Author: Andrea Brockmeier

Trends in Learning Part 2: Self-Learning

In part 1 of this article, we explored recent trends in learning preferences from a recent BA/PM Times Poll.

In the previous article, we examined some advantages and downsides to live, in-person learning. In this part, we cover some plusses and minuses of self-learning.

Live Virtual

In this context, we lose much of the non-verbal communication. It simply does not allow for the full presence of others with whom participants interact. Yet, in many ways this can heighten some aspects of learning. Without the distraction of the person sitting next to you and other commotion in the classroom, the communication channel between instructor and student can be intensified.

In some ways, it’s more intimidating to contribute in a virtual classroom because your comments are so “exposed.” Everything anyone says in a virtual environment, particularly without video, seems louder than in an in-person setting. People may be more cautious about sharing ideas in a virtual environment because it can feel like every word is scrutinized. The opposite effect can happen depending on the person. Because it is not face-to-face, it may be easier for some people to speak up and participate who would not do so in an in-person setting.

Still, a live online classroom is a great learning venue that allows for live interaction without the inconvenience of having to go to a classroom for live, in-person training. It eliminates traveling to a site for training, a huge plus for organizations spread across cities or countries. Plus, you can step away for a minute or mute others without causing a scene. Overall, it’s a lot less effort to work with others in this environment. Exercises and workshops in these environments tend to be more focused on getting the work done and there is less required of the soft skills to navigate the interpersonal dynamics when sitting at a table face-to-face with others.

It has been my experience that judicious use of silence, frequent breaks, and good stress management in the face of technical problems go a long way toward making this environment ideal for many learners. Given the logistical simplicity of this approach, there’s a reason there has been such significant growth in this type of learning.


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On-Demand Self-Learning

So, we are left with the solitary experience of on-demand, self-learning. What exactly is the appeal with this format, which had the most votes in the poll? Given choices, why would someone choose to learn by themselves in an asynchronous format? This flies in the face of everything I’ve heard from students and what I have believed to be true about the best way to learn in the nearly 20 years that I’ve been teaching.

A student who gets his math lessons online recently explained to me why he much prefers this approach to learning math: “It’s just them doing work with their voice over it and there aren’t things around me.” I understand that skills development is fundamentally different than math in a discipline that requires working with others, like project management or business analysis. But the comment sheds light on why there might be a preference for the solitary learning experience of on-demand virtual training.
It’s the “things around me” comment that is particularly telling. On the one hand, those things could be entertaining distractions that really keep us from the task at hand, like Twitter feeds or games. Or the “things” could be other people in general. When consuming on-demand, online learning the communication channel is hyper-focused between teacher and learner. The content is the only thing “happening.”

Ultimately, this lowest context learning experience is a lot less work than having to contend with other people, whether students or instructor. Not only can you learn from the comfort of your home office, but you don’t have to share ideas, be polite, or figure out how to get along with anyone. With the day-to-day politicking demanded of most people, a quiet, solitary learning experience becomes an easy sell.

The intention here isn’t to advocate for one medium over others, but rather to explore perspectives that may shed light on changing preferences. The time commitment plays no small part in driving preferences, but I would contend that it’s not the only driver, and it’s not clear to me that time savings would necessarily translate to a “preference.”

The best learning format for you depends on balancing goals, circumstances, and constraints, which should not cater only to preferences. A poor choice in balancing those considerations recently resulted in tragedy after two US Navy ships crashed. The crashes were attributed in part to a lack of training in which the captains were given a package of 21 CDs to complete their training. Thoughtful consideration of which format makes sense goes beyond student (or organizational) preferences for convenience.

The good news is that learning providers have gained more experience in meeting online learning demands, and consumers have gained experience, as well. The result is more good options for skills development. Work environments are evolving, learning is evolving, and so are learner preferences.
What are you seeing?

Trends in Learning Part 1: Survey Says…

Everyone knows that when given a choice, most people prefer face-to-face communication. And, of course, that goes double for learning. Right?

Well, not so fast. In a recent weekly poll on BA Times, results revealed that a staggering 67% prefer “Self Learning”! That includes 42% of the respondents preferring “On Demand” and almost 25% preferring “Live Online.”

brockmeier 09192017 1This survey suggests that given a choice, people prefer to learn online and alone. Of course, the sample size is limited and may be skewed by being conducted thru an online portal. But, it does point out a continuing trend. Interestingly, a colleague and I were talking recently about how much we like facilitating virtual classes. That is certainly not a sentiment I had several years ago when I started doing online teaching.

As organizations have practiced delivering online learning, and students have consumed online learning, we’ve all gotten a lot better at making online learning experiences work well. Even without considering the technology changes that have occurred in the last five years, online learning is easier, more enjoyable, and more beneficial than it used to be.

Still, these numbers seem inconsistent with what I have heard from students over the years and what I’ve held to as conventional wisdom about training modalities. The survey inspired me to review what’s to like and not like about the various modes of delivery to get some perspective on how and why preferences have evolved. Below are some of my observations about the three primary modes of delivery that are most common: Live in-person; Live virtual (online); On-demand virtual.


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Live In-Person

What’s not to like about live, in-person learning? It’s rich with human interaction. This is the easiest environment in which to exchange complex ideas, work through problems that require give and take, and learn from each other. Other students or team members are right there to give you feedback on the spot. You can really get to know them. You can even share snacks with them!

Obviously, a skilled facilitator is key to making in-person learning a positive experience. However, it takes effort on the part of participants to make this work, as well. Particularly when team dynamics are challenging, which they often are, team members must tap into their reservoir of soft skills to work through them. It is hard to escape difficult team members when working together in a classroom setting. Live training is the closest to real life and perhaps has the greatest ability to help transfer skills from the classroom back to the job.

Not to mention that you can’t mute the instructor or step away from your seat for a few minutes to take a break on your own time – at least not without causing considerable distraction. Also, in-person classes are typically done in longer chunks of time, often full days. That’s a long time to remain focused and get along with others.

It used to be that training was a break from the daily grind. Perhaps as more people work offsite and often at home, a day of live training may be less of a break and more of a day of hard work getting along with others.

Even with the demands of live, in-person learning, it’s a great mode for learning. There are benefits beyond learning the topic of the course. For novice professionals or students who are in transition, the immediate and personal feedback within the classroom experience helps build confidence. All participants, including experienced professionals, benefit from the interactions with others or hearing other perspectives. The ancillary learning that comes from sitting at a table face-to-face with others is invaluable in live, in-person classroom environments.

CSM® or PMI-ACP®? Which Agile Certification Is Right For You?

Those who go through the work to earn a professional certification enjoy a multitude of benefits.

Earning a certification builds confidence, makes you more competitive in the job market, solidifies understanding of a discipline, and establishes credibility with your stakeholders. Considering the effort, money, and commitment required to get certified, those rewards are well-deserved.

That sizable investment also means that most people must be discriminating as to which certification to pursue. Few have enough time, money, and energy to get more than one certification in a field, so a question we often get is, “Which one do you recommend?”

This article explores two popular agile certifications: Certified ScrumMaster® (CSM), awarded by the Scrum Alliance, and the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)®, awarded by Project Management Institute. Each certification and awarding organization offers different considerations that might go into choosing one over the other.

Highlighting the most salient “plusses” of each certification seems the best way to illustrate the value proposition for each certification. Of course, to highlight a benefit of one certification is not to say that it is unique to that certification. But to appreciate the benefits of each, it seems helpful to ask, “What does each certification say about you when your signature includes CSM or PMI-ACP?”

  • PMI-ACP: You Understand Scrum and Other Agile Methods
    Scrum is, by far, the most widely used agile approach, but it is not the only approach. The PMI-ACP addresses agile from a more holistic perspective and not specifically Scrum. When preparing for the ACP, it was helpful to understand about those other perspectives to see how agile principles are applied with different methods.
  • CSM: You Have Learned and Worked with a Certified Scrum Trainer.
    The biggest benefit of getting a CSM is that there is a very small, highly qualified number of individuals from whom you can receive your CSM training. Only Certified Scrum Trainers® (CSTs) can deliver a CSM course, and the qualifications for becoming a CST are extremely rigorous including vetting by Scrum Alliance peers in face-to-face interviews.
    CSTs all have considerable field and classroom with years of hands-on work in organizations with agile teams. Getting a CSM means you have learned from a Scrum professional who has deep knowledge about Scrum and has a lot of experience working with agile teams. That typically translates into hearty classroom examples of what agile looks like and how it works in the field when discussing concepts in class.
  • PMI-ACP: You Have Agile Education and Project Experience
    The experience requirements for the ACP are relatively strong. To apply for the PMI-ACP exam, you must have several thousand hours of experience working on projects. This experience includes general project experience, as well as project experience working on agile project teams or with agile methods and practices. Having a PMI-ACP means you have some context for understanding the various approaches to managing projects and you can speak to the benefits of agile and when it’s the right approach.
    The ACP also requires 21 hours of agile education and may be done either online or in-person. Those education hours may address agile philosophy, techniques, or principles, and there are no specific requirements for instructor qualifications, (unless it is an ACP prep course, in which the trainer must be ACP certified). So, in general the quality requirements for the agile education component of getting certified are more rigorous for the CSM.
  • CSM: You Are a Member of Scrum Alliance.
    Another benefit of a CSM is affiliation with Scrum Alliance. As a CSM, you are a member of an organization entirely dedicated to Scrum. There is, and always has been, no question that Scrum Alliance folks understand agile and that they are a leading resource pertaining to all things Scrum.
    This might not be as important if it weren’t contrasted with PMI, which has long been the keeper of the more traditional, plan-driven, “waterfall” approach to projects. In fact, one of the downsides of the PMI-ACP when it first came out was that many people disregarded it precisely because it was from PMI. That’s changing, however, and their evolving image reflects years of rebranding to put agile front and center in their publications and events. Nevertheless, some still see PMI as the one-stop shop for all things anti-agile. CSMs have never had that credibility gap as members of Scrum Alliance.

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  • PMI-ACP: You Passed A PMI Exam
    The PMI-ACP exam process is more intensive than the CSM. For example, the CSM exam consists of a combination of multiple-choice and true/false questions and you must answer 24 out of 35 correctly to pass. There is no separate fee to take the test; it’s included in the cost of the class. It is taken online and you have two attempts to pass the test within 90 days of class. If you do not pass within two attempts and/or 90 days, you may take the test again for $25 for each successive attempt. So, the barrier to entry for the CSM as it relates to the test is relatively low.
    On the other hand, the PMI-ACP certification, like all PMI certifications, is earned after going through the notoriously rigorous PMI application and testing process. The PMI-ACP exam is not nearly as difficult as the PMP, but passing it is more difficult than the CSM exam. Even the application process, while considerably easier than it used to be, still requires pulling together details about project experience, contact info, etc.
    The PMI-ACP exam is a three-hour, 120-multiple-choice question exam taken at a testing site. If you do not pass, you must pay another, relatively substantial fee. So, considering the difficulty of the exam and the testing process, it’s more of an accomplishment from a testing standpoint than the CSM.
    Of course, a test proves nothing other than you answered the minimum number of questions correctly to receive a passing score. A test doesn’t make anyone a better practitioner. But for most people, a PMI certification indicates that you have taken the certification seriously enough to make the investment to get through the process of passing one of their tests. PMI’s certification program is very well developed and has a long tradition, and there’s something to be said for that.
  • CSM: You Have Attended a Course Using Agile Tools and Artifacts.
    The courses for getting your CSM are rich with hands-on exercises and must be taught live, in person; there is no means of getting CSM certified through an online course. This speaks to Scrum Alliance’s quality program for its courses, and it benefits those with CSMs in that you will have had that classroom experience of working on an agile-like, co-located team and participated in Scrum activities and utilized Scrum tools to create Scrum artifacts.
  • PMI-ACP: You Are Committed to Continued Professional Growth in Agile
    Maintaining a PMI-ACP requires 30 hours of continuing education in agile within three years of passing the exam. There is a fee involved, as well, but it’s mostly about keeping your skills and knowledge sharp through training, reading, or some other learning activity.
    On the other hand, keeping your CSM only requires paying a Scrum Alliance membership fee two year after completing your CSM. Therefore, a CSM who got certified seven years ago can continue to use that designation as long as they continue to pay their fees – even if they haven’t participated in any agile professional growth since then. For that reason, the PMI-ACP sustains its certification value over time better than the CSM.

Something to keep in mind as you compare these two certifications is that both are scheduled to undergo changes in the coming months. Scrum Alliance is currently revising their entire certification program. At this point, many of the details are still unknown, but changes to the CSM may include things like being able to take a class online. It will continue to be an entry-level certification much like it is now. Other than that, we’ll have to wait and see.

What’s happening at PMI regarding the PMI-ACP is more certain. First, PMI has partnered with Agile Alliance to develop an Agile Practice Guide, coming out in September of this year (2017). This partnership clearly speaks to PMI’s intent to enhance its credibility in the agile world.

Also, the PMI-ACP exam will be updated in first quarter of 2018 to reflect the content in the new Guide. Given the history of PMI, their investment in putting agile at the forefront of their image, and the significant growth of that certification since it was first awarded in 2011, the PMI-ACP is likely to retain its value and continue to be a sought-after certification, both from professionals and the organizations that hire them.

So, the question as to which is better, CSM or PMI-ACP? There really isn’t a right answer. CSM after your name means you have learned about Scrum from a CST, who is a true, experienced, expert. You have participated in a class that utilized hands-on exercises so you have at least classroom experience with basic Scrum activities and artifacts. And you’re a member of the Scrum Alliance, an organization dedicated to helping professionals apply agile and Scrum practices, principles, and values to create healthy, happy work environments.

PMI-ACP after your name means you have 1000s of hours of project experience, some of which includes working with agile techniques and practices. You have passed a rigorous exam that took significant commitment of time, money, and effort to complete, and you understand the repertoire of agile methods, including Scrum. It also says that you either have or will be continuing to invest time, money, and effort to keep abreast of what’s happening in the field and to your knowledge and skills sharp.

It is almost always a safe bet that certification will give you an edge and be worth the investment. If you are considering a choice between the CSM and PMI-ACP, hopefully the perspectives shared here will help you discern which agile certification is right for you. Good luck!

The Benefits of Closing Projects – Beyond Lessons Learned

In my experience, and in talking with my students and other practitioners, it is my perception that closing projects is one of the most overlooked processes in the discipline of project management.

It’s easy to understand why closing often gets neglected. By the time the project is over, many stakeholders, including the team, have already turned their attention to the next project. In fact, sponsors sometimes lose focus by the time there is confidence that the bulk of the work has been done and deliverables have been received. It doesn’t always feel like time well spent to go through the exercise of closing.

As with all project management processes, the degree of rigor needs to be scaled appropriately to the project, organization, and stakeholder need. It may not need to be a formal or heavy process, especially if it doesn’t involve regulations or compliance. In fact, a leaner process done periodically along the way often makes it not only easier but also more valuable.

Ignoring the process altogether may mean missing some important benefits. Some habit around a closing exercise will benefit the organization and serve the stakeholders well in the long run.

Along with conducting a lessons learned session, getting approval for deliverables, and resolving outstanding issues, a key closing activity involves the collection, organization, and storage or archiving of project information. Recently, a colleague and I were sharing project experiences and our conversation highlighted three interrelated benefits of this closing activity:


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1. Retrieval of Project Communications

Many organizations only keep email and other communications for a period of time. Typically, closing the project involves collection of project communications, including email. If there are questions asked about a project that closed 10 months ago, and the answer lies somewhere in an email string, you may not be able to get to it if the organization only keeps email for 6 months. For example, I have worked on projects in which it was enormously helpful to be able to go back and review emails from previous projects to help develop more effective strategies for working with stakeholders.

2. Captured Thoughts While People Still Have Them

Team members and SMEs who move from project to project often have invaluable information not just about things that are likely to be captured in a lessons learned exercise, but also how something was done, what options were considered, or various experiments that may have been tried. In fact, in my colleague’s case, they were asked what they had accomplished on a past project and because nothing had been closed out, it was difficult to present what had been delivered. It wasn’t that they had failed to deliver anything, but there was no acknowledgement of the intangible deliverables. Months later, they were hard pressed to present what had been done. In this particular case, the organization wanted to restart the project and it was hard to know where to begin. This case is a great example of the value of not waiting until the end to close. A closing process that includes collecting key information from the team will mitigate the problem of not being able to recall details later when it might be helpful to leverage that past experience.

3. Retained Context for Project Decisions

Capturing project information as part of closing typically includes market, financial, or other data that has gone into project decisions. While the decisions may be long remembered after a project is finished, it can be difficult to recreate the data context that lead to those decisions. When future projects require a decision, it may be helpful to know what the data looked like at the time a decision was made on a past project. Closing captures that snapshot of the data as it looked at the time, providing the context for project decisions that were made at the time.

People are often inclined to archive information, especially communications, for defensive purposes. But this is not about archiving simply to have a record or paper trail as proof of something (which suggests a lack of trust). Project information and data that is likely to be helpful in the future often goes beyond the thoughts and reflections captured as part of a lessons learned exercise. Without some intention around gathering that data, communications, records, etc., there is a missed opportunity to easily go back to refresh memories on what happened in order to answer questions or get input into new decisions.

So the next time you are tempted to gloss over or ignore closing, consider these benefits of collecting and archiving project information as part of closing your project — either at the end of the project or, better yet, periodically along the way.

I’d be curious about your experience with collecting and archiving project information. When have project archives served you well from past projects?

Training for Project Closure

Closing out a calendar year brings to mind the challenges of closing out projects. But unlike a calendar year, the close of a project only happens with intention. All too often, it doesn’t happen at all.

The benefits of conducting some kind of formal project closure are many, including a sense of accomplishment among project participants which improves productivity, organizational recognition of the value of the investment, and contributions to the corporate memory that serve as a resource for future projects. Project closure is not just a good idea, it’s of value to the organization.

My top tips for closing projects came from personal experience training for my first triathlon. My biggest concern going into the race was how I was going to hold up toward the end. Running is the last of the three events, and the one about which I was least confident. I wondered if I would be able to finish that last mile or if I would simply be so exhausted that I would not make it across the finish line.

As it turns out, I was so invigorated by the experience and so excited about completing the race that the closer I got, the easier it actually became as I moved toward the finish line. 

If only it were that way with projects. Often it’s the opposite with projects; our momentum peters out toward the end. In fact, unlike December 31 which is suddenly staring you in the face, it often feels like project finish lines move further from us the closer to them we get. Starting projects seems relatively easy. It’s bringing them to a close that can be frustratingly elusive.

Lessons learned from triathlon training can help bring projects to closure:

First, make sure you know what the project finish line looks like.

What kept me going in training and in the race was imagining myself crossing that finish line. The finish on a project, of course, isn’t an actual line in the sand, but it should be clear to all stakeholders what “done” looks like. Part of the reason we sometimes have a hard time getting to the end on projects is that we don’t recognize it when we see it. Define it clearly; define it early. And use it to visualize the end – just like a real finish line.

Second, measure progress regularly.

Training for a race is easy in that you can hop on a treadmill and gauge how far and how fast you are running. As your endurance increases, your confidence and momentum toward the goal of completing the race increases.

It’s not exactly that way on a project, but taking stock regularly along the way to know how you are doing relative to the objectives helps keep the “mo” on projects. Figure out how to measure progress and let everyone know where things are at. It’s usually not enough to just announce “done” at the end. Nothing is more encouraging than hearing “we’re getting there” along the way.

Third, find a mentor.

Plenty of days during training I could have found something more desirable to do than swim, bike, or run. Like laundry. But I have a friend who had done this before and who always provided the right amount of support and encouragement when I was feeling uninspired. Sharing my success with him was a treat.

Mentorship in project management can be every bit as powerful. Someone who has been there and done that and who will be a sounding board as you work through obstacles to keep your eye on the prize can be a project manager’s greatest asset.

December 31 comes whether we are ready or not. Project closure only comes with planning and effort, yet it’s as fundamental to project management as running is to a triathlon. Visualizing the finish line, regularly measuring progress, and working with a mentor can help you get to the end of your project – and close it.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.