to address their learners’ issues at the same time.

Add in layers of bureaucracy, compliance and professional development and you start to see why tutors are so stressed.

Why wouldn’t you go back to an industry-based job after a few years?

Or sell real estate instead.

I don’t really want to get bogged down in the specifics of description or even prescription.

Well… maybe I do a little.

But what’s interesting for me is how complex this has become.

And we haven’t even got to the organisational problems yet.

Wicked problems

What we are facing in education is what’s known as a “wicked problem”. This is a technical term.

A wicked problem is one that:

  • Is essentially novel and unique.
  • Is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  • Has no given alternative solutions.

We don’t know how to deal with the exponentially increasing and unceasing acceleration and increase of technology and knowledge.

We don’t know how to deal with the impact of this in our own lives.

We certainly have no idea how to deal with the impact of this on education in the 21st century.

Characterising education as a wicked problem which is hard to understand until after the formulation of a solution helps me understand the phenomenon that people can only tell you what they don’t want as a solution.

For example: “No…! Don’t fix it like that”.

I call these negative solutions.

This is when one or more possible solutions to a problem are eliminated, but can’t actually be eliminated until they are fully developed and also weren’t initially obvious at the start of the exercise.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is time-consuming and frustrating.

No Stopping Rule

Another characteristic of a wicked problem is the following:

  • It has no stopping rule.

A stopping rule is a rule that tells you when to stop doing something. For example, if you’re gambling at a casino, a stopping rule would be something like “I’ll stop when I run out of money” or “when I’ve played five games of roulette”.

Not only do we not know what to do next in education, but I’m not sure that we know what the conditions would look like that would tell us that we fixed it.

Or even fixed some part of it.

There is no Omega point.

And given that we’re on some kind of exponential curve of accelerating change including technological growth that now permeates every aspect of life and work we may never know what it looks like to “fix” education or when we’ve “got it right”.

At least not in the ways that we think we could at the moment.

One shot…!

What’s more, any solution to a wicked problem is a kind of ‘one-shot operation.’ This is compounded by the fact that solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

You can see this in history partially thought out, half-solutions that get proposed, funded, rolled out with enthusiasm and then thrown out, scaled back, defunded or otherwise scrapped.

It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the nature of the problem.

Actually, it might be someone’s fault. But let’s not get on that train.

It’s a mess

This kind of problem is also known as a mess. Yes, that’s also a technical term.

This is when every problem interacts with every other problem. It’s a set of interrelated problems.

A system of problems.

(I wish I’d thought of that turn of phrase myself, but I lifted it from a Wikipedia entry).

If you want to look at the problem, you can’t really separate out the variables without losing the bigger picture.

In the past, when I’ve done professional development work with tutors I’ve referred to the problem of low adult literacy and numeracy as an ecological problem.

I didn’t use those words exactly. I called it a kind of swampy mess.

A swampy mess is something that ecologists understand but educationalists often don’t.

For example, in a swamp, you have to study the frogs, the mud, the old rubber tires, the decaying vegetation, blood-sucking mosquitoes, rotten tree trunks, slime and muck and all of it as a system.

When we’re looking at low literacy and numeracy our conversation might need to include poverty, colonisation, technology, poor schooling, anxiety, and fill-in-the-blank with a lot of other things.

In this kind of swampy mess, everything is complex.

Here are some things you’re likely to find when you’re dealing with a mess like this. See how many you can recognise from your own experience in education:

  • There is really no unique “correct” view of the problem;
  • People and organisations have different views of the problem and often pose contradictory solutions;
  • Most problems are connected to other problems;
  • Data are often uncertain or missing;
  • There are multiple value conflicts;
  • There are all kinds of constraints including ideological, cultural, political and economic;
  • There is often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking (i.e. many possible truths are possible rather than a black and white view of the problem);
  • There are many possible intervention points;
  • Consequences are difficult to imagine;
  • There are considerable uncertainty and ambiguity;
  • There is great resistance to change; and,
  • Problem solvers might be out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.

Not finished yet…

The wicked problem and swampy mess are further compounded by another set of problems which I don’t have time to get into right now but I’d love to at some stage:

  • Groupthink.
  • Analysis paralysis.
  • Activity inertia.
  • Non-agile thinking and solutions.
  • Inability to “ship” any kind of solution.
  • Dysfunctional teams.

I realise that I haven’t said how to fix education. And I realise this was promised in the title.

Whatever the answer, I don’t think it’s another prescription.

Perhaps, more of an approach.