Just Say No to the Creeps

Scope creep, which is according to Business Dictionary.com is the all too common tendency where “small changes in a plan or project that necessitate other changes which lead to still more changes … and so on.” The term scope creep itself reminds me of a similar term – “mission creep” that is associated originally with military operations – think of the Vietnam conflict, which began in the late 1950s with only a few hundred U.S. military advisors to bolster the South Vietnamese Army, but in a decade expanded to the scale of a major “hot” war. Mission creep is now used to describe the slow, even cancerous like growth of government programs and their attending bureaucracies in the political domain.

Though I have experienced both mission creep and scope creep firsthand, the topic of this post is the latter. About five years ago, I was part of a team to develop online asynchronous courseware for a Department of Defense client in California. At the start of the project, I was not the project manager (PM) and was not involved with the initial stakeholder and client meetings or the planning phase of the delivery. However, at the six-month mark of the two year project timeline, the original PM was promoted and I was put into the position of de facto or “accidental” PM responsible for the execution of the delivery ranging from monitoring the schedule, quality assurance and quality control, supervising production and even drafting team member evaluations.

However, there was one wrinkle, the former PM, now a Program Manager (PgM) retained his role as the focal point of contact between our firm and the client and the reason for this arrangement was he was to engage the client for future business development. In other words, as the PM, my communication with a key stakeholder was limited and filtered through a go between whose agenda was different from mine as the PM for a delivery.

This arrangement as you can imagine became the source of issues that manifested themselves later on in the form of scope creep. For example, in order to foster good will with the client the PgM was reluctant to say no to the client when they requested modifications to the delivery in the form of enhancements that naturally caused production delays, yet we were still bound to the terms of the original statement of work (SOW) when it came to the timeline.

I could go on with more examples of how the PgM’s inability to say no created additional problems, but I think you get the gist of the situation and may have experience a similar fate, so I will end here with the following from Michael Greers’ Project Management Minimalist on the necessity of sometimes saying no:

Make sure everyone on the project team has deep knowledge and respect for the boundaries of the project. Make sure they know, and are willing to defend, the finite nature of the project deliverables as specified in the contract or the work plan. If you haven’t already done so, make sure there is a method in place for handling add-ons, wishes, and other requests for expanding the project scope. For example: Keep a list of items marked “Version 2” or “Enhancements for Future Projects” when you’re in those meetings with stakeholders. These items can be rolled into another, subsequent project that is separately funded and has its own schedule. That way stakeholders are assured that their ideas are captured. Back up your team members and be there to help them say “No” when they are faced with scope creep. (Greer, 2010).

If I only could have left a copy of Greer’s treatise of project management on the PgM’s desk back five years ago it might have gone differently. Well maybe not, because as things go it probably would not have mattered given the organizational culture.


Business Directory.com Definition of scope creep. Retrieved from http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/scope-creep.html#ixzz3FgExneBe

Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.

Scheduling and Budgeting Tools for Instructional Designer Project Managers

One of the most vexing aspects of an instructional design (ID) project is accurately estimating schedule and budgets during the planning phase of project management. The project schedule and the project budget, when approved by key stakeholders and the project proponent, are tools used to track and monitor the project in terms of the first two of the “project triple constraints” of time, resources, and scope. The project manager (PM), their supervisors, and other key stakeholders use the approved budget and schedule as a baseline when measuring the project’s progress from initiation to delivery.

So what are some PM information tools that will help PMs accurately estimate costs, effort, or activity durations? For me, I am familiar with what is probably the “granddaddy” of PM automated tools, namely Microsoft Project™. MS Project has been around for at least two-decades as I recollect and maybe longer. Though MS Project has a wide range of powerful scheduling and budget estimation tools, the cost for this tool is somewhat pricey. Therefore, I focused my search this week on tools that were in the public domain as free or available at a low cost.

One of the free PM tools that caught my attention was LibrePlan. For starters, the name suggests its “free” cost attributes.  From Robin Muilwijk at Open Source.com, a tool with support for task management, resource allocation, tracking, Gantt charts, and much more. ProjectLibre is a good alternative to a commercial software product like Microsoft Project. (2014). On the actual website for LibrePlan is this description, “The open source web application for project planning, monitoring and control”.


One of the features that I liked in LibrePlan was the fact that it provides separate applications for project initiation, Work-Breakdown Schedule (WBS) builds, and resource allocation loads. These applications are titled – Project Lists,   Resource Loads Queue-based Resources Plan.  A great feature of LibrePlan is that these applications are linked and integrated – a feature that makes MS Project so effective for PM.

I am interest is AGILE processes as they relate to PM so another PM tool recommended by Robin Muilvick piqued my interest. Agailefant is a free, for up to five people, cloud based tool that is tailored for AGILE methods and processes.

Agilefantlogo                                Agilefant

One of the best quips on the Agilefant website was this testimonial, “Many project management tools only get used because of management enforcement. Front line code warriors like Agilefant, because it helps them instantly take control of their tasks and time.” (Agilefant, 2014). By way of clarification, Agilefant is geared for software designers using Agile methods; however, I feel that with some modifications, Agilefant would be an effective application for Instructional Designers in the distance learning field.


Muilwijk, R. (2014). Top 5 open source project management tools in 2014. Retrieved from: http://opensource.com/business/14/1/top-project-management-tools-2014

MS Project (2014). Retrieved from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/project/

LiibrePlan Open Web Planning. (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.libreplan.com/

Agilefant – Simple and Easy. (2014). Retrieved from http://agilefant.com/

A Tale of Three Tells

This week’s assignment was to analyze three modes of communication in the context of the same business message from one colleague to another. Portny et al. note that, “The key to successful project management is effective communications-sharing the right messages with the right people in a timely manner…The ability to communicate well, both orally and writing, is a critical skill for project managers.” (p. 357, 2008). A brief analysis of each communication form follows.

Email Mode:

The message (send me the report yesterday) was understandable but I thought it was buried in some extraneous and superfluous verbiage that diluted the message. I feel that the message could have been distilled down to a couple of to the point, yet polite sentences.


Please send your report as soon as possible but no later than (some date/time). Without your report’s data, I cannot complete mine and run the risk of missing a deadline. The data by itself would suffice if this is easier for you.”

A direct and concise communication approach combined with polite tone works best in written business communications. Portny et al. also relate, “Written reports enable project managers to present factual data more efficiently, chose their words carefully in order to minimize misunderstandings, provide historical records of information shared, and share the same message with a wide audience.” (p. 358, 2008).

Voicemail Mode:

Jane’s voicemail was for me more effective in communicating her message expressing her need for Mark’s report or the data in the report. The personal tone in her voice conveyed well in a nuanced manner a clear expression of her requirements in a “human” way. If I were Mark, I would clearly be more apt to respond to the voicemail due its personal delivery.

Face-to-Face (f2f) Mode:

For most of us, the f2f form of communications is optimal in terms of effectiveness, especially in informal settings. The richness in communications from f2f interactions is part of our evolutionary heritage and no other technical mode can match it in terms of effectiveness. Some of the characteristics that Jane demonstrated in the f2f demonstration that I felt were useful to her included how she kept her body language signals at an even level. Her vocal modulations were at the right tone, and I thought that her eye contact was also effective.

The take away from his analysis is that regardless of the communication mode, each has its own considerations and factors that either add or detract from its effectiveness. Of the three communication modes, I felt that there is no “silver bullet” solution when it comes to communicating with a project team. However, I feel that this statement by Portny et al. is the most important factor for project managers to keep in mind, “Planning project communications up-front enables project managers to choose the appropriate type of communications for sharing different messages.” (p. 357, 2008). Simply put, project managers should not take effective communication for granted. Like creating schedules, handling stakeholders, and risk management, communication requires deliberate planning and due diligence.


Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Post-mortem to Lessons Learned

A project post-mortem also known as a post-project review is an opportunity for a project team to take stock at the end of a project and develop a list of lessons learned so that they don’t repeat their mistakes in the next project according to Michael Greer in the Project Management Minimalist. (p. 42, 2010). Those of who are or were in the military might be familiar to a similar tool to the project post-mortem known as an after action review (AAR). The purpose of the AAR is to also identify mistakes and develop lessons learned to improve future activities, but of course the subject being review is normally a tactical military mission, not a project. (Combined Arms Center, U.S. Army).

It was not too difficult to select a project from my past to use as vehicle to discuss project post-mortems. Ten or so years ago I was thrust into the position of a becoming an ad hoc or what the Project Management Institute (2010) calls an  “accidental project manager” for an instructional delivery to one of the branches of the military. Some of the details of the project are not be disclosed, but I can say that it involved providing entry level training for an automated information system and our firm was contracted to provide 40-hours of training to meet the client’s learning objectives. The original, and trained, project manager (PM) left the project but had completed most of the planning requirements so I was told during my transition in briefing. The other thing told to me was not to worry and just follow my predecessor’s plan. You probably already know where this tale is going.

After the in brief, one of the first things I did was to review the Statement of Work (SOW) and compare that with the existing project planning documents. Some aspects of the plan were very complete and detailed. For example, the work breakdown structure (WBS) showing the interim deliverables was quite intricate segmenting the 40-hour project down to a fine level of granularity. It also had a comprehensive task and requirement list; however, the original PM did not such a great job in estimating the resources needed for the project in particular the time required to complete the project with the existing team members.

Thus, the submitted and stakeholder approved project schedule was grossly optimistic. At the project close the final delivery was late by seven-months, which cost the firm and damaged its reputation with the client. In retrospect, I should have requested a change in the project scope early on in the development phase when I could see that we were going to miss our initial delivery. Greer describes a method for handling scope changes such as needing to add more time to the schedule. This includes making “adjustments to the project plan to deal with additions, reductions, or modification to the deliverables or work process; formal documentation of each scope change, and formal approval of each scope change.” (p. 45, 2010).

If I had made the attempt to manage the scope change through a formal process early on, we would have probably ended up in a better plan financially and in terms of our firm’s reputation. My principal “lesson learned” from being an accidental project manager is one summed up in the old saying, “bad news doesn’t get better with age” and that sometimes decisive, yet measured actions are required to keep a bad project situation from becoming a catastrophe.

In Grimes (2010) Project “Post-mortem” review questions, several of those dealing with Creating a Project Plan reminded me of this experience. These include:

  1. How accurate were our original estimates of the size and effort of our project? What did we over or under estimate? (Consider deliverables, work effort, materials required, etc.)
  2. How could we have improved our estimate of size and effort so that it was more accurate?
  3. Did we have the right people assigned to all project roles? (Consider subject matter expertise, technical contributions, management, review and approval, and other key roles) If no, how can we make sure that we get the right people next time?
  4. Describe any early warning signs of problems that occurred later in the project? How should we have reacted to these signs? How can we be sure to notice these early warning signs next time? (p. 44, 2010).

Having an awareness of what underlies these four questions, especially the last one would have benefitted both me and my firm. The bottom line is when the plan has fundamental flaws, then act quickly to obtain key stakeholder buy-in to effect a change that gets the project back on schedule, under budget and within scope of the obligated delivery requirements.


Greer, M. (2010). Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.

Combined Arms Center, U.S. Army (n.d.). Establishing a lessons learned program. Retrieved from: https://rdl.train.army.mil/catalog-ws/view/100.ATSC/2F5E29AA-DABF-4BE4-9F6F-2C804BE46EE7-1274436620178/25-10/CH5.htm

Project Management Institute (2010). The accidental project manager. Retrieved from: http://www.pmi.org/en/Professional-Development/Career-Central/The-Accidental-Project-Manager.aspx

Coda: Future Perceptions of Distance Education


How will we perceive distance education in the near term 5-10 years and out later on the horizon? Since distance education is growing at an increasing rate, it is to be expected that the public’s perception of distance education will also trend upwards. George Siemens spoke of the growing acceptance of distance education noting many collaborating factors such as a growing comfort level with the technology and the convenience and cost benefits afforded to busy adults. (Laureate producer, n.d.).The NMC Horizon Report: 2014 did, I thought, an excellent job in summarizing this recent acceptance trend:

Over the past several years, there has been a shift in the perception of online learning to the point where it is seen as a viable alternative to some forms of face-to-face learning. The value that online learning offers is now well understood, with flexibility, ease of access, and the integration of sophisticated multimedia and technologies chief among the list of appeals. (2014).

Later, perhaps as soon as 10-years distance education will no longer be the new model for education and instead be fully accepted and integrated into the educational mainstream. At some point, the distance education naysayers will be a small minority who will be by in large disregarded by academia as Luddites who live in the past deluded by wrong-minded attitudes that face-to-face learning is the only “true” pedagogical mode.

Within 20 year’s time, distance education it may in fact be the dominant educational mode as technological innovations such as wearable technology and learner analytics described in the The Horizon Report move from cutting edge to mainstream (2014).

In general, I feel people are fairly savvy especially when emotional based bias are kept in check. They are not going to accept, at least for the long term, a trend such as distance education emerging from the cycle of “next new thing” status to the natural tendency of skepticism, to where it is now becoming a mainstay of our society. Thus as IDs there is not a need to a distance leader cheerleader. Instead, a better approach to sway societal perceptions is to simply nod to that legal term ipsa res locquitor, which translates to “the thing speaks for itself” in Latin.  Thus, the best way to advocate for distance education is by simply identifying and pointing out successful outcomes in the work place, academia, and other domains.

We are familiar with the benefits of distance learning in terms of convenience; however, one aspect that I feel has been underplayed in the journals and articles is the democratization aspect of distance learning. Through the Internet, a high quality education is available that is not impeded by geography, time, and social status. What matters is the individual merit of the learner and not that their parents were in the top tier of the socio-economic class. There are programs, of course, providing opportunities for the “less fortunate” to top institutions as a form of charity or noblisse oblige, but with online education, the opportunities are far greater for those on the bottom to climb higher on the ladder based on their merits. Our political leaders I believe have failed to grasp this concept, though I do recall Al Gore speaking of how access to educational content would be a boon to society around the same time when he was mocked in the infotainment media for “inventing the Internet”.  

Gore  had as part of his 2000 Presidential Platform a concept of providing access via the then emerging online telecommunications infrastructure to all citizens through a partnership with industry and government. A big selling feature of this initiative was the promise of affordable higher education for the masses and noted in the Internet Hall of Fame biography on Al Gore. (n.d). At what point will access to Gore’s vision of the “Information Superhighway” have the same necessity as other public commodities such as clean water and electricity. (n.d.)


Internet Hall of Fame Global Connector, Al Gore Induction  (n.d.). Retrieved from http://internethalloffame.org/inductees/al-gore

Online Article: NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Retrieved from http://www.nmc.org/publications/2014-horizon-report-higher-ed

Video Program: Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). The future of distance education [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu

How to Get into Harvard and M.I.T for Free

If you would like to impress your friends, or even better, give your parent’s some bragging rights amongst their peers whose kids are all M.D.s, or federal judges, you too can have some of the prestige afforded to an Ivy Leaguer. Even if your SAT scores were not at the elite strata, or even if you cannot claim a legacy slot from mom or dad (Do those still exist?) you too can have the cachet of an Ivy League certificate by simply enrolling in edX.

So what is edX? From the edX homepage:

EdX offers interactive online classes and MOOCs from the world’s best universities. Online courses from MITx, HarvardX, BerkeleyX, UTx and many other universities. Topics include biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, math, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, statistics and more. EdX is a non-profit online initiative created by founding partners Harvard and MIT. (edX, 2014).

The architects of the edX learning environment have taken a very deliberate approach in the design of their distance learning infrastructure and course offerings. EdX has many features that would be familiar to those knowledgeable of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) that became very popular in academia a few years ago; however, edX’s approach is to use the best of the concepts and certainly the spirit that characterize MOOCS but edX also blends in other distance learning methods that are successful in other online delivery modes such as courseware management systems (CMS). Will Oremus describes how edX differs from the rest of the distance education pact in his article on Slate, Forget MOOCs which discusses the backlash against MOOCs which were in vogue a few years ago and how edX is advancing distance education:

Like Coursera and Udacity, EdX began by offering full-service online classes for free, taught by professors at Harvard and MIT, the initial partners in the venture. Unlike Coursera and Udacity, though, EdX is a nonprofit, which frees it from the expectations of venture capitalists … As a result, EdX has appeared less focused on getting big quickly and more open to experimentation in terms of how it can best serve professors and students. One of those experiments is what UC–Berkeley professor Armando Fox calls SPOCs—“small private online classes,” as opposed to massive open ones. (2013).

Viewed through the lens of best practices for distance education EdX hits the mark in many key areas. Enrolling in edX was a very simple process that only required an email validation to register as a full-time student. Since the course offerings were more along the lines of full term modules, I elected to take the edX orientation course to sample how the designers adhered to recommended practices for online instruction. The SPOC approach was evident in the layout of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) which was similar to those in other online environments such as Canvas Instructure or BlackBoard™ but the structure was what I would describe as simple yet elegant as it requires fewer user interactions to access sites or content and the design was uncluttered. A balanced array of multimedia technologies follows the guideline that there is no single best technology for distance learning. Common GUI offerings included Courseware (interactive content), Discussion areas, Wikis, and Course Handouts.

The edX architects recognize the importance of social interaction between students and students and instructors. There are several social media venues on edX from their own “edX Meetup Community” which encourages “study buddies” in the same geographical area to have face-to-face encounters. There are also edX communities on popular social media sites such as Google+ and Facebook.

One of the better aspects of edX is that a stated objective of the stewards of this distance learning program is to use feedback from students and instructors to improve the instructional outcomes of the online courses and further understanding of best practices through research. From the edX About webpage:

Our goals, however, go beyond offering courses and content. We are committed to research that will allow us to understand how students learn, how technology can transform learning, and the ways teachers teach on campus and beyond. As innovators and experimenters, we want to share what we discover. The edX platform is available as open source. By conducting and publishing significant research on how students learn, we will empower and inspire educators around the world and promote success in learning. Our aim is to become a leading resource for learners and learning worldwide by staying focused on the goals and principles set forth when forming edX. Our goals: Expand access to education for everyone. Enhance teaching and learning on campus and online. Advance teaching and learning through research. (edX 2014).

EdX is an evolving work in progress that progressively refines its processes and best practices for the distance learning environment. With its “kaizen” approach with incremental bottoms-up driven improvements, a stable of Ivy League instructors, and an elegant and effective CMS, edX will likely have a long run. It may even be around to prove the statement by “Stanford artificial-intelligence whiz Sebastian Thrun who predicted that within 50 years there would be only 10 institutions of higher learning left in the world” should come true. (2013).

Registering with edX costs nothing and all you need is a valid e-mail address. Though it is a free online learning environment controlled by the sponsoring academic institutions and not a consortium of investors, edX does charge fees for its course completion certificates as explained in edX’s terms of service (TOS). Currently the certificates are awarded for demonstrated mastery of a topic based on the University’s standards and are printed with the University’s branding; however, the certificates do not carry any weight when it comes to being part of an official academic transcript. Still, it would look nice to see a Harvard crimson logo on a frame up on the wall. (edX TOS, 2014).


edX Terms of Service and About. Retrieved August 4, 2014 from: https://www.edx.org/

Oremus, W. (2013). Forget MOOCS. Article. Slate Online Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/09/spocs_small_private_online_classes_may_be_better_than_moocs.html

Oremus, W. (2012) The New Public Ivies. Article. Slate Online Magazine. Retrieved http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2012/07/coursera_udacity_edx_will_free_online_ivy_league_courses_end_the_era_of_expensive_higher_ed_.html