New learning in projects

Guest contribution by | 21.02.2019

Mastering current challenges through active learning in projects

Complex projects have already required competent and experienced employees in the past. This is no different in view of the constantly increasing challenges (disruptive strategies, new work, digitalization, “modern leadership”, shortened development cycles, …).

The multitude of upcoming, partly new tasks, their complexity and mutual dependencies as well as time pressure and scarce resources require well-trained employees, an adequate form of work and organization as well as the right tools and processes. All methods and tools, however, remain without the desired effect if they are not used effectively and wisely. Tom de Marco put it in a nutshell many years ago: “A fool with a tool is still a fool”. Collaboration tools can be understood as a further development of project management tools, but they do not reduce the complexity of the tasks ahead.

Problem-solving and action competence instead of “painting by numbers”

Many HR departments lack the experience to prepare employees for these challenges. For this to succeed, the topic of personnel development must be “thought” differently. The answer is not “learning” in the seminar using a training example on the level “We are planning the next children’s birthday”. The actual situation of a project cannot be realistically simulated. In response to increasing complexity, webinars or computer-based learning are not an adequate answer. Even the “intelligent” combination does not promise sustainable success.

The answer cannot be “continue as before – but it has to be agile”. It is also more than the strict application of any kind of classical or agile procedure or process model required. Even the corresponding mindset alone is not enough. Instead, we need employees who are willing and equipped to face these new challenges, i.e.

  • systemic thinking and acting.questioning their behaviour.
  • reflect on their actions (not only in the retrospective).
  • question old “recipes”.
  • develop a high degree of personal responsibility.
  • use the competence of the whole team.
  • have a high social competence.
  • have a well-stocked case (metaphor of a master craftsman …) for project work.

The answer: “New learning directly in the project”

Instead, a new form of learning is needed: real development and actual learning takes place directly in the project.

How we proceed

In recent years, we have had very good experiences with the following procedure:

  • The coach works in the project with the team and management in the existing project management infrastructure, identifies and concretizes learning and project goals; anchors these in the company goals,
  • accompanies and controls – together with team and management – the process,
  • contributes his professional and methodical competence as well as his project experience from a multitude of other projects,
  • finds the right mix of methods, identifies risks and adequate measures

The existing infrastructure and project processes are used in coordination between client, project management & team plus coach and verified in the project practice. Experiences from the projects are fed back into the organization and help to realize future projects more effectively and efficiently.

The transfer of what has been learned into practice is no longer necessary, as learning already takes place in practice! Real action competence is developed! You can also call it agile …but it doesn’t fit into any drawer!

So development (incl. learning) no longer takes place in the seminar room, but directly in the project. The employees and the company participate in this:

  • The development of the employees’ competence to act takes place parallel to the project (progress) and organisational development (is integrated); no learning “in theory”.
  • Transfer of what has been learned into practice is continuous and integrated.
  • Project risks are minimized.
  • Teams develop and become more effective.
  • Supports a process of continuous improvement (see Total Quality Management).
  • Contributes to the “Learning Organization”.
  • Can be combined with proven methods such as peer consulting, mentoring … and/or through learning platforms, collaboration tools, ……

“New learning in the project” versus seminar training

Seminar participants meet “old hands” and other obstacles.

The seminar is finished; back in the circle of colleagues everything that has been learned and worked out is reported. This is the hour of the “old hands”: “This is all just nice theory, … only works in the training, …, we know – but does not work with us, … with us we always do it that way …”. A multitude of “killer arguments” make it difficult, if not impossible, to deal with new methods and procedures. The first momentum to try out something new after the seminar is given to at least one proper damper.

New learning in the project, on the other hand, offers “old hands” little opportunity to live out their prejudices or scepticism. The topics and possibly arising problems with the application of methods, tools etc. are worked on together – and possibly adapted to the project practice. In this way, even old hands can learn something and contribute their many years of experience to the team.

The day after

Back in line or project everyday life, reality catches up with the employees again. Emails and unanswered calls are processed. There is no time left to review the learning results from the seminar and to check them for application in “everyday life”. Often after a short time it goes on “as before” – the desired benefit goes up in smoke.

New learning in the project is action-oriented learning. Methods, tools, etc. are used when they are actually needed and provide a benefit; experiences are made, evaluated and transferred into the personal crafts suitcase.

No learning “on the heap”

The training in seminars usually does not take place at the required time (unequal project start); this leads to the fact that the “learned” is often already forgotten (because not applied), when it is finally used.

“New learning in the project” always takes place at the required time. Methods and tools are used when they are needed. They are tested and reflected in real use. This also creates action competence for future project and line work.

The effect of sample solutions

Simple tasks or case studies are often used in the seminar. In this way, the working method can be better understood. However, the transfer to reality or the project must be carried out by each participant on their own. Here, however, it becomes apparent to what extent the actual problems or complexity of an approach were actually understood.

“New learning in the project” enables, under the guidance of the coach, the common application of (new) working methods. The tasks are started together, possible problems and obstacles are worked on together in the team.

High time and result pressure

“We don’t have time to sharpen our knives – we have to peel potatoes.”

High time pressure – often suggested by the word “project” – supposedly demands fast results. If, however, the planned procedure is lacking, this quickly leads to confusion, useless results, lack of orientation etc. and does not contribute to the success of the project.

New learning in the project is planned and methodically founded. The coach creates orientation and develops the process with the project management and the team. The methods and procedures are used which actually bring the project forward.

A good coach has highly developed analytical thinking skills, an extensive repertoire of methods (master craftsmen) and can quickly think his way into new problems. He brings with him extensive experience in project work and has a high level of problem-solving competence. He keeps a critical distance to the project and focuses on structures, patterns, …

Further development of the project infrastructure

Often, the project management infrastructure existing in organizations is not known to the employees. Either the required specialist knowledge is not available or they are “buried” so deeply in the intranet or wiki that no one takes the trouble to find it. In addition, their effects and benefits are not known because they have not been experienced! Possibly existing project management offices (PMO) are often not effectively anchored in the organization. A necessary support of the management is likewise not available to the necessary extent.

New learning in projects either uses the existing infrastructure or develops it. In the course of the project, a variety of tools, forms and checklists are used or developed for project work. All tools are used directly in the project practice and continuously adapted to the actual needs. They are also available to other projects.

Bottom line

In summary, it can be said that learning in projects is clearly superior to conventional learning formats. On the one hand, because of the sustainability of the learning success and, on the other hand, because of the “side effect” of the positive impact on the project. This side-effect is – from an overall perspective – a significant contribution to the success of the company, as it simultaneously advances the project and the entire organisation. Furthermore, a multiplier effect can often be observed: other projects in the organisation take on this form of linking project work and learning.



Are you interested in “New learning in your projects”? Then feel free to contact Leonhard Limburg and we will discuss your situation and the challenges in your organisation. Simply arrange a callback at

Leonhard Limburg
Leonhard Limburg

Leonhard Limburg is Managing Director of QUI, Gesellschaft für Qualität und Innovation mbH and supports managers, employees and teams in their concrete working environment. The conception and realisation of products and processes together with customers and partners are an important part of his work. In his experience, we cannot change people, but we can change the circumstances in which people operate.