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Villanova Friday: The conclusions

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Villanova Friday

Villanova Friday logoFor the last 8 weeks I have been taking the Maximising IT/IS Team Effectiveness course with Villanova University. I’ve been blogging about my experiences of the virtual learning environment in this series.

Over the years I have tried classroom courses, a weekend project management courses and distance learning. The Villanova experience added to the range of learning methods I have tried. Here are 4 things I learned from the course.

1. You have to be disciplined

You do need to make time to listen to the lectures and do the exercises. It is very easy to get sidetracked, or to conveniently find something else to do. I benefited from having made the commitment to blog about my activities weekly. This gave me focus and a deadline for my weekly lectures.

You could replicate this by having a study buddy, or creating a study schedule. You may also be able to study at work, so you could block out time in your calendar each week to listen to the lectures (with headphones) in the office.

2. Watch the time zones

The majority of the course was delivered via pre-recorded lectures and personal study. Once a week there was a ‘live’ session hosted by one of the lecturers. These were scheduled to fit around the lives of working Americans.  As dedicated as I am to professional development, I did not want to stay up past midnight to join the sessions.

Listening to the recorded sessions was not that easy either. For example, in one session someone had trouble with the audio equipment and wasn’t able to make her point. It felt like there was a lot of chatting about the software.  This is fine if you are in the room and the discussion means something or affects you but it wasn’t valuable to listen to after the event.

If you choose to do a virtual course with ‘live’ elements, make sure they are at a time that you can actually participate. You will get much more out of the sessions by joining them in real time.

3. Audit your investment

If I had paid for an employee to do a virtual learning course, I would be auditing how many hours that employee had dedicated to learning the material. There is nothing to stop you from skipping sessions.  This course was a certificate course and although there were concepts that were new to me, the content was not at an advanced level.

Consequently, the fact that I missed out the lectures in Week 5 and didn’t take all the lectures in Week 2 made no difference to my ability to pass the online tests.

An employer could spend a lot of money on this course only to find that the employee has passed but not truly benefited.  Equally, you could spend a lot of money on the course and also cheat yourself out of a proper learning experience.

Project mangement certificate

My Villanova certificate

4. Access to course materials

I am no longer able to access the online course materials. Luckily, Villanova provided all the material on CD and print outs of the slides in three bound books. This is a great reference for the future. The books will act as an index for the CD so that I can quickly find interesting lectures and play them again.

Check with your online course provider that you will have access to the course materials in some format after the course has ended.

Would I take an online course again?

I would take an online course again, and I would take one with Villanova. I found the staff at Villanova professional and easy to work with. The course materials were well-produced and were delivered quickly.

If I took a virtual learning course again I would make better plans to have more time for self-study.  Overall, the course was interesting, well-delivered and useful.  And I passed!  My certificate came very quickly, with its own frame.

I was offered a complimentary place on this course. My thanks go to Villanova University for the opportunity.


Villanova Friday, Week 6: Team Productivity

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Villanova Friday

Villanova Friday logoThis week I had two weeks of lectures to listen to on the Maximizing IS/IT Team Effectiveness course I am taking with Villanova University. Given a busy day job, this was a challenge.  So much for my week off last week.

This week it has been all about managing teams in the most effective way.  We covered how to deal with resistance.  The lecturer explained it like this:

If you have to tell someone something more than 3 times, it is not ignorance, it’s resistance.

She said that if we as managers are dealing with ignorance, we can ‘teach’ our way out of the problem.  But if we are facing resistance, we need another set of tools to deal with project team members.

Dealing with resistance

Resistance occurs when the team member:

  • does not believe that change can occur. This could be a belief that the project team is incapable of changing or that the company will never allow the change.
  • does not feel that the project vision is worthwhile.
  • does not feel that the project fits with their personal values.
  • does not feel needed on the project.
  • does not understand his/her contribution to the project, or does not know what to do next.
  • does not believe that he/she is qualified to be on the team.

So, what can you do?

First, work out what is causing the resistance.  “Ask questions – all of these start with ask questions.  Seek first to understand,” says Lou Russell on the tiny screen, as I watch the lectures.  She offers a range of approaches to deal with different types of resistance including:

  • If the person is not really needed on the project, move them to meaningful work.
  • If they are needed, convince them that they are important and have a valuable part to play.
  • Provide stretch goals.
  • Work with individuals to ensure they understand the next 3 tasks so that they are clear on what to do next. Help them prioritise if necessary.
  • Find out what are the values that are bothering the team member. Establish what would have to happen to make the team member feel that their personal values are being honoured.

Assigning people to tasks

We also covered factors for assigning people to project tasks.  Match the person to the task.  Making a good match will help the team be productive and efficient.

Russell covered 4 points:

  1. Skill variety: don’t assign all the boring, repetitive tasks to one person. Spread them around. Ensure that each person gets variety in their work.
  2. Task identity: make sure that the task is clear, measurable and possible, and that the person knows what they need to do.
  3. Task significance: make sure that the task is actually relevant to the project. The contribution made should be important to the success of the whole.
  4. Feedback: the individual should receive positive and developmental feedback. Feedback should be regular.

We covered lots more including coaching, giving effective feedback, listening and facilitation skills and managing collaboration.  And there was another test this week. I haven’t finalised my grade yet, so I’m not going to share it here this time!


Villanova Friday, Week 5: Holiday

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series Villanova Friday

Villanova Friday logoI’m on holiday this week and have done no studying at all. The good news is that the Maximizing IS/IT Team Effectiveness course I am taking with Villanova University is very flexible and I’ll be able to catch up the online classes next week.

The bad news is that I have twice as much studying to do next week to get back on track.

But this holiday is worth it.


Villanova Friday, Week 4: Effective Communication

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series Villanova Friday

Villanova Friday logo

This week on the Maximizing IS/IT Team Effectiveness course I am taking with Villanova University the focus has been on communication.

We’ve looked at effective strategies for one-on-one spoken conversations with people, including how to determine the preferences of the person you are speaking to.

  • About two thirds of people prefer to take in information visually, for example, through pictures.  Typically a visual individual speaks at a good pace and looks up.  They also use visual words, like “I see what you mean.”
  • About 15% of people prefer to take in information from listening.  Typically they look straight ahead. They use auditory words like, “I hear you.” Auditory people also pause in their speech, listening to themselves.
  • Between 18% and 30% of people are kinetic – they prefer to take in information by touching and feeling things – both literally and emotionally. Kinetic people aren’t ignoring you if they look down. They tend to speak in an animated way and you’ll hear them use phrases like “I feel.”

We did an exercise where we picked an image that appealed to us in order to establish our own preferences for taking in information.  Apparently, I’m an auditory person.  I would never have said this about myself, which makes me think that this triad of communication preferences is pretty non-scientific.  My own belief would be that, while people may have preferences, they are able to adapt to different scenarios.

We also looked at the symptoms of ineffective communication.

Verbal indicators that we are not being successful in our communication include clues in what is said and how it is said, like:

  • “I don’t understand.”
  • “What?”
  • “We’ve never done it that way before.”
  • Short, clipped phrases or one-word responses.
  • Tonality – speaking all in the same tone.

Non-verbal indicators that were are not being successful in our communication include clues from body language:

  • Body posture
  • Gestures
  • Facial expressions
  • What their eyes tell you
  • Fidgeting
  • Doing something else apart from listening to you

If you get the message that your communication has not been successful, you could try:

  • Removing assumptions from your message
  • Removing generalisations from your message
  • Removing ‘weasel words’ like “I probably think that it might be an OK idea.” Just say what you mean.
  • Take out the acronyms
  • Check they have understood what you mean by the specific words you use.  Thong, for example, means something different in the UK to in Australia. And you wouldn’t want to get those meanings confused.

Only 7% of our message is understood from what we say

This is important – as you might have heard before, what we say only makes up part of the whole communication message.

  • 7% comes from what is said
  • 38% comes from how it is said
  • 55% comes from body language and actions.

We normally focus on the 7% and tend to forget the rest.

This week also saw us taking our second test.  Last time the highest class score was 100%, and I was about the class average with 90%.  If the class results from that test are anything to go by this time, I’ll be average again, as I got 90% this time too.  You have the option to take the test as many times as you like so if you really wanted to get a perfect score, you have the option to take the test again until you get the result you want.


Villanova Friday, Week 3: IT Leadership Alchemy

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series Villanova Friday

This video discusses the course text book I’m using for my Maximizing IT/IS Team Effectiveness studies. For those of you who would prefer to read the transcript, it’s below.

This is the course book that I’m using for the Maximizing IT/IS Team Effectiveness course that I’m taking with Villanova University at the moment. It’s called IT Leadership Alchemy and it’s by Lou Russell and Jeff Feldman.

They’re using the concept of alchemy – of turning base metals into gold – to illustrate various leadership principles throughout the book. I can understand that it’s an interesting concept and they have made the link very well in some places. But in other places, I think they’ve taken the metaphor a bit too far. So if read you a piece, you might see what I mean.

This is from Chapter 3 which is about resiliency:

Alchemy is the blending of base ingredients toward the creation of something new. Something where the [whole surpasses] to some of the parts. Resiliency is the same: A combination of abilities blended together into a competency package in which each element enhances the potency of the others. Each skill has its own standalone value but when combined, they produce something truly remarkable.

I think they’ve tried to force it in some places. But that is not to say the book isn’t without value. There’s a section in here about coaching which is actually really really useful and I think that’s one of the key strong points of the book.

There’s also a really interesting discussion about the nature of trust and how as a leader, you can create trust or at least work within a framework to promote a trusting environment. And there’s a piece here in Chapter 4 around interpersonal and team skills which I also wanted to read. I think this is something that spoke to me: “Trust is based upon our opinion about a person with a given context and may be shaped by several factors:

  • Credibility: The degree of skill, knowledge and experience we believe the individual has within the context for which we may offer our trust.
  • Consistency: The degree to which we believe we can anticipate the individual’s performance based on past experiences.
  • Communication: The degree to which ongoing information provides the confidence and reassurance we need to accept that our trust is deserved.”

So that section and this whole piece in here about managing conflict I found really interesting, very useful, which is good because there are other areas in the book that I didn’t find that useful. The piece about communication, the section on communication is actually very weak. I felt that there wasn’t anything specific in the communication chapter that related to us as project leaders, or us as IT leaders. In fact, it just tells you things about active listening, stuff that as a project manager, you should know anyway. So I felt that let the book down slightly.

But I’m finding an interesting read. I haven’t quite got to the end of the book yet. There are bits and pieces that I haven’t read yet. The authors are very keen on the concept of journaling – writing down on your thoughts and feelings and I expect you would get a lot more out of the book if you took that to the extreme and created a leadership journal. It’s not something that sits very comfortably with me but I have been taking notes as I go through and I suppose that’s my interpretation of the journaling exercises. So I’m looking forward to reading the last few chapters and seeing what the rest of the Villanova course has to offer.


Why I wouldn’t do a weekend course again

I recently took the 5 day Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) course with Maven Training.  I’ve done courses with Maven in the past, and I’ve also met many of their team and their CEO Melanie Franklin.  But the reason I choose them this time was because of their innovative approach to delivering training in a way that makes it fit around the day job.  In my case, I signed up for the weekend version of MSP.  That’s just one day out of the office on a Friday, followed by Saturday and Sunday training, plus the following weekend too.  What a great idea, I thought.  Five days of learning for only one day out of the office!  A perfect way to manage my development and the commitments to my projects.  It wasn’t for me, though.

There’s no downtime

Each weekend day I was up early to make it to the venue on time.  Even though I was in jeans and a T-shirt (this one, on the Foundation exam day), I was still doing work-related things and talking about work.  The other delegates weren’t my usual team, but we still mainly talked about our programmes.  The weekend felt like work days.  So I was reading and responding to work emails during the breaks.  And thinking about work and taking notes of things I needed to do back in the office.

We worked the hours of a normal weekday, and then had homework to do in the evenings. Homework, on top of normal weekend activities, like making sure all my washing was done, spending time with family, going food shopping.  This was OK(ish) during the first weekend but come the day of the Practitioner exam I had worked 13 days in a row and it wasn’t fun.

The City is closed at the weekend

Maven’s lovely offices are at Liverpool Street.  They feed you all day with fruit, crisps, tasty lunches that are different each day and a spread of afternoon tea.  But the City itself is pretty much closed.  I had bargained with myself that as a ‘reward’ for giving up my weekend I would get breakfast from Starbucks.  This was fine on Friday, but I hadn’t realised that with no commuters, there is no reason for any of the shops to open at the weekend.  Some of the shops inside Liverpool Street station even close on a Sunday.  No skinny latte and almond croissant for me.

The other implication for this is that the office buildings aren’t designed to be used during the weekends.  The air conditioning was switched off, the windows won’t open, and we had to rely on fans to keep the room cool.  The PRINCE2 weekend course delegates gave up one afternoon and just went home.  No doubt with homework.

Why you might consider it

While my experience of training over two weekends wasn’t great – although that is no reflection on the excellent trainer – weekend study might work for you.

Contractors taking PRINCE2 or MSP have to take 5 days out of work to do it the ‘normal’ way: that’s 5 days not earning and having to pay for the course – a double whammy.

If you have flexi-time options at work you could find that weekend courses mean you don’t have to take any time away from your day job.  If your manager is reluctant to let you out of the office for a complete week you could negotiate to take the time back in smaller chunks, like an afternoon off each week for the following month.

The main advantage for me was that I had a week between Foundation and Practitioner exams.  This meant more time to assimilate what I had learned, more time for practice papers and generally less of a rush to fit both the exams in.  And I passed them, so it must have worked!

Have you considered studying at the weekends?  What does you employer think about it?


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