Training Leaders & Recruits to Their Peak Value with Small Projects
It seems counterintuitive, but people reach Peak Performance much faster. One said she learned more in 2 months than in the prior 1 ½ years.
- Everybody benefits from good training — the trainee, the instructor, the company, and the company’s customers. To be effective, the trainer must put people into real-world situations, but not so large that they are overwhelming. Made-up problems do not work well. This article shows how to do that from McDonald’s to computer programmers to managers.
The approach - How & Why
One aspect of being a professional is the ability to train others. The volume of work is too large for you to do all of it yourself, no matter the job.
Even training people part time, you benefit the company, the IT employee, the user community and you.
Although the examples are mostly IT, the small project method works everywhere.
I even used it when I was backup assistant manager on the Sunday shift at McDonalds in college. I actually had people volunteer for things.
I have officially used the same process as part of my job since 1980. I assumed that every person could do everything until they proved that they could not.
I was only disappointed twice — once by arrogance and once by someone who could not understand an “IF” statement.
Math classes in Singapore show that training methods are important. They use an iterative process that requires that the trainee fully understands each task before moving on to the next one.
It seems that would work for everything, but it doesn’t.
Normally, managers use a similar method to train people one task at a time, going from task to task as the trainee gains skill.
Frequently, it is too fast and the poor trainee does not see how things fit together — even when it is explained. This can be confusing and slows comprehension.
A small project brings clarity.
We always had a list of small, low priority projects, usually less than one week, which I did not have time to do.
So, I would assign one to the trainee who would do everything from writing the goals to final implementation and user training.
They learned all about company standards, the technical environment, problem-solving skills, users and colleagues.
I hated classes where we were told “type this, click that, etc”. When I was conducting a class or individual training, there were no preset drills or predetermined practice problems.
Allow People to Make Mistakes
There are no dress rehearsals in life. It is the real world, with real users and real risks. Small projects allow people to learn in smaller doses and get the gratification of seeing their work being used.
We used a slightly different approach with experienced people vs interns and recent graduates.
Experienced people usually knew the programming languages, databases and operating systems, or something similar. It was just a transition for them.
For interns and recent graduates, we broke the steps down to two to four hour increments.
I told them upfront that they may not be able to complete the task and not to work more than the assigned time. That was long enough for them to get frustrated but not long enough to be discouraged.
Then they would have decent questions and would understand the answers.
One trainee said that she learned more from me in two months than she learned in the last 1 ½ years, which included a six week programming boot camp.
Special Teaching Moments
Another team manager asked that I review a project before it went to user acceptance testing. By that time, everyone in that GM division was using small projects to train new employees.
This was the young lady’s first project out of college.
- I suggested some database design changes. Her shoulders slumped.
- Page layout changes to make data entry easier. Slump.
- Better comments in the code review. Slump.
Then I asked about her approach in a section of code.
After she explained it, I opened one of my programs and inserted the same code. It worked great.
I told her that I had been trying to solve that problem for over a week.
She stood a lot straighter.
I could have added it later, but my teaching point was that nobody knows everything. Even the in-house expert can learn from the newest trainee.
Point of View
Developers were always encouraged to pretend to be the user. What is easy, hard, confusing. What does not fit well into their daily operations.
They worked closely with the user champion throughout the project. That helped separate the techies from future leaders.
In a larger IT organization, small projects can provide a platform for testing future leaders in a live environment without major risks.
The “Small Projects” team roles, each three months and unrelated to job titles or salaries, are Junior, Senior and Team Lead. The Junior is the newest member and the Team Lead is in the last three months, no matter their job titles.
Each person would serve approximately 9 months and then the Team Lead rolls off and a new member is added. The team would normally prioritize their own projects. Work could be done by one or more members.
The Team Lead provides reports to IT management and would be judged by how the team worked together.
It is a very Agile group.
Training is easy enough with individual developers since they build everything, but more difficult with end-user classes when I supplied a populated database. These were hands-on classes. The students built everything else.
So, I started classes with this speech:
“All programs have bugs. You will write them. They will have bugs. You will inherit them. They will have bugs.”
“I just gave you 120 pages of handouts. There are 5 typos — i.e. bugs. Let me know when you find them.”
“This is not school. There is no plagiarism. Copy from your neighbor, provided that it works and you understand it.
You will not have an instructor at work or at home. So, if you have a problem, ask your neighbor. If the two of you cannot solve the problem, we will bring it up for class discussion.”
The classes were very lively. None were IT professionals.
The most common comment at the end: “I feel that I can go home and build something.”
One student was building a database for his church with MS Access.
Another student, the H.R. department head, who was chairman of a project steering committee, noted the system design concepts from my class.
The next day he asked the IT project team how they were going to handle them. The team had not even thought of some of them.
Some employees, i.e. Super Users, gain enough expertise to build their own work tools. I always provided expert advice and encouraged them to follow professional standards, such as documentation, user instructions and better techniques.
Just the attention improved their perception of IT.
Benefit to You
You learn a lot yourself about teamwork, organization and the technology.
Trainees will ask questions that you never thought about. By the end of their project, you know their attitude and skills if you work on another project with them.
You may be required to evaluate them with your manager, thus giving you evaluation experience.
Finally, you get self-gratification when someone else succeeds and the users are happy.
Good training means higher productivity
Good projects work. Bad ones don’t.
Poor ones function but have bad side effects.
Classes and articles provide methods and ideas, but nothing works as well as doing entire projects in the real world with live participants.
A good manager can find a small project for the new employee, no matter the job or industry.
Author’s note: Small projects are also important for other reasons. See my article Importance of Small Projects.
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