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eLearning Learning
April 1, 2024

The Human Element in Project Management

Successful L&D projects just don’t happen. They require effective communication, team alignment, and empathy to drive business outcomes. Penske’s Learning & Development Manager Laurie Strauss and Project Manager Samantha Thompson share their team’s best practices for project management and why they focus on the people before the process. 




Show Notes: 

Here are the key takeaways from Laurie Strauss and Samantha Thompson's discussion about L&D project management. 

  • Focus on People over Process: They advocate for a mindset shift where project management is centered around taking care of people, which ultimately leads to more efficient processes and successful project outcomes. 
  • Clear Communication and Alignment: Laurie and Samantha share that unclear expectations and poor alignment among project partners can significantly slow down a project. Set clear roles and expectations from the beginning to avoid delays and ensure everyone is working towards the same goal.  
  • Slow Down to Speed Up Approach: Laurie stresses that in a fast-paced world with urgent requests, it's essential to take the time to slow down initially to set the project up for success. Rushing into a project without proper planning and communication can lead to inefficiencies and setbacks down the line. 
  • Utilization of Automation and Tools: Leveraging automation tools like Smartsheet can streamline processes, increase efficiency, and provide real-time visibility into project status. By having all project information centralized in one platform, teams can reduce manual tasks, avoid surprises, and better manage data. 
  • Empathy and Support for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs): Recognizing that SMEs have other responsibilities besides the project, it's crucial to support them throughout the process. This involves clear communication, setting realistic expectations, and providing necessary support to ensure their success. This benefits the overall success of the project and fosters positive relationships for future collaborations.

    Learn more about Smartsheet, the project management tool Penske uses.

    Powered by Learning earned an Award of Distinction in the Podcast/Audio category from The Communicator Awards and a Silver Davey Award for Educational Podcast. The podcast is also named to Feedspot's Top 40 L&D podcasts and Training Industry’s Ultimate L&D Podcast Guide.


Susan Cort: [00:00:00] L& D project management often focuses on the product and the process, but at Penske, an international transportation corporation, project management first starts with people.

Laurie Strauss: What we have learned through the School of Hard Knocks is if you pivot your mindset and your focus so that your project management process is focused on people and taking care of people.

Laurie Strauss: And let that guide your decision making. Let that guide where you're nimble and where you're, you're digging in and sticking to your process. You're going to have a much better, much more efficient project management process.

Susan Cort: That's Lauries Strauss, director of talent and organization development at Penske. Laurie and project manager, Samantha Thompson joined d'Vinci's Beth Buchanan and me to discuss best practices for project management and SME engagement. Next on Powered by Learning.

Announcer: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d’Vinci Interactive. [00:01:00] d’Vinci’s approach to learning is grounded in 30 years of innovation and expertise.

Announcer: We use proven strategies and leading technology to develop solutions that empower learners to improve quality and boost performance. Learn more at

Susan Cort: Joining me today is Beth Buchanan, Senior Instructional Designer and Project Manager at d’Vinci and Laurie Strauss, Director of Talent and Organizational Development and Samantha Thompson, Project Manager at Penske.

Susan Cort: Penske is an international transportation corporation, including Penske Truck Leasing and Penske Logistics, as well as other subsidiaries. Thanks for joining us, Laurie and Samantha.

Beth Buchanan: Welcome, Laurie. Welcome, Samantha. I'm so excited to talk to you today. It's great to be here. Thank you for having us.

Samantha Thompson: Yes, very excited to be here.

Laurie Strauss: Thank you.

Susan Cort: Well, d'Vinci's had the pleasure of working with you and your team at Penske and we've enjoyed creating custom e learning for your company. We wanted to have you on Powered by Learning today to talk about your learning project management [00:02:00] strategy. We've been very impressed with how you work.

Susan Cort: So let's start off first by Lori, you tell us a little bit about your role and then we'll turn to Samantha.

Laurie Strauss: Sure, and you flatter me, Susan, and that will get you everywhere with me. Good. So, you mentioned my title, um, but what that really means is I lead a team solely dedicated to functional training, which we define as role based curricula for all the various roles within Penske Logistics, and there are hundreds at this point across major product lines, including our trucks and drivers, our warehouse management, our freight management and short term contacts within there, as well as some corporate functions.

Laurie Strauss: So, we've got a pretty wide scope, um, and the team includes obviously Samantha as our project manager of wonders, but then we've also got senior learning and development consultants who are tethered to those different [00:03:00] product lines I just mentioned within Penske Logistics. And they are sort of jacks and jacklins of all trades from a learning consultant perspective.

Laurie Strauss: So they do consult, but they also create content when, um, when they can, although it's never as good as what you all have produced for us, to be honest.

Susan Cort: Um, and now you flatter us. I mean, this is a love, love relationship. Yes, absolutely. We love d'Vinci.

Laurie Strauss: Um, and so my job really is to kind of oversee those functions, um, develop the team.

Laurie Strauss: We also have a manager, um, who helps with developing some of the senior learning and development consultants throughout their work through all phases. Um, so we're, we're a small team considering who we support, but we're mighty and I'm happy not just to be at the helm, but to work shoulder to shoulder with these folks to get this role-based curricula out.

Susan Cort: That's wonderful. Samantha, what about you? What's your role?

Samantha Thompson: Yeah, mine's a little bit more straightforward as a project [00:04:00] manager, but the most fun thing coming into this team here at Penske is project management was brand new in the learning and development space on our team, especially on Laurie's team as functional training.

Samantha Thompson: So, you know, my day to day is I get to partner with and support all of the learning and development consultants as they are executing all of their projects. But as we're going to dive in today, A really big part has been building the infrastructure that we have, really getting to dive into the processes and help set our team up for success in the project space.

Susan Cort: Perfect. Thank you both.

Beth Buchanan: So, I'd like to begin the conversation, uh, just talking about how your partnership formed. Laurie and Samantha, I know that there's a bit of a story there. Can you tell me how Samantha ended up joining your team, Laurie?

Laurie Strauss: So, uh, I unapologetically poached her. But I had consent. I had consent.

Laurie Strauss: Um, we were lucky enough to find [00:05:00] Samantha actually in a previous life at a previous organization when we were looking for somebody in sort of a junior project management capacity. Um, and so, me and my leader, uh, who rolled up to me at the time, uh, interviewed a slew of candidates and Samantha just stood out.

Laurie Strauss: She was head and shoulders above everyone in just the way she presented herself, her professionalism, her knowledge, and her sort of eagerness to jump in. And so we didn't hesitate and brought her on. And I quickly realized that This sort of junior PM capacity that she was in, um, was not really serving her that she had very quickly outgrown her role.

Laurie Strauss: She was a shooting star. So when I had the opportunity to come on to Penske, I spoke with my leader at that moment and he said, well, you've got this open role on your team for sort of a training coordinator position. And I said, nope, that's going to be a project manager and I need Samantha. [00:06:00] Um, and so I really.

Laurie Strauss: Reached out, um, to her leader, got her blessing and basically dragged her kicking and screaming onto my current team in a more senior project management role.

Beth Buchanan: I love that.

Susan Cort: Which I'm sure you love, Samantha, right?

Samantha Thompson: Very, very happy to be on the team.

Beth Buchanan: Yes. And we love working with Samantha. I think you and I are peas in a pod, Samantha, when it comes to project management.

Beth Buchanan: We, we work really well together. Um, but getting down to it a little bit in more detail, when we talk about project management, obviously there's So many different types of approaches. There's, you know, many types of certifications and trainings and ideas out there about the right way to do things. But I know you've customized and sort of developed your own process, your own set of tools for project management that's really specific to your work, right?

Beth Buchanan: To the L& D space. Can you tell us a little bit about your approach?

Samantha Thompson: Absolutely. And you're completely right, Beth, we're two peas in a pod. And I think why we are able to [00:07:00] work so seamlessly together is. Unlike a traditional PM, both of us come from that L& D space. We have experience working as an instructional designer.

Samantha Thompson: We're familiar with, with the different challenges that they, they might encounter. So that was really important as Laurie and I looked to build our PM process. So if you try to take a typical project management approach, whether it's agile or waterfall, there's going to be different challenges that that has in the learning and development space as we all know, things are continuously shifting, right? So if you have a super rigid approach, it's going to be very difficult. And, and honestly, it's going to be pretty frustrating for your project partners. It's, it's not something that you can force a cookie cutter approach into. So we have really tried to customize every step of the way to how we can best support our consultants while also meeting the customer needs. Uh, so the biggest thing that [00:08:00] we have really kind of sprinkled from step one to, to the end is our ability to adapt and customize our process to that project itself and the project team. We definitely have guidance and structure of how that overall execution is going to look, but we really build that space into the process so that we aren't stuck.

Samantha Thompson: Um, you know, sometimes if you do have a really, really rigid approach, some people almost get in that feeling where like, hold on, this, I don't see this in my process. How am I going to handle this situation? So we really want to make sure that our entire team is set up successfully to have the tools when things do shift.

Samantha Thompson: You know, one of the most common things in the learning and development space is your scope is going to change your requests, your priorities, the budget, the resources, right? The list goes on and on. Um, so really just being able to have things in place to help us adapt as we need to, [00:09:00] but really also focusing on Where do we want to, to have a little bit more of that rigidity?

Samantha Thompson: So what elements aren't going to change? So for example, regardless of what team we're partnering with or which project we're working on, we will always have things like a project charter that's going to help with the role clarity and project alignment. We're always going to have notes and action items on all of our meetings to make sure that everyone is really clear on where we landed.

Samantha Thompson: We're going to have project plans. We're going to have the same overall flow of our process. But it may look different of how you get from A to B, project to project.

Beth Buchanan: Absolutely. I mean, the two things, Sam, that I hear is, you know, rigidity. In some sense, right, in terms of maybe templates or approach or documents, but then obviously flexibility as well in terms of project specifics and, you know, business needs or, you know, requests that might come in and kind of throw you off.

Beth Buchanan: Um, you're ready. Right. You're ready for that stuff. Absolutely. So, [00:10:00] Laurie, do you want to speak a little bit to that balance and how you sort of, how you achieve that?

Laurie Strauss: Boy, do I. Thank you for tapping me in. I'm over here. Just like,

Susan Cort: You were chomping it for a bit. Ready to go.

Laurie Strauss: Yes. I couldn't wait. So one of, one of the things I just wanted to add, and I'll, I'll get to your question, Beth, but I just wanna make sure everyone is clear that this was not a process that we came equipped with overnight.

Laurie Strauss: I mean, we weren't born knowing that we needed to have this sort of agile, and I don't mean agile in the, in the literal sense of agile. I'm, I, I mean it in the, the true sense of the word, not the actual process. We needed to be nimble. How's that? That won't be as confusing. We needed to be nimble in our approach because.

Laurie Strauss: At our previous organization, we were on that team together. We had a more rigid approach. We modeled ourselves after sort of an internal embedded consultancy, and we came to our partners and said, this is how we work, and you will fold into this process. And it didn't seem [00:11:00] to matter the scope of the project, the timeline, and we were We were sticking to our process because we thought we could take the opportunity to educate folks and evangelize on the importance of process.

Laurie Strauss: And boy, did that blow up in our faces. Um, sometimes folks just didn't have the patience for that. They didn't always understand the value. And sometimes in business, people need you to run. And they need to see that you can, uh, meet the moment. Um, one of my favorite mantras for my team is, we are trees in the wind around here.

Laurie Strauss: Right? We're just a swaying back and forth. Um, because, for example, if a senior executive, this is not hypothetical at all, if a senior executive pops up, and waves a big red flag in the air and says, Hey, we need this training video and we need it in two weeks. And this is your new priority because our priorities are set by the business, not by us as L& D professionals.

Laurie Strauss: We can't say, okay, well, we'll need to put this through our intake. We'll need to make sure that [00:12:00] we get this on a project charter, a project plan. We're going to have a kickoff call, like all the pieces of a project where we have the luxury of time. To operate, we have to start by pulling everybody in a room together and saying, how can we streamline this?

Laurie Strauss: What pieces are non-negotiable to make sure, as Samantha said, we have that alignment, but what pieces can we customize or take out altogether so that we can run and do quality work? So it's a constant series of negotiations, both Internally on my team with Samantha being the leader of all these processes and externally with our partners to understand what the need is.

Laurie Strauss: Because if you're not able to meet that moment with them over and over and over again, they just stop asking for your business.

Susan Cort: That's a good lesson for everyone.

Beth Buchanan: Absolutely. And I, you know, I've always been impressed, uh, in meetings with you, Laurie, and you, Samantha, where there is a balancing act in every conversation, right?

Beth Buchanan: It's what's the blue skies version, right? [00:13:00] Like, what can we do? How can we be creative? How can we meet the need? But also what's the reality of the time constraints? What's the reality of the business need? What's the reality of our, you know, how efficient we need to be? Right? Like there's, there's both all the time.

Beth Buchanan: So it's the, the negotiation of that is sort of sounds to me like where you find that, that process that you've customized and built. So one word that's very important with project management, we all know is efficiency. We're always trying to find ways to be more efficient in our work, in our workflow.

Beth Buchanan: And of course, in communication, nobody wants a 10-page email. Um, so, so how does your system make L& D work more?

Samantha Thompson: efficient? Yeah, that's definitely something we are always striving to improve on and, you know, I think that's something I don't think you could ever be perfect at it, right? Uh, but the, the three main buckets I would say that we really try to focus on to drive efficiency for our team would be within that open communication, automation, and [00:14:00] consistency.

Samantha Thompson: One of the biggest things that can really slow a project down is unclear expectations and poor alignment across project partners. If everyone's running in their own direction, which is very, very common, it can be very difficult to get to that finish line with a solid product. So we really try to get ahead of this as much as we can.

Samantha Thompson: And we fully believe in upfront and open communication with all of our project partners. We don't ever want anything to go wrong. be a secret or for them to not be aware of what is going on. And my motto that I fully believe in, and my team is probably sick of hearing me say, is slow down to speed up. I say it over and over and over again.

Samantha Thompson: It's so easy in this world, especially like Laurie's saying, you get a lot of requests that have urgency. So it's very, very easy to just start running. However, you need to slow down in order to be. to, to reach that point where you can speed up. Um, it's a very reactive world that we live in. So, as much as we [00:15:00] can set ourselves up for some proactive, it's going to help.

Samantha Thompson: You're never going to be able to eliminate all of the roadblocks or challenges, but the more you can Lower maybe the risk for it or the likelihood that it's going to come or even just better prepare your team to handle it. It's going to help have a much smoother transition throughout the project. So through our standardized processes and utilizing work management systems like Smartsheet, um, which I can get into a little bit more, uh, but when you use a system like that, there really should never be any surprises throughout the project, whether that's internally or with your project partners.

Samantha Thompson: So, we share all of our project plans, our dashboards, our project information with our partners so they can have real time visibility into the status of the project. This really helps with. So, you [00:16:00] know, it's very common, right, where you get a team's message or an email, Hey, where are you at with this? Who is working on what?

Samantha Thompson: What's the due date? But if you have that visibility and you have infrastructure in place where you Those stakeholders can go see that in real time. It's so much quicker for everybody, and it really removes a lot of that back and forth. Again, the more proactive and clear we can be, hopefully the more harmonious that project is going to be.

Samantha Thompson: And that leads into the automation piece. We really strive to automate wherever and whenever we can. I mentioned Smartsheet. There's a ton of different tools and softwares available in the project management space. We have found Smartsheet works the best for our team. It's a fairly simple tool to use, so it doesn't require us to do a lot of training or upfront communication with people.

Samantha Thompson: You pretty much can send them a URL and they can navigate within it. So that's huge when you are working with. You know, people at all across all different teams, [00:17:00] but we really try to utilize that to help drive efficiency throughout our process wherever we can. We use it for, um, everything from our priorities to our intake, project plans, data collection, dashboards, reporting, design.

Samantha Thompson: I mean, we use it across the board. And what we have found is by having as much as we can in one platform, it allows for real time automated reporting. At an individual project level, all the way up to portfolio wide insight. So when we are getting asked to do report outs or status calls for our whole team, we have that data right there.

Samantha Thompson: We aren't trying to scramble and put, pull everything together. So that alone significantly can free up time and avoid having to manually search for, merge data, build reports, extra meetings. The list goes on. Uh, and the other thing that's really nice about having it all in one platform is it helps with data management and allows that project information to live in one place.

Samantha Thompson: So another challenge in the learning and [00:18:00] development space is nothing is going to stay the same. Exactly how it is today, right? In six months, a system's going to change or a role's going to change. So we have to be prepared to, to make those updates when it's needed. And by having everything in Smartsheet, when that time comes, we can quickly go right back into that project folder and we have everything we need.

Samantha Thompson: So we're not sitting there scrambling, okay, where is that? File. Where, where is that charter? What were we initially working on? Who worked on that project? Everything is just right there at our fingertips. Um, so the automation is, is key. Uh, the more you can free up your time to spend it on what really you should be doing instead of just living on the back end of your computer, I think that's.

Samantha Thompson: That's probably one of the biggest things.

Beth Buchanan: I really appreciate so many of the points you're making. I mean, this is, this is a wonderful tutorial on how to, how to project manage the right way, right? Like this idea of automating what you can, but [00:19:00] being consistent in how you use it. I mean, tools are only as good as their use, right?

Beth Buchanan: And it sounds like you found a way to keep everything in this platform, make sure everything is easy. Everybody and every everything is in there. And that I'm sure takes some time, right? The slow down to speed up method. You've got to, you've got to consistently come back to these tools, these expectations, this type of communication to get everybody on board.

Beth Buchanan: And then the payoff comes. Um, I'm curious about how you, how you handle working with with the SMEs. I mean, that's a huge part of project management, right, is finding ways to communicate with our subject matter experts, or SMEs as we call them, um, when we're developing learning tools and solutions. Is this something you've given some thought to in terms of your project management strategy?

Beth Buchanan: And this, this could be for either Samantha or Lori. Um, I know this is, this is a big topic and it's worth some. Discussion. [00:20:00]

Laurie Strauss: Boy, have we. Um, I mean, Samantha mentioned a litany of all the variables that can kind of derail a project or put it at risk. I mean, L& D projects have so many dependencies and more often than not, we're all at the mercy of these very, very busy subject matter experts.

Laurie Strauss: This is not their day job, right? This is something that maybe you're lucky enough to have somebody who's an enthusiast and raise their hand and said, oh, pick me. I want to help with your project. But more often than not, these people are voluntold. To serve as your subject matter expert. And so the beliefs and attitudes that they're bringing to the project may not be what you would want them to be.

Laurie Strauss: Um, and so we anticipate that. And I think it's really important to note as, as Samantha, you know, mentions all the different tools and processes, um, and automations that she's built for us, I think. All of that is amazing and it does allow for streamlining of things and all of that is important and this connects to this idea of [00:21:00] how we partner with SMEs and how we work efficiently.

Laurie Strauss: Our process is one of the things that I make that I think makes it different from other project management approaches is that often a project management model or method is really focused on process and product, which makes sense. What we have learned through the School of Hard Knocks Over and over and over again is if you pivot your mindset and your focus so that your project management process is focused on people and taking care of people and let that guide your decision making, let that guide where you're nimble and where you're digging in and sticking to your process.

Laurie Strauss: You're going to have a much better, much more efficient project management process. So when Samantha talks about visibility and eliminating emails and meetings, that's not just because that enables us to go faster and nobody wants an email. Although those things are true. [00:22:00] It's because we're sitting there thinking about the people who are working with us and trying to anticipate all of those beliefs and attitudes that come in with, I don't have time for this.

Laurie Strauss: I don't understand what my role is. This is not my day job, um, and so when we engage with SMEs, We think about them the entire way. From SME selection, if we have a voice, if we have a seat at that table talking about, hey, let's not overuse the same folks again and again and again. Let's make sure we get a diverse group of folks from a tenure perspective.

Laurie Strauss: Let's not just pick training champions, but let's pick people who maybe represent us. Sort of folks who are not enthusiastic about learning and development so that we can make sure that we're getting a good cross section of folks and hopefully turn them into believers along the way once they understand what our process is like.

Laurie Strauss: Um, Samantha mentioned kickoff meetings. Those are designed really more for SMEs than anybody else, right? Samantha opens up every kickoff [00:23:00] call covering the exact same material in the exact same amazing way every time with, here's who I am. Here's everybody on the call. You're a SME. Here is your role. This is what the project is.

Laurie Strauss: This is about the time commitment that you can expect. Here's the strategic points at which we will involve you. Let's find out what the best way is to get with you and what you can expect going forward. And don't worry, we're going to send out notes. We're going to send out action items. We're going to take care of everything, right?

Laurie Strauss: All you have to do is just let us know if you're unable to make a meeting or make a deadline and we will work with you and even that is up for, um, negotiation because Samantha, she has a nickname around these parts. We call her the Velvet Hammer. She has a way of politely harassing our SMEs because again, we understand this is not their primary responsibility.

Laurie Strauss: This is in addition to what they do every [00:24:00] day. And so we want to be sympathetic to that. And that again comes into, we need to be nimble with our process. We can give them a deadline and we always do. And we try to be cognizant of collisions or things going on in their world. And if we get close to that deadline and it's been radio silence, Samantha's going to reach out as that velvet hammer and say, Hey, knock, knock, knock. We know you're busy. Um, you know, please let us know when you might be able to get us thing that you owe us.

Susan Cort: That's amazing because you're, you're setting your SME up for success, but also your project up for success. And I bet they want to come back and work with you the next time because of that process you have in place.

Laurie Strauss: I am proud to report we have some repeat customers, um, thinking of starting a punch card loyalty program. Um, yeah, they do enjoy working with us because of that. And it's the whole team, right? It's not just Samantha. It's not just me, the learning consultants, they have to be bought into this process as well.

Laurie Strauss: And there's got to be a handoff from Samantha to the consultant and then back to Samantha to wrap that meeting and make sure everybody's [00:25:00] clear before we move on. And on, on top of that it’s not lost on me the irony of, hey, we're a learning and development team. The, anything that we would do in support of a learner is what we should do in support of a SME folding into our process, because they are learning us.

Laurie Strauss: So setting, you know, what is this? Why am I here? What do I get out of it? How long is it going to take? What does success look like? What happens next? All those questions you try to answer for your learners right off the bat to alleviate that anxiety and calibrate expectations. We should be doing that for SMEs.

Beth Buchanan: That's really interesting, Lori, because I, what I'm hearing, too, is it's almost like a values based approach to project management, which I don't know that I've ever really thought of it that way, like people focus, like that's a value, right? Like that's a, you know, it's a, like this idea of taking care of people as being one of the underpinnings of your project management approach is, it's really, really fascinating. And I, it sounds like it gets awesome results

Laurie Strauss: [00:26:00] Well, the velvet hammer helps. Um, but here, I will say this, right? Um, Samantha is a unicorn. I fully acknowledge that. And that's why I needed her on this team. Um, she has that L& D background. She has that project management muscle. Um, she's an incredible communicator.

Laurie Strauss: She's also, I want to be very clear. Samantha is not a task manager or project police, although sometimes people internally feel that way. She gets results. She is a consultant in her own right for process efficiency. And for communication. The team go to her oftentimes before they come to me or their manager on our team to ask for guidance on the best way to engage a SME, to send a communication sometimes to get feedback on their work because she has that L&D expertise.

Laurie Strauss: She's a thought partner to me and a huge supporter of internal. Team members and external project partners. And all that stated, I have to say this. I understand it is a luxury to have a [00:27:00] dedicated project manager on this team. And on top of that, it's an exponential luxury to have Samantha in that role.

Laurie Strauss: I've been on learning development teams where you don't have a project manager. And if you do, they're not Samantha. And I just want to be clear that it’s amazing if you have somebody on your team who can wield these tools and, and wield that velvet hammer and be as amazing as she is, but you don't have to have a dedicated PM or somebody as amazing as Samantha to take at least pieces of this to fold into your process.

Laurie Strauss: So if you're lacking in project plan and visibility into that project plan, maybe you start there. Or if you're like, gosh, we don't have project charters, or we don't even have a standard process for kickoff calls. To clarify expectations with SMEs, I would say, pick one of those things and run with it and start building efficiencies.


Laurie Strauss: And if you are a leader and you recognize that someone on your team has a natural propensity for being organized, managing their own [00:28:00] projects, you see them as a leader in this space, give them this as a stretch role. Pull them in as your thought partner in executing on this and make them a copilot for building these efficiencies onto your team, because this really is in service to everyone.

Susan Cort: That's great advice.

Beth Buchanan: I know that you have a process, and you know, we've talked about the fact that you have to be automated, consistent, but also flexible. So how often do you review and adjust your process? Do you, do you look at it as a whole, uh, quarterly or something like that? Or do you look at certain pieces on any kind of schedule?

Beth Buchanan: Like I would imagine that reviewing and adjusting all of these things is also something that you're constantly doing to keep up with your environment and best practices. And, of course, the changing world of learning and development, AI, there's so many things, right? So how often does your team review and adjust?

Samantha Thompson: So yes to everything. We do have formal scheduled quarterly check ins and [00:29:00] those are really um, a good chunk of time completely devoted to “let's dive into the process.” We, we usually tend to focus those more on anything new that has been implemented or updated in that quarter, but we always leave time for feedback, questions, comments, or even brainstorming on the overall process.

Samantha Thompson: Um, So we do have that built in and we stick with it. However, we are very, very lucky that Laurie has created a culture on our team where we are very open with each other. We have collaboration. There's a lot of safety and trust. So, nobody ever feels like they have to wait for that quarterly check in, um, whether it's a regular project touch base, I have weekly touch bases with all of the consultants for their projects, or our team, team meetings that we have, or just an, you know, an off hand.

Samantha Thompson: [00:30:00] conversation that may come up. We always want to make sure that the consultants feel comfortable and able to come to us in the moment. We don't want someone to stick with something for two, three months if it's not working, right? We want to be able to adjust and meet the moment. So, we really try to be open and ask for that feedback, especially if we have implemented something fairly new, for example, um, a design document was recently ruled out, I'm not going to wait until the end of quarter two to ask someone, hey, how has that been working for you?

Samantha Thompson: The very first time they go through it, we're going to have that open conversation of, hey, how did that feel? You know, was it helpful? Where did you struggle? Let's make sure that we are in this together. And the other thing that Laurie has created on our team that I, I have seen be extremely helpful is We love to brainstorm and collaborate together.

Samantha Thompson: So after we roll something new out, we will oftentimes [00:31:00] see the consultants hop on calls together or say, hey, it's my first time using a project charter. For anyone that has used this before, can you help me, prepare. Can you walk me through how you used it? Um, so we definitely lean on each other and adapt when we need to.

Samantha Thompson: Um, and we love to learn from each other. So if someone has had, to your earlier point, if they've had a really bad experience with, um, a SME, hey, let's learn from this. What can we do differently going into our other projects? So it's definitely a team effort. And yes, we do have the formal check ins, but we try to get that real time feedback as much as we can.

Beth Buchanan: And I would say too, I mean, this idea, it strikes me that collaboration is, is clearly built into your process. Um, again, that we all know how important that is for creativity, innovation, things like that. Um, but it sounds like it's really a part of, You know, the value based system, um, that I'm now coining your project.[00:32:00]

Beth Buchanan: But that, that, that's a part of

Laurie Strauss: Patent pending.

Beth Buchanan: It's, um, teamwork and collaboration is also a huge part of it. And I know that, that sounds sort of, you know, Maybe that's, okay, that's obvious, but it's not really because we end up in very busy roles, like a project management or an L& D team role. You end up in silos sometimes, right? Just to get the work done, just to meet the, um, meet the end deadline. So building that in is actually something you have to be very, very conscious about, I would think.

Samantha Thompson: I love that you picked up on that, Beth, because As I was coming into this role and Lori approached me about, you know, this opportunity, I had a luxury that most people don't.

Samantha Thompson: Project management didn't exist on the team. So I got to be a part of building it, what it looked like, especially majority of our team had never worked with a project manager before. So there wasn't a lot of expectation as far as Well, this is how it's been done for five years or ten years. Um, and so, [00:33:00] as I really thought about how do I want to set this up or approach it, the people focused was my number one thing.

Samantha Thompson: Um, I really tried to look back at just experience that I've had. And to me, it's very similar to a lot of leadership principles that you hear. If someone tries to come in and say, this is the way I do something and you all are going to meet me where I'm at, right? Like I'm a manager. This is how I manage.

Samantha Thompson: You have to, to adapt to me. Typically, that's not going to be ideal. A lot of people will get frustrated. They won't buy into what you're doing. Well, that completely translates to project management. And I think a lot of project managers tend to get comfortable in that because it's easier for them, right?

Samantha Thompson: They have a way of doing it. And so regardless of who they're working with or what team they're, they're working with or what project they're working on, they are going to do the same thing over and over and over. But a lot of times when people hear of a project manager, it's not always the most [00:34:00] positive experience.

Samantha Thompson: A lot of times, Oh my gosh, they, they hound me for this or, you know, sometimes it can have a negative association. And I really, really, really wanted to make sure. That I could avoid that as much as I could. Um, so from day one with the team, I really did stand behind. My role is not to tell you when or how to execute on your project.

Samantha Thompson: I am here to set you up for success and to best support you so that we can have the most high quality, efficient product, but we are in this together. I'm not here to tell you what to do or how to do it. Let's work together. Let's partner together. And that's really what I try to keep front of mind when I am partnering with our consultants.

Samantha Thompson: So as we are planning these projects, you know, I will definitely lead the conversation with timeline of, okay, here's our end date. We need to work backwards, but it's really, okay, realistic. What, What is a good timeline for you on this? Okay, if that's going to take you two weeks, okay, then we're going to [00:35:00] have to be a little tighter on this one, right?

Samantha Thompson: But it's a conversation and it's definitely a partnership. I, I really have tried to focus on the support approach versus me just dictating certain things to them.

Beth Buchanan: Absolutely. And that comes through. I mean, I feel like, you know, we have a partnership and the experience of working with your team feels, always feels collaborative, always feels like a partnership in a, with an end goal in mind.

Beth Buchanan: Um, Laurie, do you have any advice for anyone who maybe doesn't have quite the well-oiled machine that you've got running? What, how to get into all this? I mean, we talked about a lot, right? We talked about process. We talked about automation. We talked about consistency. We talked about treating SMEs the right way.

Beth Buchanan: Um, it's hard to wrap it all up, but do you have any, any pieces of advice that you might offer somebody who, who's been impressed with this conversation and would like to, to achieve something similar?

Laurie Strauss: Yeah, [00:36:00] just get a Samantha. Okay,

Beth Buchanan: Done.

Susan Cort: Or a velvet hammer.

Laurie Strauss: Yes. So in a bumper sticker, I would say start small, fail fast.

Beth Buchanan: Tell me what that means.

Laurie Strauss: Yeah. If I were to double click into that, it would say, you know, pull your team together. And if you don't think you can build all of this, because it's a lot, right? And we are building as we go. I want to make sure that's clear. Samantha mentioned, Hey, we could have rolled out something new or something updated within a quarter.

Laurie Strauss: You know, we didn't start this with all the pieces. We started with an intake form that fed a project queue, that fed a dashboard. That's where we started. And then we continued to fold in elements and build things out as we went. Now we have this whole ecosystem of project management tools and resources and visualizations.

Laurie Strauss: Now, if I were to start from scratch without a project manager on my team, I'd pull everybody together and I'd take a more diagnostic approach, right? But let's, let's [00:37:00] pull everyone into a room or a virtual space and just start asking questions around where are we getting stuck? Where do we have the biggest opportunities to work more efficiently, both internally?

Laurie Strauss: And externally, right? Let's really dive into either your most recent project you've completed or where you are right now. Let's start just throwing things up on a wall about where we're getting stuck and identify patterns that stick out as, you know, this is low hanging fruit. And then I would take the sort of, you know, quadrant of prioritization approach of least effort for biggest impact.

Laurie Strauss: So, for example, a classic, uh, challenge that most L& D teams face is, um, SMEs, right? Partnering with SMEs, getting responses in a timely way that are, uh, what you're looking for. Because sometimes you, you do get a response within the deadline that you've set, but it's not [00:38:00] thorough or it's not complete. Um, and so I would start with, okay, well, what are we doing to prime the pump with our SMEs?

Laurie Strauss: Is there a way we can templatize this, either through a kickoff call or through an email that just says, or even a job aid, we have a flyer, hi, you're a SME, here's what your role entails, and it's fun, you know, it's colorful, it's not just a bunch of bullets on a Word document, it's like, congratulations, um, you've been selected to partner with us, we need your expertise.

Laurie Strauss: You can also think about your templates, if you have one, or if you need one, for requesting feedback from SMEs. So one of the ways that we're people focused and nimble is trying to figure out what the best way is to get feedback from our SMEs. We do have a template for asynchronous feedback. It has a subject line that says action requested by and the date right there in the subject line and then a colon and the name of the deliverable and then we have a standard greeting and opener with context of what this is and then very targeted [00:39:00] feedback questions.

Laurie Strauss: We are looking for feedback on the information specifically. What's missing that needs to be here? What's here that we need to take out and what's here that we need to change? We just want them focused on those things. And then it's one, two, three, answer those questions. That's it. Don't tell us you don't like the shade of blue.

Laurie Strauss: Don't tell us you don't like this interaction, right? Focus Fox is what we say on our team. And we do a little symbol with our hand. Focus Fox on just these questions. And here's the link to the thing and let us know if you have questions. So there's, you could just take that email approach of how do we get them to deliver the feedback that we need when we need it and the kind of feedback that we're requesting.

Laurie Strauss: We even give them examples of what good feedback looks like in that email template. Yeah, we, this ain't our first rodeo. Um, and then if they're, even if they're not responsive to that, right? Even if Samantha has, um, [00:40:00] wielded her velvet hammer and it hasn't produced results, which is rare, but it happens. We can be proactive, send them a Team's message…Hey, I know you're swamped. I'm just going to find some time for us to connect and talk about this. I think that might be easier. What do you think? And then even if someone just likes it, That's our go ahead to throw, you know, a 25-minute meeting on the calendar, record it, and take them through. So we're, in that way, we're very open to, again, what works for that person, how we can meet the moment with them and get what we need.

Susan Cort: You're putting a little piece of silk over the velvet hammer, just to make it, you know…

Beth Buchanan: Yeah, so this metaphor keeps going.

Laurie Strauss: So, you know, that's the start step. The fail fast is, hey, if you're trying this in earnest for, you know, weeks, and it's not yielding results, stop. Pull everybody back into the room. You don't have to wait, like Samantha said, for a quarterly check and pull everybody in the room and say, hey, I don't see [00:41:00] any productivity, I don't see any increases in, for example, SME engagement to continue with this example.

Laurie Strauss: What can we do? What can we refine? What are your ideas, team, on how we can potentially, um, either update what we have pushed out, or let's blow up the room with a brand new approach and see what we can do. And to Samantha's point, getting everyone's buy in, giving everyone a seat at that table to talk about a process that works for them, especially as folks who are either, you know, consulting, producing the content, or both, that's going to give you the adoption, and that's going to turn them into the evangelists that you want for your process.

Susan Cort: This is incredible advice that you're both giving and I think everyone listening has now had their project management game upped considerably. Uh, your, your energetic and passion for project management is completely contagious. So can't thank you enough for joining us today.

Samantha Thompson: Thank you so much for having us.

Laurie Strauss: Thanks for letting us geek out and talk about our favorite [00:42:00] topic.

Susan Cort: Anytime.

Beth Buchanan: Thank you, Sam. Thank you, Laurie. It was a pleasure and I've taken, I've actually taken notes on the podcast because I'm always learning from you guys and I, I love the work that we get to do with you. It's, it's a real pleasure. Thank you.

Laurie Strauss: Well, the feeling is mutual, Beth. We love working with you too. Don't ever, don't ever leave us.

Susan Cort: Thank you, Samantha. Thank you, Laurie.

Laurie Strauss: Thank you very much.

Samantha Thompson: Take care.

Susan Cort: Beth, no wonder you enjoy working with Lori and Samantha. They're passionate, they're smart, and I love how focused they are on people and not just process.

Beth Buchanan: Yeah, that was a great conversation. And I have to say, I think my big takeaway is really the human element to project management. So I'm going to keep that in mind for every project moving forward.

Susan Cort: Well, thanks. So they definitely enjoy working with you. So thanks for bringing them onto the podcast.

Beth Buchanan: Absolutely. Thanks, Susan. You're welcome.

Susan Cort: And special thanks to our guests from Penske, Lori Strauss and Samantha Thompson. [00:43:00] If you have an idea for a topic or guest, please reach out to us at

Susan Cort:  And if you haven't already, please be sure to subscribe to Powered by Learning wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Beth Buchanan

By Beth Buchanan, Senior Instructional Designer/Project Manager

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