How to Use Projects to Develop Your Employees

Nearly everyone loves a challenge, especially your best employees. I'm wagering that they want to contribute more, and guarantee that the most motivated hope to showcase their talents and develop their capabilities.

You likely have a wish list for your business. Standing at the intersection of company goals and employee-development needs is the opportunity to fulfill your wish list through special projects. Rather than hire consultants or pay overtime hours, weave projects into training and development activities.

Explore Project Ideas

Brainstorm project ideas or simply bring forth those you've been contemplating for a while. Set a path for introducing an existing product to a new market, uncover details about a competitor, or create processes for monitoring legislation that could favorably impact sales, for example.

Meanwhile, talk to your employees about their goals (if you haven't already had this conversation in an annual review). Guide them in articulating professional goals, and subsequently identifying skills or knowledge that they might acquire or sharpen through project work. These might include leadership, strategic planning, team collaboration, presentation, and functional abilities related to your industry or an individual employee's discipline.

Choose and Structure the Project

Focus on projects that will generate a reasonable return on time invested, improve the capacity of your employees, and enhance rather than bottleneck workflow.

Categorize items on your business wish list:

  • Urgent to Non-Urgent
  • High Risk to Low Risk
  • Suitable for Individual or Team Efforts

Assign urgent projects that carry the most risk to your savviest employees and non-urgent, lower risk ones to less proven employees. But even new hires with little experience can contribute to group efforts; giving them exposure to the deep domain knowledge and leadership skills of your senior staff through project work can develop their capabilities while they contribute.

Define the project scope, goals, and timeline so that everyone knows when the project is completed. Decide what needs to be accomplished and how results will be measured. Don't just set start and delivery dates. Create a project plan, at least a skeleton one, to be fleshed out by your employees.

Give Employees Tools for Project Success

Provide employees with foundational training that can give them a broad understanding of the project direction along with basic skills for leading or contributing to a project.

Consider free or low-cost sources of training. For example, an employee who will be crafting an e-mail campaign might read Permission Marketing by Seth Godin; one who will be conducting status-update meetings might take a community college course in project management; and all team members might participate in a lunch-n-learn session with colleagues or outside resources who discuss their expertise relevant to project goals.

Keep tabs on project progress to prevent employees from being frustrated. Otherwise, some will hesitate to ask questions or discuss problems from lack of confidence; others will overestimate their abilities and charge ahead with a flawed project plan. Accept that at least some employees may flounder a bit and need to be redirected.

Provide Oversight

Decide on methods of decision-making and interaction with you and your senior-level managers. Project meetings might be day-long and involve in-depth discussions of all tasks, or team members can hold a series of outside meetings and present recommendations during hour-long status-review sessions.

Follow up throughout the project timeline to answer questions, arrange resources, give direction, and resolve conflict.


New Division Startup

  • Develop project plan with a breakdown of various components, which might be: delineating a niche based on a newly identified market segment; studying the competition; establishing price points; defining product features and functions; locating materials suitable for pricing, function, style, and quality; crafting a plan for launch.
  • Assemble a project team among employees from multiple disciplines, such as manufacturing, merchandising, design, product development, and sales.
  • Convey overall direction, orchestrate a series of meetings to receive individual team member updates, lead discussions on next steps to move project forward until all components are ready to launch.

Sales Training Program for New Product

  • Select a high-performing sales person to develop a knowledge base and tools for training colleagues on a proprietary product.
  • Identify and study competitors.
  • Determine competitive positioning of your product.
  • Find, research, and study information on typical uses and common problems of customers that this product can benefit.
  • Identify key features to promote and deal with objections.
  • Develop ways of asking probing questions that will uncover problems that your customers (or potential customers) have that this product will solve.

More ideas on projects:

  • Test new production process based on an engineer-designed trial; assign team member to gather, analyze, and present the results.
  • Organize a multi-disciplinary group to brainstorm solutions to quality issues and implement changes that lead to consistent quality of finished product.
  • Research employee perks, such as finding outside companies that will offer group discounts or designing a fitness program.

Stay in Control

Give employees free rein on concepts they develop and recommendations they make, but let them know that you'll have the last say on real-life project execution.

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