My first permanent job was to commercialise a fitness centre for Monash University in the early 1990s. I was the only permanent employee and had a strong team of casual employees with whom I worked. I quickly learned that there was too much that needed to be done in a short period and that I needed to better use the full suite of talents of the members in the team.

Projects For LearningI was aware of the various interests and strengths of the team members that went beyond their skills and ability as Gym Instructors. One team member was studying Information Technology and had a clear passion for it, another was highly officious and had a passion for consistency among the team, and yet another loved to organise things.

I knew that somehow that I had to find a way to tap into their talents that would benefit the Fitness Centre and themselves, and not break my budget!

I drew up a list of the tasks that needed to be completed. I then rated each of those tasks from a Risk perspective. A Low rating meant that the outcome was a ‘nice to have‘. If it got completed it was a ‘Bonus‘. A Medium rating meant that the outcome was important and the performance of the Fitness Centre would be reduced or slowed if it wasn’t completed in a timely manner. A High rating meant that the task was extremely important to the performance of the Fitness Centre and if it wasn’t completed properly the Fitness Centre would suffer serious consequences which meant that I wouldn’t have been doing my job properly.

Before you ask, the option to hire more permanent staff was not available. First I had to generate the revenue that would eventually pay for more full-time staff. It was a great challenge!

I spoke with each team member and asked if they were interested in leading a project to help us create the performance we desired. All team members said ‘Yes‘. I arranged their schedules so that they had time during their normal shifts to work on their projects. I knew that this meant that they wouldn’t be ‘on the floor‘ as much as normal but I was prepared to take a half step backward to take five steps forward. We also agreed that the projects would have a six-week timeframe within which they needed to be completed.

I took responsibility for all the High rated projects. It was my head that was on the ‘chopping block‘ if we failed so it was only fair that I took responsibility for those projects. I ‘parked‘ the Medium rated projects. I decided to wait until after the first round of projects had been completed and then use that experience to assign the medium rated projects. I needed to have confidence that the medium rated projects would be done properly. I also knew that I would have to coach the team members through those projects which meant that I would need to have more time available to provide that assistance.

I could not have been happier with the results of the first round of projects. The team member who had a passion for I.T. completed an important project that related to setting up ‘norms‘ as comparative data for our fitness tests. The ‘officious’ team member completed a project that set clear standards for the fitness testing procedures and protocols that the team was using. The ‘organised’ team member completed a project that involved re-organising the equipment to improve the ‘flow’ in and around the equipment. I managed to complete the High rated projects as well.

This experience taught me at a very young age the power of projects for learning. Projects create real outcomes. By assigning low risk projects to my team members I was able to tap into their passion and skill. If they ‘failed‘ I wasn’t going to ‘lose‘ anything. By tapping into their passions I also increased the likelihood that their first projects would be a success – which they were! That success built confidence and provided energy for the Medium rated projects which were also embraced and successfully completed by the team with great enthusiasm.

Best of all our success drove the performance results that we were seeking which meant that the following year I was able to engage a number of the team in permanent roles.

I also learnt a great lesson. A lesson that I continue to use to this day. Projects are a powerful tool for creating results, building confidence and assessing team member capabilities. They allow you to learn a great deal about your team members. They also allow your team members to learn that they can produce results themselves.

I created the Projects For Learning Matrix above and have used it many times throughout my career. I assign Low risk projects to inexperienced team members, Medium risk projects to team members who have ‘proven’ themselves and High risk projects to highly experienced, energetic and motivated team members. I avoid giving too many low risk projects to highly experienced and motivated team members – it is better to use those projects to developed inexperienced people.

I have found this simple matrix to be useful and highly effective over many years. I am confident that you will too!