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.

Leardership and management 101

I believe there are three keys to strong leadership and management:

  1. Vision
  2. Wellbeing
  3. Productivity

First, you have to have a clear and ambitious vision for the future your team is creating and communicate it so that they believe it. Next, you need to look after the individual team members and promote psychological safety. Finally, you need to break your vision down into clear goals and let each team member know what they are responsible for, then let them get on with it.  

Vision: the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.

Oxford Languages

Wellbeing: the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.

Oxford Languages

Productivity: the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.

Oxford Languages

A new manager can start with simple steps for each of the three elements and then gradually built upon them to spiral out their capabilities as a manager and leader. For example, once you have written a vision, you are holding regular open and honest 1:1 meetings with each team member, and everyone is clear on what they should be working on, you could turn your vision into a strategy, You could add a daily stand each morning to build community in the team, and you can start to have more control over the flow of work by identifying and removing constraints.

If you want some ideas on how to spiral out your vision and productivity, Jim Collins’s Level 5 leadership and the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) are an excellent place to start. For wellbeing, begin by learning about creating a psychologically safe workplace and then take the lessons of Self-determination theory to encourage your team to develop autonomy, competence, and relatedness in their work.

Using Abbing’s brand model to develop a service offer

University leadership teams are currently planning what delivery will look like next academic year. A form of blended learning will likely be maintained even if social distancing rules are relaxed. Educational technology and academic development teams will need to restructure their services to provide academic departments with the support they need to transition from this year’s delivery model to a more sustainable and quality-driven model for the future. But what does that service offer look like and how can it be designed to provide freedom for academic teams to explore what this new future looks like?

Author/Copyright holder: erik roscam abbing. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Erik Roscam Abbing’s brand model could be used as a starting point for Edtech teams to create their new service blueprint. The starting point is to map out the team’s own identity, vision, mission, and behaviours. An understanding of the Capability Maturity Model can also input into the team’s desired brand. I have added below my current thoughts on the first phase for my team. If you have any questions or want to collaborate on ideas, get in contact with me on Twitter @samueljtanner

Team Identity

We have moved towards a Learning Design skill set in the team rather than the more traditional Learning Technologist. Each member of the group would consider themselves as a ‘techie’ and has an expertise that sits somewhere in the nexus of three core technical skills; Learning and teaching, multimedia and technology development, and design. Learning Designers operate as project managers, follow design thinking methodologies using personas and prototypes, and adopt a scholarly approach to quality assurance and continuous improvement practices.


We believe in the transformational nature of technology, and that learning and teaching can be made better when technology is used to design student centred experiences. Teachnology allowed learning and teaching to be:

  • Flexible: accessible to anyone that wants to learn, at whatever stage of life they are at, and whatever their context.
  • Personalised: designed to meet students individual goals and provide choice as these change.
  • Active and collaborative: engaging learning experiences that prepare students with the skills they need for the workplace, including problem-solving, teamwork, communication, and resilience. 
  • Redefined: using technology to create student experiences previously impossible with physical constraints.


By 2025, all students will have a flexible, personalised, and active and collaborative learning experience that uses technology to provide better learning outcomes.


We are: 

  • partnering with academic teams to co-design modules and courses
  • defining what quality looks like and how to get there sustainably 
  • sharing ideas of what is possible and what works
  • building an easy to use and seamlessly integrated technology ecosystem that provides the tools needed 

My ideas will be different from yours

The ideas here are just a brain dump around the direction I am taking my team, but I suggest using the same framework for your institution. Phase two will look at the identity, vision, mission, and behaviour of those teaching at university. My team is a service for academic departments to help them teach students, and so our customers are the lecturers. It is a time of disruption for the role of academics, and the answers to the questions in phase two will be very different now than six years ago when I moved from further education to the university sector. I have some research to do, but I imagine that brand promise will be something along the lines of… 

Brand promise: Your Learning Designer will help you design, develop, and deliver a flexible module quicker, easier, and provide a better student experience than if you had done it independently.

Project Management Basics

The first step towards a mature development process for developing online courses is to introduce some project management basics. According to the Project Management Institute, a project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. For a set of tasks to be a projectthere must be a start and end date and produce a one-off output. The three core tasks for managing a project are cost and effort estimation, task allocation, and risk management.

Resist the ad hoc. Announce that this is a project, and that it matters enough to be treated as one.

Seth Godin

Here are ten suggested actions to get you started with managing your projects:

  1. Set a start and end date and identify your critical path; each task’s last possible completion date allows the project to hit the end date. Identify the dates by work backwards from completion and take into account tasks dependent on the completion of another. Track task completion against this critical path, and do what is needed to hit all the deadlines, so the project ends on time.
  2. Develop a way of estimating the cost and effort involved in your projects. Understand how complexity, size, and reuse impact these estimates. Start with what you can find in literature and then review and update it after each new project is complete to improve its accuracy over time. 
  3. Keep a list of risks, possible consequences, and likelihood and introduce ways to reduce the chance of them happening to minimise disturbances during the project. Considered project risks that affect the schedule or resources, product risks affecting the final course or module, and business risks that affect the university.
  4. Assign a Project Leader responsible for the project; this should be someone who controls the critical resources such as the Academics line manager of Head of Department. Regularly communicate with the Project Lead and get sign-off from them on crucial decisions. 
  5. Produce a project schedule that includes all the tasks to be completed and their due dates, any key milestones, and gates where the key project team members get sign-off to progress. Add the critical path and start and end dates and get everyone to sign it off before work begins. Update it as things change.
  6. Send out weekly project highlights to the Sponsor/owner and Project Leader. Use a traffic light system to help them identify if they need to intervene. If in amber or red, add a brief note saying why it is in trouble and what is required to bring it back to green. 
  7. Make all your work visible and share it will the whole project team. Show the critical path, the estimates, the risks, and the schedule. Keep a record of all the weekly highlight reports and the other documents in a central location that the project team can access. Produce regular prototypes in various forms as soon as possible and regularly afterwards, share it with the intended students for feedback before the course launches.
  8. Write down everything. Record everything that people expect and everything that people promise. Let everyone know you have recorded it. Keep a log of what you’ve done and how. You will need it when things go wrong or when planning the next project.
  9. When working on multiple projects, keep a complete list in one place. Use the weekly highlights traffic light system and record the next action to move each forward. If you manage a team, get the members to do the same and keep a central list of all the projects and their status.
  10. Evaluate your projects when you sign them off. Create a lessons learned document and get the project team to list what worked and what didn’t. Integrate any changes into the process for next time.

CMM and online learning development process design

Universities need to significantly increase their capacity to develop high quality online and blended delivery through the recruitment and training of Learning Designers. Institutional scale requires a shift from focusing on individual Learning Designers’ capabilities to concentrating on the organisation’s capabilities for designing learning. First, universities must consider how Learning Design projects are managed and implement sound project management principles. Next, they need to implement a structured development approach through research, evaluation, and peer review, the creation of rigorous quality standards, a formalised development pipeline, a strong community of practice, and progressive professional development.

Good project management of course design and development projects keeps them delivered on time, on budget, and within scope, and ensure a high standard for the student experience. Most learning development models are in their infancy, with few standards defined. If institutions want to produce novel and innovative online courses, they need to borrow design and development techniques from other fields, including software engineering.

The Capability Maturity Model (CMM), developed at the Carnegie Mellon University for large software projects, evaluates a product development processes level of maturity. It is focused on standardising the process of design and development and so counter to many agile methods but will work well with established teams in large organisations. CMM accepts that design and development processes are idealistic and do not represent most projects’ messy and improvised nature, but that tightly controlled and fully documented processes are better. The messiness level varies from project to project, and CMM aims to categories these into five levels of maturity.

Learning Design teams can use CCM’s five levels to improve their operations and assess how individual Learning Designers perform. Teams work through the levels in sequence to standardise their process to produce consistently high-quality online courses no matter the team working on it. The highest level would be represented by a clearly defined process that can be taught and learned, with clear quality metrics that lead to near-zero adverse outcomes. It includes mechanisms for capturing innovative practice and incrementally improving with each course iteration.  

The five stages of maturity

All stages above level two subsume the standards of the previous level.

Level 1: Initial – an ad hoc process which can be chaotic. Each Learning Designer follows their version of a basic process. This is the starting point for using a new or undocumented repeat process. 

Level 2: Repeatable – each project includes cost scheduling and basic project management practices. Some processes are repeatable, with some consistent results. 

Level 3: Defined – the process for managing and developing courses is standardised and documented.

Level 4: Managed – measurement is made of the process and course quality. These measures are used to control and improve practices. Effective achievement of the process objectives can be evidenced using metrics.

Level 5: Optimising – processes are continually improved through quantitative measures and testing innovative ideas and new technologies. (Few developers are considered to be at this level). 

The next three to five years will see massive growth in online learning, and universities core delivery will keep much of the changes they have implemented over the last ten months. Departments responsible for supporting online and blended learning should be spending time now on process improvement to optimise their design and development model to prepare for this rapid growth.

Get in touch with me on Twitter if you want to discuss the process of design and development of online learning.