Apprenticeships: then and now

img_9759Apprenticeships are a radical new development in education – or are they? The word ‘apprentice’ conjures up a lot of images. These range from children in Victorian times apprenticed to a trade to young entrepreneurs jockeying for a position as Sir Alan Sugar’s next protégé. The Government has pledged to support 3 million apprentices in the UK by 2020. Are we returning to Mr Gradgrind’s vision in Hard times? Definitely not. Today’s vision of an apprenticeship is very different. Apprenticeships are very much supported by employers, education providers, Government and Professional bodies.

In 21st Century England, the Government has sponsored apprenticeships as a way of encouraging individuals to combine working in industry with studying. This has advantages for the individual, the employer and the academic establishment involved. The individual gets the opportunity to ‘earn while they learn’, they are working in industry from the start and their studies are sponsored by their employer. This leads to highly motivated learners who are keen to apply their knowledge in the workplace. From an academic perspective, working with these learners can be challenging and extremely rewarding. Text book knowledge is questioned, discussed and contextualised in the classroom and often in the workplace. Employers are involved in setting the standards for apprenticeships which are then delivered by training providers and educational establishments.

In project management terms, a Higher Level Apprenticeship in Project Management was launched by the APM several years ago. Following the Sainsbury report, the Government decided to rethink apprenticeships and employer groups were formed to write new Trailblazer standards. Once a standard has been approved, with its associated assessment plan and costing, it is available for training and education providers to develop programmes of learning to support the standard. Employers can then recruit apprentices and work with the training and education providers to support their development.

The Level 4 Project Management Trailblazer Apprenticeship Employer Development Group is a group of employers from different sectors and led by Sellafield. This group prepared the standard and assessment plan which is now available on the Government website and will influence the training of project management apprentices for many years. The photo marks the formation of the Employer Review Group who will support the standard and ensure it is being delivered effectively in the years to come. This group is being led by the Cabinet Office. The attendance of more than forty people at the inaugural meeting is evidence of the level of interest and support from industry in taking up this standard.

So, when you hear Project Management Apprenticeships – this is where we are now. A strong employer led group establishing standards and working together with education and training providers – all to support the development of the future workforce. It’s not about Mr Gradgrind or Sir Alan Sugar, it’s all about the apprentice and their development.





Five go on a Strategy Awayday – lessons for a project team

famous-five-coverAccording to Twitter, a popular Christmas present this year was Bruce Vincent’s parody – ‘Five go on a strategy awayday’. What lessons are here for aspiring project managers? For anyone who needs reminding, the Famous Five are a group of English schoolchildren in a series of novels written by Enid Blyton in the 1940’s and 50’s. The Famous Five novels were hugely popular and very formulaic – the team usually had a mystery to solve without much adult intervention during their school holidays. Perhaps ideal training for project managers as each ‘mystery’ was a small project which could usually be solved by working together with limited resources and a fixed timescale. 

I read all the Famous Five books when growing up and found the characters easy to connect with in the ‘Enid Blyton for Grown Ups’ series. First, there is Julian who is always the group leader and sometimes exasperated at his team members. Anne is unfailingly nice to everyone. Dick is rather non-descript and just gets on with tasks in the background. George’s main characteristics were her attachment to Timmy the dog (the fifth group member) and her refusal to accept being female. 

As the novel opens, we meet the Grown up Famous Five on the London Underground as they go to the suburbs for a ‘strategy away day’. Julian has been working for several months on a large project that is expected to take several years to complete. As project manager, and realising his team is understaffed, he engages his Famous Five chums to help him out. So, he is basically transplanting this formerly successful team into his current project. They have been working together on the project for a month and all is going well, but they have been asked to attend a ‘strategy away day’. Right from the start it is presented as a challenge to the harmonious working of the team. Julian loathes team building exercises and finds being able to tell people what to do very gratifying, so the experience is not welcomed.

Julian who had been very assured in the children’s books is now a threatened middle manager who is hungover, irritable and fiercely competitive with rival teams from his employer. 

 The first team building exercise on the awayday involves a blindfolded Julian leading his team through a balloon minefield. His team members can direct him but only using words of support and encouragement and without using the terms ‘left’ or ‘right’. Anne proves to be very adept at this and we get the impression that she has been steering the team for years. 

famous-five-illustrationThe next group exercise involves all team members giving feedback on each other’s characteristics and their negative aspects. Unsurprisingly, Julian doesn’t like being labelled ‘domineering’, Dick is labelled as ‘lazy’, Anne is ‘too predictable’ and George as a ‘renegade’. Identifying and discussing these attributes does not have a beneficial effect and drives the team apart.  

Next, a communications exercise goes badly wrong. This puts the team at the bottom of the leaderboard and results in humiliation for Julian. Anne has to intervene to prevent a fight between her team and their gloating rivals. Going into ‘parent mode’ she tells them they are all being childish and commands her team to follow her outside. We are told ‘Anne had never spoken in this way before and they followed her, feeling utterly chastened’. Interesting that it has taken more than 60 years for Anne to overcome her niceness and discover her potential to lead the team!

Later, on an outward bound exercise, the team members take it in turns to be leader. Anne is a ‘nice, trusting leader’ delegating to her team. George is dictatorial, perhaps fearing others are as rebellious as she is herself. Julian takes a back seat and the group becomes confused and leaderless. All of them try to act differently to their previous teamworking ‘labels’ but are confused and resentment builds. The demoralised team seem unable to work together as their previously successful behaviours have been undermined and they try to negotiate new ways of working.

 Accidentally uncovering a plot by a rival company propels the five back into their previously successful behaviour patterns with Julian again taking the lead. A visit to the pub restores morale and they manage to save the day.

The lessons for project managers in this book are mainly about leadership and team working. Established teams have patterns of behaviour that can be difficult to break. We need to consider if these serve the project. Julian has problems trusting his staff which may be why he has called in his family and childhood friends to work with him. The behaviours that work well in a team of four are unlikely to work in the major project environment and he will need to adapt. Ultimately, despite his scorn, I would hope the away day would help give him some insight into the capabilities of his team members and other ways of working. Equally, having the opportunity to experiment with other ways of working might help the team members to grow and develop. Leadership is no longer seen as the attribute of a single individual. All of the team members can develop their ability to lead and the organisation can benefit as a result.





Under the Surface at the Project team meeting


Another interesting presentation at the EVA21 conference related to behaviours in project meetings and what is behind them. We have all come across project team members exhibiting challenging behaviour and this session explored what may lie behind this. Jack Pinter arranged a demonstration of this in a session with a scenario played by two professional actors where the project manager and project sponsor are having problems in agreeing a joint approach to project issues.

Behaviours are underpinned by thoughts, feelings, values and needs of those involved in the meeting. This is why establishing shared values on a project and returning to these at key decision points is very important.

In the scenarios, this was illustrated in different ways by replaying the scene allowing the participants to voice all their innermost thoughts. This was not a wise idea as the challenging situation had let to a lot of misunderstanding between them and each held the other responsible. Then the scene was replayed with each actor giving full vent to their feelings. If you ever had any fears where this would lead to, they would have been realised in this performance with both participants reverted to screaming toddlers (much to the delight of the audience).

The audience were then asked to identify what values the participants seemed to be acting on. Values such as ‘I must be perfect’ or ‘I must have total control’ were seen to be getting in the way of effective communication. Other values such as ‘no blame’, ‘equality’ and ‘respect’ could be used instead to find a more effective way forward. In the final playing of the scene, the participants in the meeting were asked to voice what  their needs were in moving forward and also to acknowledge the needs of the other participant. It was seen that even when one of the participants did this, it moved the other away from an intransigent position and allowed a more positive outcome.

There was definitely a lot of food for thought in this presentation. Stepping back from and dealing with challenging stakeholder behaviour requires emotional maturity. Definitely an area and topic that can be explored further with the next generation of project managers and project controls professionals.



Are we out of the woods yet?

Managed woodland and a welcome signpost in Cumbria. Legal framework still applies here!

I wasn’t expecting music at the EVA21 conference this week, but it was there and used very effectively to bring the world of projects to life.

Sarah Shute gave an interesting talk about the importance of legal issues to the project manager. There was an excellent set of clear slides with key points to remember and good advice. However, it Sarah’s was her interpretation of a Taylor Swift song which captured the audience’s attention with Sarah’s on screen lyrics showing how the theme relates to the world of project controls.

Taylor Swift’s song ‘Are we out of the woods yet?’ is about a sense of insecurity experienced during a troubled relationship. It tells the story of incidents in a relationship where the couple get through. After each one, they wonder if they are ‘out of the woods yet’. Will they ever get out of the woods and into a calmer stage of the relationship? It’s not certain. What has brought them ‘into the woods’ is not stated but it is proving very difficult to find a way out.

We all know the feeling of being lost in the woods and searching for a way out. Sarah’s revised the song lyrics to reflect a dialogue between a project manager and the project controller during a project. Evidently some kind of ‘fix’ has been done during the planning to make the schedule ‘fit’ and look good on the surface. However, the schedule is ‘built to fall apart’ and this happens during the project. The project ‘map’ is not accurate and the project ends up ‘in the woods’. The constant dialogue ‘are we out of the woods yet?’, ‘are we in the clear yet?’ reflecting a tense project atmosphere as the project stumble onwards through the issues encountered and reflect on what has led them into this state.

Poor practice or mistakes not spotted during project planning inevitably result in problems with project execution and control. One mistake can lead to another as the project team try to regain control in a very challenging environment. The main message of Sarah’s presentation was that the project manager’s legal awareness can help keep the project ‘out of the woods’ or help find a way out if the project is already having problems. She listed a range of legal risks which can embroil the project and gave top tips for keeping ‘in the clear’ and avoiding getting into the legal ‘woods’ in the first place.

Project managers can benefit from more training and support on legal issues and should not be afraid to seek advice from others who have more expertise and knowledge of this territory. Well done and thanks Sarah Schutte and credit to Taylor Swift for helping us to get some insight into a difficult topic and enabling lively discussion.




Knights in Shining Armour and the importance of Project Controls

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I just got back from the EVA21 conference in London. A hectic couple of days in the historic setting of the Armourers Hall in London. EVA21 is a conference organised with Steve Wake and is associated with the Project Controls community. For many years, Steve was the Head of the APM Planning and Control Special Interest Group (more on this later).

Firstly, the venue. If you want to steep yourself in English history this is a good place to start. The Armourers are a guild of craftsmen making suits of armour set up in 1322, and given a Royal Charter by Henry VI in 1453. They set up their headquarters near Moorgate in London and have been there since. The building certainly impresses with its historical significance and also the attentiveness and courtesy of its staff. At the bottom of the staircase, a suit of armour announces that I have arrived in the right place. Halfway up the stairs a magnificent silver piece of a knight on horseback. Really quite distracting, especially seeing a member of staff pick it up and take it away for polishing!

The venue is appropriate for a ‘Project Controls’ themed conference with the emphasis of monitoring project value, the Armourers’ motto ‘make all sure’ is displayed on coats of arms throughout the building. This refers to the security of a suit of armour but also could be taken as a metaphor for project controls, ensuring the project is on track by comparing information on actual progress versus planned progress.

In 1703, the Armourers amalgamated with the Brasiers who produced brassware. The guilds were in similar areas of craftsmanship and were stronger together. The motto ‘we are one’ also displayed prominently in the building emphasises the two guilds see their future together and are committed to joint working. A shining example of all being one is when a member joined the guild, they committed to buying a silver spoon. This was engraved with the member’s name and kept in the guild. A priceless collection is now on display, so the guild has left a legacy for future generations in their beautiful craftsmanship and this historic building.

Today, the ‘We are One’ motto could refer to the interdependence between Project Controls and Project Management functions. The Project Manager needs consistent, reliable information on project progress in order to make decisions and obtains this from Project Controls. Project controls needs the Project Manager to interpret the information on progress and make the right decisions to keep the project on track and address any issues. Without effective project management, the project controls function is just an observer. Without an effective project controls function, the project manager is operating in the dark.

The project manager may be compared to the knight. They may be regarded as heroic but they rely on effective use of resources (horse, armour, weaponry) provided by others. Project controls will ensure all the resources are there. They also have to make sure the project has reins and stirrups to accelerate or decelerate progress!

Do all projects and organisations have a Project Controls function? Well yes, they all have this function but for small projects, it may be one of the responsibilities of the project manager, perhaps with an assistant to help gather information. In larger projects, the Project Controls function has evolved to take responsibility for gathering project data, reporting and ensuring its accuracy. In some organisations, Commercial Management may combine with Project Controls be part of a ‘Project Office’ function, procuring the resources needed and managing the contracts. It’s back room stuff but very important. As Napoleon said ‘an army marches on its stomach’. If the army is not fed, there will be no progress.

The Planning and Controls Special Interest Group is the voice of the Project Controls community within the Association for Project Management. It is a very industrious group which has produced a range of impressive publications and guidelines on Project Controls for the APM community. I attended the EVA21 conference because I was interested in becoming more involved in the Special Interest Group on Project Controls. The final photo is me in the impressive Court Room of the Armourers Hall, immediately prior to being elected to the committee. I hope that being involved in the committee, I can help build a bridge between Project Controls and Higher Education. I would also like to see more activity related to project controls in the North West region.

We are one and committee members really need support of members to ensure these aims are translated into effective actions. Your comments and offers of help are welcome!

Personal Best in Project Management


Last week we attended the APM conference where Marc Woods gave an inspiring talk about achieving  world class performance.  A signed copy of his book ‘Personal Best’ was in the goodie bag given to delegates. I started reading on the train on my way home and continued over the weekend. According to the book cover ‘Marc was diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, had his leg amputated and went on to win four Paralympic gold medals.’ The book is a mixture of personal stories from Marc’s own experience, inspirational stories about others who have overcome adversity or achieved athletic success and practical ‘how to’ advice for those seeking to improve performance of individuals and teams. True to the message in the book, although Marc’s name is on the cover – there are important contributions from a range of experts including his coach, Lars Humer.

There is lots of good advice here for project managers. For me, the best chapters were on teamwork and communication. In ‘teamwork’ stories from competitive relay swimming emphasised the importance of the team sharing a common goal. Of course this is well known but Marc emphasises that team discussions are needed to establish what success looks like and how each individual can best contribute. The role of the leader is in facilitating the communication and in assigning tasks to individuals to best achieve the team goals. In the chapter on communication, we have good advice on giving and receiving feedback. Also, there is important advice on seeking feedback in order to improve and in evaluating feedback and deciding whether to act on it or to ‘let it go’.

Marc emphasises that the idea of ‘personal best’ is not just for athletes but can be applied in any walk of life. The healthcare worker with an off-hand manner who does not treat patients as individuals is failing to achieve their personal best in their role. Project managers need mentors and team members who can point out where we can improve. The book has practical advice on goal setting and on the focus, commitment and practice needed for achieving mastery or personal best. This advice is general enough to be applied to many subject areas from sport to the business arena.

The book is an inspiring combination of stories and practical advice. By telling his own story, Marc convinces us that adversity and challenging circumstances can be overcome and can provide the motivation to improve performance. Marc does not gloss over the effects of serious illness, sometimes health challenges cannot be overcome but we need to make ‘personal best’ use of the time that we have to make a positive difference.

Moving from knowing to doing, requires goals, dedication and practice, tracking of performance and support and understanding from a team. Achieving high performance also needs support from friends and family and Marc pays tribute to those who supported and inspired him, especially his father.

The takeaway message is summarised in the closing lines. Marc asks us to take away:
– a desire to live life to the full,
– the inspiration to be the best we can be,
– the determination to strive to constantly improve and
– the courage to live life without regret.

Uplifting and inspiring words for the APM conference delegates to take away, reflect and act on in the coming year. Perhaps a good starting point is to define what is ‘personal best’ for us and the steps we will take to move closer to this in the year ahead.