May You Live in Interesting Teams

Working_Together_Teamwork_Puzzle_Concept (1)This year’s LAMSIG Pre-Conference workshop is entitled Effective Teams and Teamwork: building, participating, leading. I am looking forward to it very much – while I am one of the team presenting (the teamwork team?)  I expect to learn a lot from both my co-presenters and also those who attend and offer their experiences and thoughts to the event.

To preview the event slightly, I thought I’d write a little on teamwork and what it involves – why teams are a good thing, what types of tasks in an LTO which are particularly well-suited to teamwork, and a theory about what can help teams to most effectively succeed.

Why work in teams?

Teamwork serves a number of purposes in your organisation. These include:

  1. Teams are greater than the sum of their parts – we’ve all had experiences where we’ve had half an idea and put it forward in a team and someone else has taken it and said “Oh, yes, and if you did this…” and a third person refines it still further. Alone that idea would never have got off the ground. (Senge calls this Team Learning)
  2. Creating teams allows you to build connections across the organisation. Think of a marketing team for example, which included not just marketing staff, but teachers and student support staff. Not only would it provide fresh perspective, but it would also make the relationships between the members stronger
  3. More people become involved with issues that matter to them. People have the chance to contribute, not merely have decisions and changes imposed on them
  4. Change is much more effective when those affected by the change have been involved in creating it (as they would be if there was a team organised to drive the change)
  5. It’s a way of delegating tasks – giving staff opportunities to develop and giving you – the manager – more time to focus on other things

What sort of things lend themselves to teamwork?

Though teamwork is a good idea for the reasons mentioned above, that doesn’t mean that forming teams with no real purpose is wise.  Teams need to have something to work towards, not merely exist for the sake of existing.  Otherwise people will rapidly get fed up of being put into teams.  Just as in the ELT classroom some activities lend themselves to group work, others don’t.

Some decisions and changes that would suit teams in the typical LTO would be:

  • Choosing a new coursebook
  • Writing a new mid-term test for Level x
  • Devising a marketing campaign (I have no idea why so few schools do this, when in teachers, student support staff and receptionists they have so much expertise in what would attract students – and indeed in what the product being marketed actually is)
  • Developing a new course
  • Planning a peer observation scheme
  • Crafting a new performance management system

And, of course, many others

How can teams work together most effectively?

There is a lot written about teams – about the roles people take on in teams (see this Wikipedia article on Belbin for a starting point), about how teams develop and their lifecycle (eg Tuckman’s famous Forming-storming-norming-performing model ), and much more, but for this post I’m going to look at a model designed to help teams work as effectively as possible, developed by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in “The Progress Principle” (2011).

The main idea behind this theory is that people are more productive, more engaged and more creative if they feel they are achieving something (obviously that’s not an earth shattering revelation, but bear with me here).  What this leads to is that teams (and indeed individuals) need to be able to celebrate consistent small victories. They need to feel like they are getting somewhere.  This is based on some fairly extensive research with a large number of people working project teams in different companies who were asked to keep a journal of their team experiences.

Amabile and Kramer then go on to suggest 6 mechanisms that managers can use in order to help their teams achieve these consistent small wins

  1. Set clear goals and objectives

Make sure that what the goal of the team’s work is very clear. Set SMART objectives. If people can see where they are going, it’s easier to see that they’re making progress.

  1. Allow autonomy

While the goals have to be clear, teams (and their members) need to have the freedom to reach those goals in the way they think is best. The more control people have over their work, the more creative and empowered they will feel, and the more they’ll recognise their own achievements. Don’t micromanage!

  1. Provide resources

Make sure the team has what it needs to do the work they have been given. If they don’t have the resources they will likely feel that the task itself is not important. Resources include not only physical things like supplies and technology, but training and support too

  1. Allow ample time

Give the team enough time to do the work (which will also allow them to be creative).  Deadlines which are too tight will result in lower quality work (and less harmonious teams).  However deadlines which are too far off may also be less motivating. So coming up with deadlines which motivate but which do not impede creativity and good quality work is important

  1. Provide support and expertise

Make sure your team has access to support and expertise from outside the team to help them progress with their work when they need it.  As the manager, this will likely include you, but it may also include others. Let those people know that they are expected to be available to help the team if called upon.

  1. Help people learn from “failure”

Sometimes teams don’t succeed in reaching their goal. This may be because they didn’t work very well together or it may be for reasons out of their control. It’s important to work with the team in working out why things didn’t go as planned and discuss what could have been done differently. If teams are punished for honest “failure”, the creativity and motivation in future work will be lost.

These 6 ideas will help the team make meaningful progress. From this it’s then important to routinely celebrate and reward success and achievement.  Encourage teams to keep a record of their achievements so they are not overlooked in the drive to get to the next milestone. Offer recognition for the achievements of the team in staff meetings. If it’s possible to offer small tangible rewards like taking the team out for dinner, or giving them a half day off, for big milestones reached, then do that, but recognition does not have to involve a financial cost.  Often a sincere “Thank You” and clear recognition for the work is enough.

This is one (among many) models of team effectiveness. Why not attend the LAMSIG PCE in Birmingham to learn about others and share ideas with colleagues and peers?


Amabile, T.M. and Kramer, S. (2011) The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Belbin, M.R. and Belbin, R.M.M. (2010) Team roles at work, Second edition. 2nd edn. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Senge, P.M. (2006) The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.
Tuckman, B.W. and Jensen, M.A.C. (1977) ‘Stages of small-group development revisited’, Group & Organization Management, 2(4), pp. 419–427. doi: 10.1177/105960117700200404.

Training project management online

Having been training project management skills face-to-face for some time, through the Fundamentals of Project Management course I have been doing this training in a purely online context of late (see this page for details)

Obviously face to face course provision is quite different from online, but each has its advantages. The advantages of online training include the facts that people can participate at a time convenient for them; there is typically more time for people to work on things (developing ideas, creating things, etc); the discussions can be much more in depth (though I should stress “can” rather than “will”); and there is a greater opportunity for reflection and skill building.

So, attempting to make use of that the course mentioned above takes 6 weeks and leads participants through all of the fundamental skills mentioned in the previous post. This involves input, discussion (both synchronous and asynchronous – fancy words for “at the same time” and “not”), tasks, and various project management resources.

This is a sort of shrunken version of what part of the course looks like (Moodle by the way is a great tool for delivering courses.  As someone who does a lot of online training and in different “venues”, I can thoroughly recommend Moodle, and thoroughly unrecommend the awful “Blackboard”)

SLA FPM Moodle

Course image for the "Fundamentals of Project Management" course run by Sue Leather Associates

To give an example of some of the input here is a short introductory powerpoint show from the course (the other big advantage of online learning is that you can hear me deliver a slide show but you don’t have to actually see my face. Result!)

[This was supposed to be embedded but wordpress isn’t cooperating]

Using the wikis available on Moodle, participants build up, over the period of the course, a fully designed project including all of the aspects we have discussed (such as objectives, stakeholder analysis, risk assessment, tasks, outputs and outcomes and a full monitoring and evaluation plan). As with anything, the more one does something the more one learns and makes something even better, but I would say that the course at the moment is proving to be extremely successful at helping people to get where they want to go in learning how to design and manage projects. So far we’ve had over 50 students taking the course, from all over the world.

So, if this piques your interest, you can attend my session at IATEFL on Tuesday 19th April or even sign up for a course! (Go to for more details and to register). Here endeth the brief self-promotion 🙂

Project Management: What you need to be able to do

Having established a case for project management as a general skill (I like to think I have made that case), what exactly are the skills that a project manager (or indeed anyone involved in projects) needs to have, and what do you need to be able to do?

Basically you need to be good at planning, good at preparing for as many eventualities as you can think of, and good at being flexible and responding to the eventualities you haven’t thought of.  Here’s where I’m going to draw an analogy with teaching.

Managament model

"The Five essential Stages of Management Control" Mullins L.J. Management and Organisational Behaviour London 1993

This picture shows a classic management model, which can illustrate this I think. The manager plans, setting objectives and targets. From these plans we establish standards of performance, what we are expecting to see, and then monitor the actual performance.  The difference between the actual performance and the established standards is a form of feedback, which we then use to make decisions over what needs to be adjusted.  This might mean making adjustments in the actual performance – working out ways to do things more efficiently or effectively for example; it might mean making adjustments in the standards themselves – if what you are learning is that the standards are too high or too low, say; or might even mean adjusting the original objectives and targets.

As language teachers we tend to do the same – we plan courses and then lessons, we set standards of performance that we expect to see/hear from the students, and then we monitor the actual performance. As a result we can adjust what we are doing in the classroom, so as to attempt to bring the actual performance closer to our expectations; or we can adjust the standards themselves, realising perhaps that we are being unreasonable in our expectations, or that the students are completely comfortable with the target language and so we can move on, and so on; or we can adjust the course itself, inserting extra lessons, or recycling work to make sure it is taken on board or even change the entire curriculum.

Project management is basically management writ small. That is, it’s a finite version of management – managing something (big or small) which has a clear end point and a specific budget and (usually) one specific aim.  So, in fact the skills you need for project management are more or less exactly the same as those you would need for management (writ large).  Which makes project management not only useful in it’s own right but actually a very useful way of acquiring many of the skills needed for management in general.

In creating a project you are taking a need or a problem, translating that into a future desired state of affairs, turning that into a set of clear and specific objectives, and eventually reducing that to a set of tasks. You’re thinking about who your stakeholders are, how to communicate with them and you’re also thinking about risks, obstacles and constraints (and how to overcome them). And of course you are thinking about how you will monitor and evaluate the work on the project, and keep track of things, as well as making contingency plans. You are budgeting, and team building, and scheduling, and reflecting, and assessing, and collating and storing knowledge.

To give an example of the kinds of topics that we cover on one purely online course I teach, called “Fundamentals of Project Management” you can take a look at this PDF file which outlines the course.  This, as it says on the tin, is very much the fundamentals of the subject. There are obviously areas in which one can much deeper (we don’t cover budgeting in much depth on that course for example).

So those are the skills and abilities which a project management course needs to be able to offer.  Tomorrow I’ll conclude this mini-series with the ways in which I have tried to adapt face to face training in project management to online training (as in the course linked to above).


Project Management week. Introduction

At the IATEFL conference  in two weeks from today I will be doing a workshop about project management and specifically training project management online.  This week (here) I will endeavour to create some context for that workshop and discuss some of the things that I will be talking about there.

One of the areas of management that appears to have got the most attention in recent years, and certainly in my experience, is project management.  My first post-MA job was as an educational project manager, and since that time I have been managing, participating in and consulting on various large and small scale projects around the world.  From Brazil to Nepal, Micronesia to the European Union.

But where I see the need most clearly is in my work as a trainer. When the IDLTM was created, for example, we wrote in 6 core modules and 2 “local” modules, which the centre offering the course could propose.  I’m 99% sure that in every single version of the course that has so far run, one of those two modules has been project management. In addition, as time goes on, I find that more and more I am asked to do workshops and seminars on project management – it’s not that this is the only thing, but is does seem to be currently very fashionable, and, I am increasingly seeing, necessary.

More and more people are involved in project work, more and more organisations are tending towards an internal project approach to running things (sort of like Handy’s task culture), and more and more language teaching organisations are seeing external project work as a way to diversify their income streams.  And there is a lot to learn about how to design, run and participate in projects.  And, I would argue, it’s increasingly something that is not just for managers – in many language teaching and other educational organisations I’m familiar with – everyone is involved in projects.

Projects internally can be a way of effecting change, of creating teams, and of making the organisation function better. Externally, they can create opportunities for networking, build new sources of income, and create partnerships across organisations and even across borders.  Anyone working in education in the EU for example, really ought to be aware of the tremendous opportunities available for very interesting and innovative work through the European Commission’s various funds.

All in all, then, I feel like  I have a great deal of experience in project management and in teaching project management and design over the years. It’s this experience I will be drawing from in my session at the conference, and in talking about how  I’ve had to change from teaching it more or less entirely face to face, to doing it in a more blended format, to now where I am doing a lot of purely online project management training.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of the skills involved in project management and design and then later in the week, about how I have tried to approach teaching those skills in an online format.