When turning my dissertation into a book, it became pretty clear to me early on that I needed to find some time and space for learning. I needed to learn how to write a book, sure, but I also needed to learn more about the audience for my book and the conversation I saw it participating in. Also, I wanted to write something that appealed to a broad audience and that could bring technical and professional communication and rhetoric concepts to that audience. So, I had a whole scholarly sub-field (project management studies) to learn a lot more about, and some of that knowledge was held by industry practitioners, which meant I would have to engage in different ways than I was used to (e.g., attend Agile Coaches Retreats and Industry Conferences). In other words, I couldn’t just review the literature and feel prepared to write something about project management, which was so practice oriented.
During my first year on the tenure-track, I started wondering how I was going to manage all this learning with my service, teaching, and research expectations at MSU, and so I came up with a process. My idea was to define a big, audacious goal: completing Communicating Project Management. Then, I structured a series of learning activities that would help me make incremental progress toward that goal.
I began by sketching a series of milestones that I wanted/needed to reach on my way to achieving this big, audacious goal. Each milestone would indicate that I had learned something, while also having an outcome that I could “count” (e.g., a publication or presentation) so my learning could be shared with others. Also, I felt it was important each milestone would somehow inform my teaching, research, and service work in a meaningful way. As a result, I didn’t limit my learning to just research activities, but also included teaching and service work.
Figure 1 below (yeah, I made a figure) shows a snippet of what that structure looks like on paper. As I incrementally continued up my timeline of activities with milestones, I made progress toward the goal. It resembles a flattened Freytag’s pyramid, where each milestone was a part of the rising action of my research story. I saw Communicating Project Management as a sort of climax to the story. In this way, the book doesn’t necessarily represent the end of my research on project management, but what comes next seems more of a branching out of the work to other areas (for me, it seems like the work is now focusing on managing change projects in higher education, organizing working groups with big audacious ideas, thinking more broadly about literacies of leadership in various contexts). Also, purposefully, I attached no dates to this work, but I did think a lot about time/timing, and gave myself deadlines so I could walk away from activities that just didn’t work out (see the PMI Grant, which didn’t get funded but took a lot of time). Being on the tenure-track requires I pay attention to a timeline, but I worried less about time and more about what I learned and how I could show it/share it with others. I won’t lie, though, I definitely had an eye on the clock–I just didn’t let it be my only way of making decisions.
Figure 1: A structured series of learning activities
To organize the milestones in Figure 1, I put together a Kanban board (of sorts) where I could keep track of the work I was doing. The board I still use today has 3 headings: Developing, Doing, and Done. The one below depicted by Figure 2 (yep, made a second figure) is my current Kanban board. The board, for me, wasn’t a list of tasks so much as it was a list of projects. The tasks for each project would be broken down in other ways, depending on if I was collaborating on the work with someone or a larger group. Each project or milestone was managed according to the needs of the people and/or the project.
Finally, I should note, none of my plans were 100% set in stone. Rather, I used this approach to develop a kind of heuristic, which was, “How will this activity help me reach my big, audacious goal?” (which didn’t always mean writing, but it did mean learning). Sometimes things fell off the Developing part of my board. Other times, things went to the Doing and then fell off because the work was abandoned when I needed to make space and time for other learning. Also, in practice, my application of the heuristic was far less rigid and single-minded than I am making it seem. The onus was on me to define how a given activity could help inform the work I was doing on Communicating Project Management. Sometimes, of course, I took on work that seemed totally unrelated, but that same work would eventually lead me to connections I would not have otherwise made because I was intentionally looking for them. The “Aha!” moment could come while I was teaching or doing service work just the same. For me, when learning became the objective, I found lessons everywhere I cared to look. Also, WRAC has a seriously helpful mentorship model, so I talked to people a lot.
In the end, the above process helped me think about how all my work was connected and integrated. It also helped me see how my work on the book could be oriented toward learning milestones.