A large global strategy consultancy firm places great value on executing its projects flawlessly. This is not easy, considering they often operate in a multi-stakeholder context, on complicated questions, under high pressure. To ensure high quality project delivery, senior project leaders are vital. They are seen as key for the success of the organization. Therefore, the firm invests in their ongoing development.
The organization was looking for ways to create an impactful two-day program for senior project leaders, as part of their wider learning program. The focus was on investing in their ‘soft skills’. Most project leaders have a strong track record and expertise in the content of their projects. In order to increase their impact as project leaders, however, communication and interpersonal skills are just as important.
Because of the short time-frame, it was important to focus the learning intervention on the most critical skills and knowledge. So, we decided to take the actual work of the project leaders as a starting point for our design. In a number of interviews with the target group and their managers we identified ‘critical incidents’. We uncovered a total of six typical work situations in which project leaders make a real, relevant difference in the collaboration between client, partner, and the project team. Take for example a situation in which a client is not satisfied with the results but only voices this indirectly. Or a high-pressure project in which team members work ineffectively, but the project leader wants to stick to a coaching style of leadership instead of telling them what to do.
We designed studios as laboratories in which participants could re-enact real-life situations based on these critical incidents. They were invited to formulate their challenges and learning goals for each particular work situation and experiment with new ways of acting and thinking the studio.
In order to create a realistic experience of the actual situation we worked with training actors or real-life colleagues in the studios. We re-created the situation and then rapidly zoomed in on essential interaction fragments, exploring what went wrong or what went well, and why, but also experimenting with alternative ways of doing. As coaches, we helped participants reflect on themselves (their talents and pitfalls, behaviour patterns, underlying beliefs) and the situation, but we also offered specific, practical tips and theory.
All project leaders participated in each of the six studios with a small group of colleagues. This way, they could also learn by watching others. We mixed the groups in each studio so that everyone could benefit from the diversity of experiences and backgrounds in the whole group.
Participants, who are generally highly experienced and very performance-oriented, were very enthusiastic about the hands-on character and the intensity of the experience. They were on the edge of their seats and felt challenged in a safe environment. As a result, the training strengthened their skills and enriched their perspective on the relevance and impact of communication, leadership and other ‘soft skills’, making them more well-rounded as project leaders.
The setup with an actor and a trainer was very intense, effective, and also fun!'