Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Leicester Study Series: Project management module

This morning on the tube I finished reading through the booklet for the Leicester Study Series for professional development on project management so I thought I'd do a quick review. I should note that I haven't read the accompanying book yet, just the booklet.

Just a quick note first on what the Leicester Study Series - it's a series of modules put together by the department of Museum Studies at Leicester University to help people develop their skills in various areas of museum work. There are also modules on e-Learning (which I'll be hopefully going through soon as well) , evaluating learning, social inclusion and oral history. This module cost £57 including postage and packing.

The first good thing about the pack is it's size. For £57 you get a book on project management which I'm still working my way through, and an A5 spiralbound booklet. The booklet is just the right size for reading on the tube which is the only time I really have to do these things so that was ideal.

I thought that the price was a little steep for what you get. The book is only worth £11 ish and so the rest of the money goes towards the booklet. I appreciate that a lot of work went into it but I was a little disappointed by what I got for that price.

Another slight criticism is that the information in the booklet now feels a little dated (it was published in 2006). The case studies are at least 5-6 years old now and, since one featured my work place it was very obvious to me as a reader that the projects were now long past as all the individuals mentioned are in very different roles now. In addition, a section on promotion mentions only 'Putting up-to-date information about the project on the museum's website' and makes no mention of social media, highlighting for me the outdated nature of the module. I think the whole thing would benefit from a quick refresh.

I felt as well that the booklet focused a lot on grant-funded projects and the kinds of reporting that are needed for these. Evidently this is probably very useful for a lot of people, but since at present a lot of my projects are not grant funded, I personally found that focus slightly distracting.

I also thought, coming from a learning perspective, that there could have been more focus on Inspiring Learning for All, or at the very least, on establishing the learning outcomes for your project from the start, which makes evaluation, which the module covers in detail at the end, easier.

Aside from this I did get something out of the module. I would say it would be particularly useful for people in small museum with no experience of project management (the aims and objectives do state that it is aimed at 'people working in small to medium-sized museums'). For me, someone who is spending quite a lot of time at the moment researching best practice in project management, it served as a good reminder but didn't really teach me anything new.

I would say if you've just taken on a new role and are unfamiliar with one of the topics that the study series covers, and have a spare £60-odd to hand, then it is probably worth investing in one of these modules. They're probably quite a good idea as well for those of us following a CPD programme, simply because you can send off to Leicester for a certificate to prove that you've completed the module and a couple of short activities, thus giving you proof of your CPD activity.

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Friday, 2 April 2010

Decode at the V&A

We finally got to make the most of some complimentary tickets to go to the Decode exhibition at the V&A today and I really enjoyed it. For those of you that aren't familiar with it, the website explains that the exhibition:

'showcases the latest developments in digital and interactive design, from small, screen-based, graphics to large-scale interactive installations.' (go to the website if you need more info)

I was a little bit baffled by the first bits. I'm a bit clueless about art - just because I've never really learnt how best to approach it and what to do when I'm looking at it, and digital art was no different. Plus there was a really narrow corridor at the start which was full of people, it being Good Friday and therefore a bank holiday, and it was hard to get close to any of the exhibits, and when you did, it felt like you were blocking other people's views.

When the corridor widened out though, the exhibits got more interesting. The first one that really caught my eye was the Social Collider exhibit which is part of the Network section. I don't really get how it worked but this basically makes a visual representation based on data from Twitter about whatever you type in to the keyboard at the start. I typed in my Twitter ID and saw a visualisation of all my own tweets and, from what I can make out, tweets by people I have tweeted with, and tweets between people I follow. Without really understanding it I still just thought it was really cool!

All the other exhibits that really caught my attention though were in the Interactivity section which is unsurprising really because they engaged me by getting me to do things and being actively involved in the experience. Particularly cool were:

  • Dandelion - where you used a hairdryer with an infrared signal in it to blow the seeds of a virtual dandelion on the screen in front of you
  • Video grid - a 'blockbuster' type screen of lot of videos where you could touch one of the videos and replace it with a little film of yourself doing whatever you wanted in front of the camera for a couple of seconds which was then repeated over and over again until someone replaced your video. It made a wall of continuously moving images of people doing funny things, or just simple things - a woman picking up her child, a couple kissing, people dancing, spinning round on the spot, doing funny walks etc. It would be interesting to do a study of which types of videos stayed up their longest. The only thing was that, for the more timid amongst us, having loads of people around you made you a bit reticent to record yourself - I rather regret now that we didn't do it now!
  • Body Paint - you could stand in front of a screen and basically your body movements were reflected in great colourful splashes of paint on a digital canvas in front of you

Overall I thought it was a really great way to showcase a different side of technology to the boring, techy stereotype and to make it into something fun and interactive for everyone to enjoy and be part of.

Hurry up if you haven't been yet - it closes on 11 April!

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Thursday, 1 April 2010

Interviewing an experienced project manager

This afternoon, as part of my AMA, I interviewed one of my colleagues, Isabel Benavides about her experiences of project management. Isabel is the project officer in our department and has also project managed a variety of different projects, large and small, in the past.

Talking to Isabel proved really useful as she talked about what had worked well in projects she has managed in the past and gave me examples of how she uses the tools that I’ve learnt about and am starting to use more and more in my own work. As so many people say, a lot of project management is common sense, but sometimes it’s just useful to take the time out of your everyday life to sit down and think ‘common sensically’ about it. Hearing her describe how she deals with situations that I’m familiar with also gave me the confidence to try and use some of her strategies myself.

The success of one of Isabel’s previous projects was partly due, she believes, to having set up a steering group and a working group at the start and having clearly defined the roles of each person with a job description at the start. The steering group was particularly useful at the start of the project when setting out the strategic vision of the project. She recommends keeping the steering group fairly small and making sure that key people who have a strategic stake in the project are involved. For a smaller project a steering group is probably not necessary, but a working group set up from the start of the project who are very hands-on, problem solving and carrying out the project can still be very useful.

Other factors that made this project successful in Isabel’s view were the freedom and space that she was given to work with the blank canvas at the start of the project, recruiting a good team, having good electronic and filing systems and good training and development.

I asked Isabel whether she deals differently with smaller projects than she would with bigger ones. This was partly because I sometimes feel that using all the tools and mechanism that I was taught to use in project management training feels like overkill on a small project, but, on projects where I have not used them, I’ve inevitably regretted it towards the end. I was cheered to hear that Isabel thinks that these tools are always useful in all projects, but it was interesting to hear the way she phrases her communications with project team members in such a way that it doesn’t need to feel overly formal and contrived. She also feels that even if people respond skeptically at first to tools that may be unfamiliar, an efficient and well-run project will always win them over in the end.

One example that stuck in my mind was establishing the communications plan. I have written communications plans for myself in the past but never found a way of circulating them to a project team without it feeling overly bureaucratic and heavy. But as Isabel explained, this need not be a case of circulating numerous Word document attachments, but simply making sure that all the partners know who is involved in the project, what their involvement is, and how, whether and when to contact each other. So this could be an email dialogue between the project manager here and the project manager at a partner organisation saying:

‘These are the people working on this project full time, their email addresses are… We will also be working with an external consultant called X, the museum project manager will liaise directly with this person and feed back to the project team.’

Isabel had a useful tip for preparing for meetings which was to mentally consider all the worst case scenarios beforehand and all the things that people might take issue with and to think about how to deal with them.

Two more essential tips from Isabel which are, again, common sense, but in reality probably don’t come to mind as easily as they should:

  • If you feel frustrated by a project, take a step away from your desk, get a coffee, go for a walk or whatever before responding to whatever has frustrated you
  • Slow down to speed up – projects will always get done faster in the end if you take the time at the beginning to plan for them

I’ve come away brimming with ideas for how to improve my existing methods. I think I’ve already made some big improvements to my project management in the last few years and I already use a lot of the strategies that people suggest, but with some little tweaks based on Isabel's advice I think I could really continue to improve them.

Things I will try and do from now on:

  1. Establish a working group at the very start of a project
  2. Get the working group involved in all of the decisions establishing the aims, objectives and outcomes of the project, thus ensuring that everyone is on board from the start.
  3. Establish timescales at the start together with the team and then set them in stone and have the confidence to stick to them. This way I’ll hopefully decrease the likelihood of things not being delivered on time, but also hopefully reduce the risk of people coming back with changes after a sign off phase has passed.
  4. Extend the usual planning I do before meetings to consider all the worst case scenarios and all the things that people might respond to my points and how I will deal with them

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