What Every Instructional Designer Needs to Know About Project Management

Cheri Vaughn
Posted: September 25, 2019

In today’s fast-paced environment, companies are expecting workers to do more with less. In learning and development, where budgets are already tight, it’s not unusual for instructional designers to not only develop but also manage their own projects. Developing a training program and managing the project at the same time can be a bit overwhelming but following the tips below will help keep things running smoothly and allow you to deliver that project on time and within budget.

Tip 1: Understand the Scope of Work and Watch for Scope Creep

At the beginning of a project, it’s important that everyone understands and agrees on scope. The scope should provide a detailed account of the work required to complete the project and the deliverables to be produced. For example, the scope for an eLearning course should include information such as seat time, the tool it will be developed in, what level of complexity it is with regard to interactions, graphics, or animations, and whether it will include video, audio, virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR). This is not an all-inclusive list of what should be included in the scope for every project and deliverable, but it’s a good place to start.

Once the scope is defined, it’s important to keep an eye out for scope creep. How many times have you worked on a project where, halfway through, the client decided to expand a module from 30 minutes to one hour? Or they wanted to add a simple job aid? Or they decided they wanted to add audio to the eLearning course? All of these are examples of scope creep, which will always add more time and dollars to the project. When this happens, define the additional scope and gain agreement from your stakeholders that it is being added to the overall scope of work. If more hours or resources will be needed to accommodate the increase in scope, be sure to raise this with the stakeholders to ensure additional costs will be covered. It’s important to do this prior to starting the additional work so there are no surprises in the end — for you or your client.

Tip #2: Obtain Buy-In from SMEs and Stakeholders

Identify SMEs and stakeholders early on and make sure they understand how much time will be required of them. Get their buy-in and commitment to timelines before the project is underway. One of the biggest risks to a curriculum development project is SMEs not having enough time for reviews. This can quickly derail a project timeline as reviews get delayed further and further.

Related: How to Avoid Herding Cats When Working with Subject Matter Experts

Hold a kickoff meeting with your SMEs at the start of the project. This gives you the opportunity to ensure everyone is on the same page about the deliverables, project scope, and expectations. In this meeting, you’ll also want to explain timelines and what the SMEs’ responsibilities will be when it comes to turnarounds for completing reviews and providing input on the content.

Tip #3: Track Project Milestones

As an instructional designer, you probably lean more to the creative side and aren’t at all interested in tracking the progress of things — I get it! But keeping your eye on the ball when it comes to managing a project is not optional. While using project tracking tools such as Microsoft Project can make life a lot easier, these tools can be quite robust in their functionality and difficult to learn. But if you’ve never used a project tracking tool before, don’t fret! I’ve seen many projects managed in Excel, and if the project isn’t too large, it can deliver the same great results. There are even free project management Excel templates available online to get you started.

Related: 7 Favorite Tools and Apps from our Expert Instructional Designers 

If you’re not the only instructional designer on the project, make sure the rest of your team is aware of key milestone dates so they can meet their deadlines. Some examples of milestones you might want to track are:

  • when you start the development of a module
  • when you complete a module
  • when a review is sent out
  • when a review is due back

Tip #4: Manage Risk and Escalate Issues

Risks and issues are inherent in every project. While risk assessment is usually done at the beginning, it should also continue throughout the life of the project as things progress and change. When risks are identified, determine what can be done to mitigate them. For example, if you know your SMEs are very busy and prone to missing review turnaround times, provide them with a calendar of when the deliverables will be ready for review so they can plan ahead.

When issues arise, do what you can to identify the root cause and try to find a resolution that will work for all parties involved. If there are issues out of your control that may impact the project, bring these to the attention of your manager or stakeholders to see if they can help resolve the situation. It’s important to keep issues and risks front and center as they are identified so no one is surprised if the project gets derailed.

 Tip #5: Assess and Wrap Up

Completing a project on time and within budget is probably the most satisfying feeling for any project manager. Once the project is complete, gather the team together and assess how well you did. Identify processes that worked well and those that didn’t. Always document lessons learned so they can be leveraged on the next project.

Be sure to thank everyone on the team for a job well done and recognize those who went above and beyond. A little recognition goes a long way to making people feel appreciated, and they will be the first in line to work on your next project!

As previously stated, developing content and managing the project at the same time can be a bit overwhelming, but following the tips above can help to ensure your next project runs smoothly and may avoid the pitfalls that can derail it.


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