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Walter A. Wawruck
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Learning Through Team Assignments

How can we bring home the practical implementation of good project management practices through a short course or training seminar?
Participants may have fun -- but do not see the connection with their own projects -- through artificial and simplistic "participatory exercises" such as developing a plan for building a doghouse or organizing a high-school reunion; unless of course your business is building doghouses or organizing reunions!

The learning approach described here is to use actual projects from the sponsoring organization -- with all of their complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties -- as the subject of a practical team assignment.


The Dilemma of "Practicality"

An Approach That Works

Typical Team Assignment

Participant Evaluations

Seminar Leader Walter Wawruck

The Dilemma of "Practicality"

Seminar participants look for training experiences which they can immediately apply to the work they are doing, or which they know they will be able to apply before long. Rightly so. The seminar leader wants the same thing.

However, presenting the material in a way that makes clear the connection to the work of the participants is not an easy thing. A fairly frequent comment on seminar evaluation forms is that the seminar was good, but should have included more specific examples or illustrations from the kinds of projects that the participants are working on. This is a legitimate, but impractical, expectation. It would take an enormous amount of preparatory work for a seminar leader to become familiar with the practices of a single organization, let alone with the features of all the projects that the participants are working on. Projects, by definition, are unique. If they were not, the seminar would be unnecessary!

One solution that many of us have tried is to let the participants learn from each other by sharing the lessons which they have learned through their work. Most people enjoy participative activities. The more senior and experienced the group, the more effective this is. Unfortunately, with a very junior group, there is often not much knowledge to share, so this technique does not go far in an introductory seminar. In fact it generates the complaints that the session lacks structure and that the seminar presenter is failing to "lead" the process.

Below, I outline an approach that seems to overcome, for the most part, both sets of objections. It features a combination of

  • lecture presentations to cover the principles, and a

  • structured team assignment which requires the participants, working in groups, to themselves establish the application of the principles to their own projects.

Finally, and this is important,

  • the seminar leader provides a constructive critique of the team conclusions.

They do not always get it right, but they do always seem to appreciate constructive feedback as an important step in the educational process.

I find the team assignments to be well received, both by junior and senior groups. In their assignments, experienced project practitioners have demonstrated some truly innovative applications of the principles that they were first introduced to in the seminar, and have provided me with important insights into the management process. Interacting with the seminar participants is always a learning experience for me. In this case, I get a bonus - and so do the other participants who listen to the team presentations.

A final note on making the presentation "practical". In 1984 I presented a series of in-house introductory seminars to virtually the entire staff of an organization. I asked the respondents to identify their seniority on the otherwise anonymous evaluation forms. There was a consistent relationship between seniority and the rating the seminar received. The highest ratings came from the most senior people. I was surprised. I had expected them to find the material "old hat". I also found that the greatest number of requests for more "practical examples", "case histories", and "illustrations of how it applies to my project", come from the junior ranks. Experienced people, it seems, have their own repositories of examples, cases, and illustrations which they themselves interpret in accordance with the concepts and principle presented in the seminar.

In subsequent years, even as I have worked to fill my presentations with stories, anecdotes, and case history reports, I still get requests for more illustrations of "how it applies to my work". The correlation I first observed in 1984 however puts the comments in context. I continue to observe that the more junior the group, the more frequent the comment. When I have the opportunity to use the team assignment approach described here, the cry for more "practical examples" all but disappears.


An Approach That Works

A training format which combines
  • lectures and discussion in a seminar setting
  • team assignments
has emerged as a proven approach to establishing an understanding of the connection between the presentation and the work of the participants. The seminar sessions deal with the management principles, established good practices, and techniques. The team assignments develop the connection between the lectures and the actual work of the participants.

The participants are divided into teams, and each team is given an assignment to prepare a management plan for an actual project, underway or recently completed in the organization.. The teams make formal presentations of their plans to the other participants. I provide a constructive critique of the management plan as part of the subsequent discussion.

This combined approach works best if the teams have adequate time to work on their presentations. With one of my clients, we are using this approach for the third year now. The format which seems to work best is to hold three one-day seminar sessions, each separated from the others by a week or so. The participants are given time during the sessions to work on the team assignments. It is suggested that they also meet to co-ordinate their individual contributions between sessions, even if the meetings are brief. Then, after a week or more we re-assemble for another half day of team presentations. I receive copies of the overheads from the teams the day before the presentations so that I can prepare my comments.

On the follow up evaluations, the participants consistently refer to the team assignments in positive terms and describe them as highly useful learning experiences. The assignments provide an opportunity for interaction with the other participants as well as a vehicle for the participants to contribute their own knowledge and experience to the training of their colleagues.


Typical Team Assignment

Each seminar participant will be assigned to a team of four or five people. Each team is required to prepare a management plan for a project which is now underway or recently completed in the organization. The management plan should provide a comprehensive recommendation for carrying out the project using the categories presented in the seminar:
Project Charter
The business justification, project objectives, and the mandate for the Project Manager and the team.
Project Organization
Organization chart, including Sponsor, Project Manager, key team members, and any steering or advisory committees.
Performance Baselines and Controls:
  • Scope . WBS developed to at least one level , process for developing and approving requirements, process for accepting end results of the project.
  • Master Schedule . Phases of project life cycle on a time scale, showing milestone events including executive approvals.
  • Budget and/or Resource Requirements . Following the WBS categories, show the dollars and/or the person hours for completing the project.
  • Controls .For each baseline, describe how performance against the baseline will be monitored and reported.

The teams will present their recommendations at a separate half day session following the last day of the seminar. The recommendations will be in the form of graphs, charts, and an oral presentation. Key points in the presentation are to be displayed. Either or both flip chart sheets or overhead projections shall be used. The audience will consist of the other participants. Each team member is required to participate in the presentation. One hour will be allowed for each team presentation. Of this, 45 minutes will be allowed for the description of the plan and 15 minutes will be provided for audience questions and discussion.

The team will use information from the actual project files as the factual basis for the plan. Each team is responsible for managing its own work. It is strongly suggested that one person should be Project Manager, and that each team member should have specific duties and a specific responsibility for a portion of the management plan.

During the seminar, a limited amount of time will be provided for team meetings on Day 1 and Day 2. On Day 3, a full half day will be available for working on the presentation. In addition, however, the team should expect to spend some time on the assignment outside of the seminar.

A listing of team members and information on the assigned projects will be provided on Day 1.


Participant Evaluations

This is an excerpt from my report to the client following the fifth presentation of an introductory three day seminar, using team assignments as the vehicle for cementing the connections between the course material and the actual project work of the participants. The organization is a central services provider for financial institutions.

This year, the participants were allowed to form their own teams and to make their own selections of the projects for which they would prepare and present a project plan. They tended to form teams of people from a single department and to select projects that are currently underway. An extra half day was allowed for the preparation of the team presentations during the seminar, and the final presentations were made twelve days after the last session. This gave me a greater opportunity to review and to discuss the work of the teams during the seminar. I was supplied with copies of the presentation overheads prior to the presentation. This allowed me to prepare a constructive critique which I gave following each presentation.

I found this format to be very successful. It was a very positive learning experience for the participants. In the written comments on the evaluation forms, eight of the participants made positive statements about the team assignments. There were no negative statements and no suggestions that the team assignments should be omitted. Unlike the case in 1997, there were only two suggestions that more time should have been allowed to prepare the presentations. The team assignments appear to have provided a sufficient opportunity for interaction and individual participation, since there were virtually no comments suggesting a deficiency in this aspect.

Similarly, there were very few comments suggesting that more specific direction was needed for the team assignments. I believe the team assignments were highly realistic and accurately reflected the nature of project work. The processes for developing a shared understanding of a project and achieving a team consensus on the contents of a project plan do require interpersonal interaction, negotiation, and collective decision making. These processes are by nature iterative and sometimes frustrating, and that is one of the lessons the participants should have taken from the team assignment. I do not support the few suggestions that more direction and more specific templates of the team deliverables should have been provided.

The team assignments and presentations were very well received again at another seminar, presented early in 1999 to a senior group of engineers working on the design and manufacturing of custom equipment for paper mills. Here are the written comments, that specifically mentioned the team assignment, in response to the open-ended questions:

What did you find most helpful in terms of
direct application to your current work?


What else was useful in general terms?

"I think it was great that we had the last day to discuss our project management plans. Very useful."

"Presentations; gave application examples of course material."

"The use of a relevant project assignment was enlightening to show what changes could be made to support projects as a company."


Seminar Leader Walter Wawruck

Walter Wawruck, MBA, P.Eng., PMP®, is a consultant specializing in project management services. Since 1971, he has participated in the management of a wide variety of projects, ranging from computer systems development to Arctic pipelines, and has assisted clients in strengthening their organizational capabilities in project management through the adoption of best practices.

Walter Wawruck has provided training in project management since 1981, in Canada, the US, and South America. In addition to his public subscription seminars, he provides in-house seminars, workshops, and training services to individual clients.

" I was very pleased with the outcome of the project management seminar. In my opinion, your seminar was more meaningful to the participants than the previous project management training we held years ago. Your willingness to learn something of how our company handles projects, and ability to incorporate this knowledge to focus the seminar to our needs, resulted in a valuable experience for the participants.

The project plan assignment was very effective in developing an understanding of how to apply project management principles to our contract management process. "

Go to the Qualifications page for more on Mr. Wawruck's education and experience.


Trademark and Service Mark Acknowledgements

PMI®is a registered service mark of the Project Management Institute
PMP® is a registered service mark of the Project Management Institute
PMBOK™ is a trademark of the Project Management Institute

Contact Walter Wawruck at:
Vancouver B.C.
Phone (604) 879-8752 · · · · Or E-mail me now!
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This page was last updated on December 8, 2021