Learning & Development Blog

Who Is Derailing Your Learning Project

Who Is Derailing Your Learning Project? (And How Can You Stop Them?)

Great news! That learning project you’ve nurtured through countless meetings and rolls of red tape has finally come to fruition, and you’re starting to get down to business. But wait – something’s not quite right. Why does it feel like the team is spinning out of control? Why does it seem like your manager doesn’t support you? Why isn't anyone meeting their deadlines?

The truth is, getting a project approved is only the beginning. There are numerous ways it can derail, and a myriad of people who can derail it. So how can you guide your project to success, against all odds?

Here are the people who can derail your project, and tactics you can employ to stay on track.


1. Leadership

The Problem

Company leadership is interested in ROI, and training is notoriously difficult to measure in those terms. Consequently, senior managers have been well-informed about the cost of your project, but don't understand the business case, so they want to trim -- or eliminate -- what they view as financial hemorrhaging.  This pressure sometimes leads teams to understate the time necessary to plan and implement a training strategy that will create learners who actually perform better (yes, perform better, not just memorize the material). 

Some leaders also have a tendency to swoop in on a project that is plugging along and try to impose their (dramatically different) vision on a project that is already well underway.

Survival Tactics

  • Communicate regularly. If you’re at the beginning of a project, stakeholders will benefit from a short primer on the learning development process. Present the project plan in detail. Then, provide regular updates. Don’t assume that it's enough just to show them the plan once at the beginning. 
  • Approach judiciously. Senior managers may not know what’s best for the project, but leadership has considerably more “pull” than those who work for them. You may need to suss out the corporate culture before getting confrontational.


2. Consultants

The Problem

After more than 25 years in the learning consulting industry, we've learned that not all consultants are actually suited to consulting. A good consultant is self-motivated, gets started quickly, reaches out to get necessary information, and most importantly, delivers on assignments according to deadlines and budget.  A good consultant is flexible, rolls with delays and issues that arise, and raises a red flag when a problem threatens the success of the project.

Survival Tactics

  • Get on the same team. Consultants can help you see your project more objectively. Be open to their ideas and use the expertise they bring. Consultants have a vested interest in the success of your project. Begin the project on the right foot: it’s not just about team-building activities, it’s about respecting what each team member brings to the whole.
  • Recognize that mistakes happen. Many of the problems you might encounter with a consultant are resolvable. A short conversation can often resolve the problem without resorting to more drastic measures.
  • But, when necessary, fire. The biggest advantage of hiring a consulting firm is that you should be able to easily remove a consultant from your project if she isn’t working out. The internal team, especially reviewers and Subject Matter Experts are well positioned to comment on any particular consultant’s performance. Be aware of the work still to be performed and the time loss of bringing on a new team member who will need to get up to speed.


3. The Project Manager

The Problem

A bad PM can both derail your project and demoralize your whole crew. Bad Project Managers are those who fail to communicate inter-related tasks, deadlines, and requirements. They fail to track deadlines, or conversely, are so deadline driven that they fail to adjust for problems or issues that may arise.  Poor PMs are those who fail to track individual task completions or note delays.  They also might be especially rigid or have a punishing attitude toward issues that arise.

Survival Tactics

  • Learn how to select a good project manager. Ideally, a PM should have a stake in the success of the project, whether they are an internal appointee or a consultant. Sometimes an external PM can maintain the objectivity needed to handle difficult people, or provide expertise that is lacking internally.
  • Use Project Management software. Project Managers need to document using a project tracking spreadsheet of some kind. You need this document to hold your team members accountable for their deadlines – on both sides of the project: internal employees and consultants.
  • Schedule a Weekly Status Meeting. Project Managers need to hold periodic check-ins. A short weekly meeting keeps everyone on the same page and aware of their responsibilities.


4. Subject Matter Experts

The Problem

Subject Matter Experts are the feet on the ground on your project. If their jobs are threatened (or that perception exists), they may be resistant to the change occurring in your organization. This may manifest itself through:

  • Holding information hostage for job security purposes
  • Exhibiting combative behaviors
  • Excessive criticism or negativity about the project
  • An insistence that people outside the company can’t help them because they don’t know the business

Survival Tactics

  • Attain buy-in. Use change management strategies to get your team on the same page and commit them to the process.
  • Make SMEs feel included. Communicating regularly, with an emphasis on positive aspects of the change is key to working with subject matter experts.
  • Know when to step in. Management may need to respond if a SME is truly refusing to cooperate with other team members.

A successful project has a lot of moving parts. Each team member, internal and external, has a role to play to ensure success. Good planning and team-building will go a long way toward avoiding a project derailment.

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