The thought of taking a leadership role might be overwhelming when you’re brand new in instructional design. Well, allow me to clarify that the instructional designer’s role as project manager isn’t as scary as you think!
Even the term Project Manager may make you shake your head at first. It’s that word, “manager”. If you’ve just landed your first instructional designer role, you probably don’t fancy yourself a manager. Or, maybe you’re searching for your first position and see project management listed as a required skill.
Don’t worry, in instructional design everyone can be a project manager!
The Instructional Designer as Project Manager
Do you keep track of work meetings and family appointments in a calendar? Do you break down your work into a series of smaller tasks that you must complete to meet a deadline? Ever planned a vacation? How about just prioritizing that to-do list?
If you said yes to any of these, you’ve already been managing projects.
The process of designing and developing a course is a much bigger project, of course. But, lucky for you, the project management skills are the same. Once you understand what project management is and why you should embrace the instructional designer’s role as project manager, you’ll see that it’s not that scary after all.
What is Project Management?
Project management happens when you use methodology plus your skills and experience to meet project goals on deadline. It sounds simple when I put it that way, doesn’t it?
You can indeed spend a lot of time and money on project management certifications. The PMP (Project Management Professional) is the most well-known. Unfortunately for beginning instructional designers, the requirements, exam cost, and maintenance of the certification might not be in the cards right now.
The good news is, you don’t need a fancy certification to develop and effectively use project management skills. You can step into the instructional designer’s role as project manager! Here are some essential tasks that project managers typically perform:
- Identifying why a project is needed
- Defining project objectives
- Estimating how long project tasks will take to be complete
- Identify outside resources that will be needed to meet the project goals
- Keeping a project delivery team on target to meet deadlines
- Communicating with project stakeholders
Did those tasks sound familiar to you? Try replacing the word “project” with the word “course”. These are all skills that a good instructional designer will bring to his or her course design process.
What the Instructional Designer’s Role as Project Manager Brings to the Table
Your instructional design work will almost always be project-based. A project can be something as simple as putting together a short presentation for your boss. Even the work you do to job search and put together your resume is a project.
On the other hand, you’ll also have bigger projects like courses or a course series. The bigger the project, the more important it is to bring in some project management skills.
Depending on your job, you may have a supervisor or a team member who officially acts as the project manager. If you’re freelancing or working for a company that hasn’t had an instructional designer before, you may be expected to project manage.
Regardless of your team, bringing your own project management skills to the table will benefit your project.
Here are some more specific benefits to working on your project management skills and embracing the instructional designer’s role as a project manager:
Successfully contribute to and manage projects
Even if you’re not the lead on an instructional design project, you can still use knowledge of organizing and managing projects to contribute. The success of your project depends on good project management!
Equip yourself with tools, strategies, and resources you might need in the future
Knowledge of project management methods is invaluable in instructional design. You never know when you’ll be expected to manage a project. Or, step into management when a project manager gets pulled into a different project.
Take the lead on a new initiative
Instructional designers are on the front lines of innovative ideas and technology. So, even if you’re not a project manager, you’ll likely find yourself in a position where you have to step up. Maybe you see an opportunity to solve a problem in your company with training. Perhaps you just think of a better, more streamlined way for your team to work.
Either way, stepping into the instructional designer’s role as project manager can help you turn an idea into reality.
Provide leadership in your role even when you’re not the lead
Being a good leader is important regardless of your title. If you work on a team (and in instructional design, you usually do) leadership skills help a project stay on track. You can better organize your tasks and support your team members with a little bit of project management. Two things that will contribute to a successful course!
Project Management Methodologies for All Instructional Designers
Now that you understand why project management skills are important for instructional designers, let’s review the two most common project management methodologies.
Your instructional design process happens within the project management method. Think of the project management method as the structure that supports your instructional design process and ensures you stay on deadline.
When you have a set deadline from your company or a client, the waterfall method is probably a good fit for this project. With waterfall, you have several distinct project phases that culminate with finishing the course on or ahead of the deadline.
Using this method requires that one phase be completely finished before you move on. These phases are:
- Define Requirements
There’s not a ton of wiggle room for review, or you risk not meeting the deadline.
Using an Agile methodology is a bit more flexible. The major difference here is instead of being given a set deadline, you and your team produce the end product based on the length of time it takes to get the project done. So the work you do and how fast you do it drives the timeline.
In Agile we also work in sprints to finish a smaller part of the course before we move on to a new sprint. For example, we might have a two-week sprint devoted just to module 1 of the course.
You’ll still cycle through the same phases as Waterfall, but the products are those smaller tasks instead of the whole course.
What’s this, a third methodology?! Kind of, Wagile is just a hybrid method that combines Waterfall and Agile. You might have a set due date for the project, but you still divide the work up into smaller sprints.
Many people prefer the flexibility of Agile, it gives your boss or client the opportunity to review and offer feedback before they see the whole course. If you’ve completed a thorough training analysis and presented the project scope accurately, there shouldn’t be any surprises either way. But it can be nice for your client to see the direction you’re heading.
Any changes they request in an early sprint can advise how you complete future sprints with less feedback necessary. If your boss asks for changes at the end of a Waterfall cycle and you haven’t left enough time for review at the end, you’re in danger of not hitting your deadline.
6 Tips to Improve the Instructional Designer’s role as Project Manager
You didn’t think I’d leave you without any amazing resources and tips to help your project succeed by using project management strategies? With each of these tips I’ve linked some helpful resources so you can improve your project management skills.
Who knows, maybe you’ll even take them to the next level and apply for that job that lists project management as a preferred skill or offer to take the lead on your company’s new training initiative!
1. Complete a thorough training analysis
Your training analysis can set your project up for success, or failure. It all depends on how careful and thorough you are. The trick is to invite the right people to the project conversation and ask the right questions.
This free instructional design toolkit has a template you can use during your scoping meeting that will guide your questions and help you pull out all the information you need. It also has an outline guide you can use to sketch out the project for your boss or client so you can make sure your analysis aligns with their vision. If it doesn’t, better to learn that right away so you can return to the analysis!
2. Watch out for scope creep
Understanding the scope goes hand-in-hand with a thorough training analysis. If you understand the training needs and spell out the scope as you understand it, you’re in a better position to manage scope creep.
Scope creep happens when you’re in the middle of design or development and the client or SME says, “This is great, but what if we add in a video simulation to this module?” Whatever the suggestion is, it may benefit the learner and add to the effectiveness of your course. But guess what? If it wasn’t in the original plan, it’s out of scope.
It’s up to you to refer to the initial project plan or statement of work and point out that this would be extra. Extra work can change the project price and push back the deadline.
You can enroll in the 12-week immersive Instructional Design & Tech Accelerator Certificate Program where we dive into the instructional design process and managing an instructional design project. Included is a template to make sure you accurately outline the scope so you don’t suffer from scope creep!
3. List every single thing that must be accomplished during a project
I use this strategy at the beginning of any new course project. You can hear me talk about this (and other helpful tips) in my project management livestream.
Get out a pen and paper, a stack of sticky notes, or open up your favorite online project management tool. Now, think of every granular task that must be completed to successfully finish this project. I mean it when I say no task is too small!
This exercise does two things. One, it gets you thinking. Especially if you’re new to instructional design, you might be thinking a bit too big at first. For example, “scripting” would be too big of a task for this exercise. Instead, you’d need to list, “Scripting for Module 1”.
You’ll really appreciate all that goes into course-building and project completion when you see all that has to go into it. This will also help you estimate how long a project will take to complete.
Second, it’s how you can organize your project into sprints if you’re working in an Agile environment. If you’re following a Waterfall methodology, each of those tiny tasks gets sorted into one of the phases.
4. Organize your projects in a transparent way
Organization is the key to success in so many different areas. It goes without saying that you must find an organization technique that works for you and your team if you want to churn out some quality courses on deadline.
I like to use a shared board like Trello with my team. This way, everyone can see what’s currently in progress, what’s finished and what’s still in the backlog. Transparency and communication are crucial in project management, and Trello helps me achieve both.
There are many different tools you can use that are similar. If you scroll down to the project management section of this article, you can read more about the different resources that are out there.
5. Prioritize your projects thoughtfully
Whether you’re working as a corporate instructional designer, for higher education, or freelance, it’s very possible you have multiple projects happening at the same time. When this happens, it’s important that you manage all the projects by planning and prioritizing.
First, plan! Stagger your projects so you don’t find yourself in crunch-time with multiple projects. Different project phases have different workloads. You can effectively complete multiple courses at the same time if you plan to be in a lighter phase of project 1 while project 2 is really heating up.
Second, prioritize. Which project must be complete first? Do you follow a “first in, first out” with your training requests? Or do you allow a new, but urgent, course to skip the line ahead of a request you’ve had in your inbox for awhile?
In corporate, the training projects that have the greatest impact on the business or organization should be prioritized first.
In my client work, I use first in/first out. Of course, I usually have a lot of projects at once but I prioritize subsequent projects based on what I am currently working on and what resources I have available.
You can find more strategies for managing project priority in this article.
6. Broaden your knowledge of project management
As I’m writing this I’m looking ahead to a new (and hopefully much improved) year. I like to challenge myself with new intentions with each new year. Learning new things is always on my list of ways to improve myself personally and professionally.
If you’re interested in learning more about project management, check out the course Everyone Is A Project Manager. You’ll get a much more detailed look at project management principles, processes, tools, and so much more!
What Are You Waiting For?
Whether you’re still in the process of finding your dream instructional design job or you have a course or two under your belt, upskill yourself with project management skills. Embrace your role of instructional designer as project manager in your current position by using the simple tips mentioned above.
Looking for more? Join my Facebook community, The Hangout, for live trainings, Q&A’s and tons of tips for career changers, new grads, and teachers who are transitioning to instructional design.
Ready to dive in and become a full-stack Instructional Designer, without getting another degree? Check out my 12-week immersive program: Instructional Design Lab & Tech Certificate Accelerator.