EDUC-6145-1: WK 2 – Project “Post Mortem”

I would like to devote this post to a project that I was involved in back in 2013. I was not the PM but a member of the project team (a functional employee [Portny et al, 2008]). At the time, I was an Assistant Lecturer at an HE institution, and the faculty were tasked with producing new summative assessment tools and summative assessment materials that would meet the Federal State Educational Standards being introduced in Russia 2013 to replace the State Educational Standards. The FSES were designed to meet the requirements of the Bologna Process and the competency-based approach to education and learning (Pursiainen & Medvedev, 2005).

The project’s outcomes were pitiful, with the new assessment materials low-quality, unverified, not proofread, and often invalid and unreliable. There were many PM mistakes that contributed to the project’s overall failure. The PM was Director of Studies, who had formal direct authority, whose office was located in a different campus, and whom the functional employees never really saw or communicated with – indeed, very few knew the name of the PM. Functional managers (heads of departments) served as intermediaries between the PM and the functional employees, though it was always one-way communication – directives passed down from the PM to the functional employees. That was Mistake No.1 – Poor team communication (Portny et al, 2008), which, inevitably, led to Mistake No.2 – Weak team leadership (Portny et al, 2008) and Mistake No.3 – Lack of commitment by all team members to the project’s success (Portny et al, 2008). There were attempts on the part of the PM and the functional managers to ‘remedy’ the commitment deficiency through coercive measures.

There were no clear objectives, either. The faculty were assigned a task that was in no way specified. It seemed that the team members were supposed to figure out for themselves what the finished product was expected to be. It felt like: Go there, I don’t know where; fetch me the what, I don’t know what! None of the faculty had an understanding of it was that they were supposed to do. No one knew in what way(s) the new FSES were different from the SES, and what the new approach to education implied. It seems only sensible to have provided a training session on the new standards and the competency-based approach raise the faculty’s awareness; however, it was all left to chance.

As for assigning tasks to the team members, the PM took a very short-cut: each member of the faculty was responsible for the summative assessment tools and materials for each course that he/she taught. This resulted in a highly uneven distribution of workload: some taught one credit-hour-heavy course (worth 6 or more credit hours), while other had several shorter courses (only 3 credit hours each). As there was no financial reward involved, and the project tasks were supposed to be done in addition to the routine teaching activities and mostly outside the workplace for there was no hardware available, the distribution of workload issue caused many a conflict between the team members. According to Greer (2010), the effort and resources were largely underestimated.

Now I see that we were rushed into the Perform phase while the Define phase was not complete (Portny et al, 2008). There was no timeline, no milestones to keep the team members “focused on upcoming tasks, elapsed project time, and remaining project time” (Greer, 2010, p.23), only the deadline, therefore, it is no wonder that many of the team members shelved the task and procrastinated. However, in the end, they proved to have done the right thing. The few who started developing summative assessment tools the moment the project was announced launched, had a lot to redo later, when the PM, finally, specified the task, which was two weeks before the deadline and was, in fact, a major scope change (Greer, 2010). According to the specifications, the only assessment tool that was acceptable for the project was a 100-item multiple-choice test (a strange requirement for the competency-based approach, which should be more consistent with constructivism tenets [Bamform-Rees et al, 2013]).

I shudder to remember myself working almost 24/7 during the ten-day public holiday (May 1 – May 10) in order to prepare such tests for the 7 seven courses that I taught and which, not infrequently, ill-fit any assessment based on recall – it was working against time.

I am not at all proud of or satisfied with part of what I produced. I am certain, my colleagues and I would have done a lot better had we been allowed a chance to, that is, if the project has been better planned.

References

Bamford-Rees, D., Doyle, B., Klein-Collins, B., &Wertheim, J. (2013). 2013 CAEL forum & news: Competency-based education. Council for Adult and Experiential Learning/CAEL.

Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.

Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Pursiainen, C., & Medvedev, S.A. (2005). The Bologna process and its implications for Russia: The European integration of higher education. Moscow: RECEP.

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8 Comments

  1. Oh my! What a mess! Well, the good news for you is that you are not alone – I’ve been part of education projects that were organized and carried out almost exactly as you described. The bad news for us both is that it obviously is not the best way to do anything. One of our resources this week stressed that good, well-organized communication becomes even more important when working on “Projects that involve a number of organizational units, external vendors, or have a significant size” (Allen & Hardin, 2008, p. 80). I definitely think this is good advice, and something that would have helped your situation a great deal.

    It was a great example – thanks for sharing!
    Renee

    Allen, S., & Hardin, P. C. (2008, Spring). Developing instructional technology products using effective project management practices. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19(2), 72-97. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/bbcswebdav/institution/USW1/201540_04/MS_INDT/EDUC_6145/Week%202/Resources/Week%202%20Resources/embedded/Allen_Hardin_W2_6145.pdf

    • Dear Renee,
      I do think that multiple factors led to the disaster, the major being the PM’s lack of expertise and the organizational culture which allowed of such an approach to project management. I would also emphasize the recruitment and job assignment procedures that are often not focused on a person’s eligibility and his/her potential to benefit the organization but on self-interest. I read somewhere that if a person holds a position that is below his/her capabilities, the person suffers alone, but if he/she holds a position beyond his/her capabilities, it is everyone around who suffers.
      Thank you, Renee, for your comment,
      Marina

  2. Hey Marina!

    I agree with Renee, WHAT a mess that was. But even from this negative experience positive things can come out. Meditating on what went wrong, will help us fix or avoid the mistakes: “It’s important for project managers and team members to take stock at the end of a project and develop a list of lessons learned so that they don’t repeat their mistakes in the next project”. Greer, M. (2010, p. 42).

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    -Ruth

    Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.

  3. Marina,
    I can only imagine your level of frustration and work you went through in trying to prepare tests for the seven (7) courses you were assigned. Even with the ill-fit of the tests. That is a horrendous amount of work to cram into a 10-day period of time.
    I am shocked that the scope was changed and the task finally specified only two weeks before the deadline. Obviously, the PM was inexperienced and had no understanding of the time and resources needed to complete each of the tasks (Greer, 2010). Nor does it seem they really cared.

    I can understand your disappointment and dissatisfaction with what you were able to produce. I am relieved that you understand where the fault of the project outcomes falls on the PM and not on the members of the team.

    Thank you for sharing a project gone wrong in every way.

    References

    Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.

    • Dear Jordyn,
      You hit it on the nail when you said that the PM did not seem to really care, nor did she believe herself in any way accountable to the project team (you remember, she did not even introduce herself to the team members). The fact that she could afford to behave like she did lies in the overall hierarchy-oriented organizational culture with grass-root employees not treated as professionals or personalities, but as easy-to-replace almost inanimate cogs in the machine.
      Thank you for your comment and empathy,
      Marina

  4. Marina,
    That sounded considerably unorganized. Unfortunately, I have seen similar projects like this a few times myself in education. Someone has a great idea but no clue on how to achieve the goals. Instead of taking the time to plan out the project they jump in head first with the thinking that they will be able to fix the problems as they appear. It looked as if the project manager was unsure of a solution and waited for one of the instructors to develop a solution and then two weeks before the deadline let others know the specified tasks to complete the project. No question about it, the project needed better planning.
    Chris

    • Dear Chris,
      yes, this unfortunate project taught us all (and I hope the PM, as well) a useful lesson: though trite as it may sound, think then act, don’t act then think.
      And the incident did have a long term ‘loss of trust’ effect. The management’s credibility was so severely undermined that trust has not been restored so far.
      Thank you for your comment,
      Marina

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