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Learning Project Managers – Your Secret to Success

The added complexity of learning projects bring challenges that may be more than your team can handle. That’s when it’s time to consider bringing on a project manager.


Learning projects are becoming more complex. Every day it seems like there’s a new digital tool, a new learning approach, and advanced skills are needed to create the modern experience learners now expect.

That’s good news if you are in the learning field, business is booming. But the added complexity can also bring challenges that may be more than your team can handle.

That’s when it’s time to consider bringing on a project manager.

“The best time to ask, do I need a Project manager, is before the project starts, says John Rouze-Luke a veteran project manager with over 8 years of experience. That may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t take a serious look at their project management needs until the project is underway and they begin to get in over their heads.”

“My advice is when you begin to scope the project, put together a client bid or a pitch for internal resourcing, ask yourself a few key questions that will help you immediately identify whether or not you’ll need a project manager’s help.”

Question 1: Are there multiple inputs?

With learning projects, you may have subject matter experts, learning designers, writers, editors, media makers, and graphic designers, all coming together to create your product.

Each of those roles has a unique workflow and processes that have to be understood and coordinated.

“I liken it to a heavy merge in traffic, when multiple lanes have to come together and fit into a single lane. It has to be a coordinated effort with good guidelines otherwise you end up, at best with a bottleneck, where your project slows down at one particular pain point, at worst, a metaphoric ten car pile up, where deadlines get missed, deliverables don’t happen and the whole project is in a jam.”

A good project manager comes in beforehand and paints the lines on the road by setting up processes for each team, setting expectations around deliverables, and coordinating handoffs.

Question 2: Are your inputs dependencies?

If your team has a strong process in place already, you may be equipped to handle multiple inputs and deliverables without a dedicated project manager. But if more than one of those inputs are dependencies, then your project automatically gets more complicated.

“With dependencies – items that are dependent on another deliverable to move forward – it’s about more than setting up a shared drive to facilitate the handoff of items between teams, if an early deadline slips, it can have a ripple effect on your whole schedule.”

That’s where having a project manager who can swim upstream, communicate with teams to make sure those early deliverables are on track, can make or break a project.

“Often individual teams are focused on their next goal, their next deadline. They aren’t always looking at the big picture.” On the other hand, your project leaders often do have this lens, but they don’t always want to be bogged down in the details of a process. That’s when it’s really valuable to have someone looking ahead who has a nuanced view of the process, who can anticipate how the small tasks happening today will affect the big deadlines tomorrow, and raise the alarm is things start to slip.

Question 3: Do you have multiple stakeholders who need to review?

When you are creating learning products, in particular, chances are there are a lot of stakeholders who need to weigh in with feedback.

“In my experience with learning projects, it’s not just clients who have to weigh in. When you are bringing so many specializations together to make one product there are a lot of people who need to look at it. Your subject matter experts need to review the final product for accuracy, your designers and editors need to take a look for continuity, and that’s on top of client reviews. Keeping track of notes, implementation of notes and versioning is something an experienced project manager should be doing.”

Question 4: Are you working with tech?

If the answer is yes to this question, then you probably have already ticked the yes box on questions 1-3.

When you are making a product for an online course or one that needs to be integrated into a tech tool, then by default you have multiple inputs, you have dependencies, and you have multiple stakeholders who need to weigh in.

“And that’s just to get to the raw product. Once you start the process on integrating your content into a tool, website, or learning management system, you can then expect to layer in multiple next steps to get to a test launch, quality control testing, iterations and improvements before your product is ready to roll out to users. Again, it’s a lot to manage on top of the job of creating the initial content.”

Question 5: Do you have time to deal with it all yourself?

This is another one of those seemingly obvious questions that surprisingly either doesn’t get asked or project leaders are overly optimistic in their answer.

“I see it all the time, that planning and deadline optimism. It’s easy to think of things in the best case scenarios, like well, if everything goes according to plan my product will take this long to create and this long to revise, and a project leader or designer thinks, I can manage that. Just ask yourself this, when does anything ever go exactly to plan?”

That’s when it pays to have a contingency plan and a dedicated person to manage that plan so you can stay busy working on your actual product creation.

Now what?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, it’s a good sign that you should be actively looking for a project manager to bring on board.

But what exactly are you looking for?

Here are a few basic skills every project manager should possess:

  • Attention to detail
  • Organization
  • Communication
  • Basic technology capability including Microsoft Office Suite

When it comes to project managing learning projects, there a few additional skills you can add to the list:

  • Formal Project Management training and experience
  • Learning industry or product design and development knowledge and experience – look for someone who has been involved in and knows either how to develop products or knows the basics of learning design or multimedia development
  • Accounting and budgeting skills as well as general business acumen – they get the big picture and can make sure the project is moving towards the larger goal and staying within budget
  • Advanced communication skills – can handle client and stakeholder reviews and shepherd decision making conversations
  • Tech Skills – Project Mgmt software and LMS and other learning tool familiarity

“These are all skills that have served me well in the last 8 years working on big learning projects. They help me see what needs to be done from day one, set up an efficient system and create a plan with a team to keep things running smoothly.”

John has one last piece of advice when finding the right PM to take on your learning project.

“I think one of the most important qualities in any PM is a sense that the buck stops with me. If one part of the production process breaks down, we have to be the first responder and triage a solution to keep things moving. When you do that it creates trust. Your teams will come to you when they need help. They will let you know when there are problems because they trust you will be there to help them solve it and get the job done.”

About the Teammate

John Rouze-Luke is a learning industry professional with a unique hybrid background that makes him highly adept at managing digital learning projects.

John holds an MBA in IT and Project Management, has experience in software development, learning technology, and learning design as well as experience teaching at both the higher ed and K-12 level. For the past 8 years, John has focused on Project Management and has worked in equal parts in education and corporate learning and development. Managing complex learning projects with remote teams is his specialty.

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