Time-limited project approachs

Today, I was asked to do a last-minute presentation on my teams approach to course and module design for online and flexible programmes. The main aim is to get the right people in the room and create space to take them through a practical approach based on what we know to work and addressing what has gone wrong in the past. 

In the presentation, I focused on three key characteristics of the approach;

  1. Parkinson’s law where work expands to fill the time allocated 
  2. Capabilities Maturity Model, where we formalise and optimise the process to reliably and sustainably produce required outcomes
  3. Design thinking, a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.

Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. The more time we allocate to a task, the more of it we waste, the less time we assign, the more efficient we have to be, cutting out anything that is not essential to getting the job done. When a deadline is far away, we tend to spend some of our available time in active procrastination or giving away the time to other demands. It is only when a delivery date approaches that we ruthlessly trim anything non-essential to complete the task and constrain our activity to what matters. Restricting the delivery time allotted to only what is needed to complete the task creates focus.

Once we have trimmed the time, we need to use a defined series of actions to help get the outcome required. Process maturity refers to the extent to which the process is managed, defined, measured, and controlled to ensure a reliable and sustainable development each time the process is used. As a manager, I need to know that no matter who is assigned to a project, I can have confidence that a certain level of service and quality is achieved; a mature process with frequent feedback loops supports this. The Capability Maturity Model has five levels;

  1. Initial: Unpredictable and reactive – each individual runs each project based on their own with little standardisation
  2. Managed: Project management – projects are dealt with in a systematic and organised way
  3. Defined: Proactive – standards and process are provided across all projects
  4. Quantitatively managed – Measured and controlled – metrics are used to monitor and improve performance and provide a predictable level of quality
  5. Optimising: Stable and flexible – feedback loops offer continuous improvement and the ability to be agile and innovative.

Design thinking is a structured approach to product development and provides the process that the capability maturity model fits around. There are three broad phases; First, you understand the problem, explore possible solutions, and then finally materialise the selected outcome. Within these three phases, there are six main activities;

  • Understand
    • Empathise: carry out research such as interviews and observations to understand the user or client and their stories.
    • Define: use the research to write a clear definition of the problem. This might include user personas that use cases.
  • Explore
    • Ideate: Divergent thinking is used to generate as many possible solutions without judgment. Then, Convergent thinking is carried out, with each idea evaluated, and the best is chosen. 
    • Prototype: A version of the solution is created to test the idea with the user or client. This might be as simple as a paper prototype on a series of slides or a one-page document, or a quickly generated but fully working minimum viable product.
  • Materialise
    • Test: The prototype is put in front of users to refine and validate the proposed solution. 
    • Implement: The solution is built and delivered to users.

To illustrate the approach, I used three examples;

  • Example 1: Google’s Design Sprints
  • Example 2: The universities Course Design sprints
  • Example 3: My teams adapted ABC Module Design Workshop

Time-limited approaches to projects work as they create focus. A mature process optimises the time available, and divergent and convergent thinking produces better ideas. Testing the solution allows a design to be refined and validated before it is released.

Limiting delivery times and defining the process is effective once working, but the transition creates challenges. The first is that those implementing the changes need to build credibility, so they are trusted. Most people know how they want to solve a problem and can be resistant to a design process they see as unnecessary and overly structured. Finally, most people are busy but are unpracticed at estimating how much time something takes to complete; they tend to panic when they see work in clearly defined packages and want to ‘just get work done.