This past winter I helped coach a recreational league high school basketball team for my son. I am always up for the challenge of coaching a youth sport for our town. Over the years, I have coached lacrosse, soccer, baseball, and most recently basketball. There are many challenges to a successful season, and at this level success isn’t always defined as how many wins a team can get. It sure helps with morale, but the most important gauge of success is that a player has become a better player playing for the team I coached. That being said, I find myself pulling from my Project Management background in so many areas. Utilizing the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing the work has helped tremendously in making the whole experience for the other coaches, the players, and the parents a smooth and enjoyable one. I thought it would be fun to look at the areas that I have pulled from.
Initiating can be hectic. Luckily, most of the parents and other coaches also realize that the number of wins isn’t the only way to have a successful season. This all starts way before a team is actually put together. We need to meet with the full league, secure gym time, set up a way for players to sign up, and figuring out and coordinating the practice and game schedules.
Planning, for me, is the fun part. We finally are ready with lists of players and it’s time for tryouts. Similarly to hiring an employee that you are going to work with on projects, we always focus on how coachable the kids are. This doesn’t mean that they are the best at the sport, but it means that they are ready and willing to learn. The same goes for business. If everyone focused on all stars for projects, we may do well on that one project, but it is important to also train other players for other projects and for the future. A good project team is a blend of experienced, motivated individuals with multiple skills. On a basketball team, we want everyone to come to practice with an open mind. Sure, it helps to have teammates who can shoot and score, but it sure helps having someone that may be good at defense, or great at bench morale. These all make for a great team and a fun experience.
Executing comes in many forms, especially during a season. Each game requires execution; from the players and the coaches. On a project team, executing well allows the team to succeed at their ultimate goal of successfully finishing the project on time and on budget. Executing plays is what is required of the players, while figuring out player matchups and what the other team may be throwing at us is what is required of the coaches.
Controlling in terms of a sports team can be broken down in a couple of different parts. Off the field, there are a lot of moving parts, most of which are coordinating various schedules, vacations, carpooling, and the occasional sicknesses… making sure that we have enough players to play in each game. On the field, or court in the case of basketball, we as coaches must look at the players as individual parts of the team. We need to ensure that they are not getting worn out, not getting into foul trouble, and, ideally, trying to control the other team enough to win the game. I did mention that winning isn’t everything, but it sure is part of a competitive sport.
Closing the season out can be in the form of a playoff run. But, more than that, it is important to make sure that the team’s goals have been satisfied and hopefully a handful of them are willing to come back for another season. Having a team that has been together for one year can drastically help ease startup of the next season. On a project team, there will be turnover due to promotions, change of job, retirement, etc… but making sure that they are all motivated to be successful again on another new project is the ultimate goal.
In conclusion, project management practices help me make my personal and professional lives much easier to handle. If anything, from coaching a sport or being part of a project management team, it has allowed me to break down a sometimes daunting task to one that is much more manageable and enjoyable. Applied in judicious amounts, I believe project management practices will also help you: at work, in the community and at home.
“Because I said so…”. This is a “powerful” sentence that (almost) every child has heard at least once. When they are criticized, misunderstood or just denied of what they want (with no explanation whatsoever), a child’s first impulse is either to dissolve into tears and/or to push back, puffing and woofing angrily towards the “repressor/enemy” (usually an adult). They want to show that they are in pain (psychologically) and frustrated.
But when you are 4 or 5 or 7 years old, it’s almost impossible to describe eloquently your state of mind, your emotions. It’s much easier to display them. This is why, in those particular moments, children begin to shout, whimper or scream. They actually begin to (what psychologist call) act-out (their feelings/emotions/ frustrations).
And guess what? In the adult world, it’s almost the same.
As adults, we learn to restrain (even repress) ourselves from physically exhibiting our (deep) emotions. We try to explain them, rationalise them as much as possible. However, as soon as somebody is “pushing” (harder) our buttons, we tend to return to our inner (indignant) child. We sulk, puff and woof, retreating from that conversation or, quite the opposite, retaliating in a strong, powerful manner. And, more often than we think, we want to protect ourselves by being more offensive. Instead of understanding our fears, insecurities and self-doubts, we block them and, most importantly, we turn them back on our opponent/”enemy”.
Didn’t you feel, after a dense, heated conversation and after you had time to cool off, that you might have just overreacted? That some of the actions you took and/or replies you uttered seemed (after you cooled off) exaggerated and inflamed considering the light weight of the topic itself?
That’s because you acted-out your state of mind. In that particular moment, the anger you experienced came from the fear that you will not get what you need/want, that you are not loved, not respected, not included/accepted by the group.
Isn’t that exactly how it was when we were kids, only with more psychological “baggage” accumulated over the years? We are adults now, we can be angry and fight back with more power and more means. We can win this one - not like when we were kids.
Oh, this is such an illusion…
Now, imagine all of these for an individual in a leadership position. The number of threats and (possible) conflicts rise exponentially. Higher expectations and greater ambition bring an increased level of stress and anxiety. All of the repressed fears, emotions find an easier way to surface and the individual (the leader?!?) is more prone to act-out in difficult times such as short deadlines, conflicting teams, disgruntled employees, stressful projects and more. Just like in childhood, acting-out brings (most of the time) many disadvantages and problems in any human relation.
Obviously, we wonder if we can avoid these situations as much as possible or, at least, reduce their probability. It’s hard to give a recipe for such a complex psychological matter.
However, I would venture a guess and offer three key elements that, in my opinion, any individual should focus on if she/he wants to be a better person (and, consequently, a better leader). As a side note - these are also core elements of servant leadership and promoted as such.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure. Emotions, sensations, feelings, fears: all of them are part of a “world” that constitutes the foundation of any relationship; being personal or professional. Therefore, we must not ignore them but try to understand and have them work for our benefit as individuals, especially, for the ones aspiring to lead.
To be the leader everyone expects today, we need to heal the “wounds” from yesterday or, at least, acknowledge and start working on them. And this is the toughest leadership decision that any of us wishing to lead has to make.
Are you up for it?
The word “servant” triggers (in many situations) goose-bumps on individuals aspiring to be leaders. We are wired to perceive it as a “status-reducing” label, as a way to mark the limits for a second-class role (or, even worse, an individual). Associating it with strong, powerful noun - like leadership or leader - doesn’t make it better.
In fact, in this case - servant leadership or servant leader - the term “servant” (officially, a noun) is perceived more like an adjective, diminishing the force of its more famous associate. I always look at people’s faces when this topic is brought to the table. I actually started a little experiment. When asked about what I am most passionate about and what my favourite speaking topic is, I answer first with “I am really into [or] I really like to speak about leadership…”. My conversational partner’s face lights up (“Oh, another one…” - he might be thinking) and he asks - ready to share and engage in a small debate - “What kind of leadership?”.
As soon as the “infamous” association - servant leadership - leaves my mouth, the just-created magic disappears. I can see disorientation and confusion in my interlocutor’s eyes. The comfortable smile is replaced by a suspicious scowl and, most probably, questions start popping into his or her mind - “What the hell is this? You are either a servant, or a leader. Are you mocking me?”
The reduction-effect of “servant” upon “leadership” - which I described earlier - is almost instantaneously present. Everybody loves Leadership and are willing to talk about this “amazing, sensible and always up-to date” topic. We need leaders and leadership. They are vital for our success, for our well-being, for our society. But...Servant Leadership? Servant Leaders? It seems to degrade the powerful noun.... leadership - as we were wired to perceive it.
We put our leaders on a really high pedestal. Even if they don’t want to be there, we elevate them. In many situations, this is the only way we can see (as in “perceive”) them as leaders. We need to see them at any moment, to have them in front, (literally) leading the way. Our leaders have to pull us and help us achieve a strong pace to the target. Otherwise, they are not the leaders we expected, the leaders who can take us there no matter what. How can we trust a leader who is actually behind us, gently pushing, not pulling and, most of all, serving us?
The way I see it, this sorry situation is triggered by two main factors:
As I recall, coming back to my little experiment, no conversation about Servant Leadership ends up in a dull, boring way. The majority of my interlocutors smile politely and either change the subject or excuse themselves, leave or engage in another conversation. I get it - we might not be ready for this. Re-wiring our brains can be hard and takes a long time.
However, I have seen individuals (it’s true, just a small percent) who were stirred and intrigued by the whole idea. Something sparked behind their eyes - maybe just enough to kick-off an internal revolution. This kind of “inception” is the one I am counting on. This is the one bringing more selflessness and less selfishness, more trust, more community and less individuality, more authority and so on and so forth.
The other day I was staying at my townhouse in Minnesota and was looking for something to eat for dinner. I searched the cabinets and refrigerator and settled on grilling a cheeseburger. Then the realization came to me that the task would be slightly difficult. Using a grill during the winter in the Midwest is possible when it is cold out, but this specific night it was -4F (with a “feels-like” temperature of -24F). So, while possible it is not the most inviting thing to do. So, I thought of my options and decided that I could make it inside on the stove. I thought to myself how hard could it be? When I was a kid, my mom always made cheeseburgers on the stove. And, while my mom has many amazing qualities and talents, let’s just say cooking is not necessarily at the top of the list.
Cooking started out fine. I cooked one side of the burger. When I lifted the lid of the frying pan and flipped the patty over there was some smoke coming from the pan, but nothing out of the ordinary. When I walked back to the stove to flip the burger back over, the “nothing out of the ordinary” smoke could only be described as being like a thick fog rolling in off of the ocean, or in this case billowing through the first floor of the townhouse.
I realized that the smoke detectors were going to go off if I didn’t act quickly. I obviously didn’t act fast enough because they went off one by one… since they were all connected. First floor, second floor, garage… While I was dashing around trying to figure out how to fan out the first floor I got really nervous about all of the other consequences of this smoke and the smoke detectors. For example, since the townhouse is in a community with other attached units and there are smoke detectors AND sprinklers in the ceiling, I wondered whether the sprinklers would go off and soak everything, not only in my townhouse but in the others around me? I managed to let the fog roll out by opening the garage door and front door to get a good cross breeze and slowly but surely the smoke detectors stopped. Besides it being a bit cold in the townhouse for a little while the crisis was diverted.
It got me thinking about the purpose of a smoke detector. And, at this point you may be wondering, “Why is he writing about this in a project management blog?” While I was grabbing my jacket to stay warm while the smoke subsided I started to think about the purpose of a smoke detector. It is to keep us safe and to alert us of potential fire. It isn’t a fire yet, but it is a system that is meant to tell us if we don’t act quickly we may have a fire. There isn’t a guarantee that the smoke will ever lead to flame, but it is certainly possible. And, because of technology, the connected systems give notice that something isn’t right and can alert the other systems around us.
In Project Management, we have a lot of different “smoke detectors” we employ purposefully or perhaps are there already even though we may not realize it. For example, we have Total Float in a schedule. This can alert us that activities on the Critical Path of a project could cause problems, but aren’t necessarily causing issues yet. Another example is Project Status Meetings. These meetings aren’t scheduled so we can sit around and tell each other what we have accomplished and in some cases waste our time, but to give the Project Team the opportunity to all meet and discuss potential areas of concern. In our personal and professional daily life, if you think about it, I believe there are a lot of areas where we can find our own “smoke detectors”.
So, tonight, when you are sitting around your house thinking, “I sure am glad I don’t have Graham here cooking dinner for me!”, also consider what types of detectors and alarms you may have on your projects and where you may want to add a few more. Getting to the smoke before there is flame can be a tremendous sigh of relief in the end.
As most of you are aware, the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines Project Management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” After a summer of fun, I couldn’t help but think that while I manage projects in various areas in my business life, I am surrounded by successful Project Managers every day in my personal life, and so are others. Each and every day you can pick up any newspaper and read a story about projects that were completed, but Project Management is often used as a “scapegoat”. Sure, there are tons of successful projects and most are because Project Management was timely because the Project teams focus on meeting or beating cost, schedule, or scope. But, it made me wonder why we fail so often at something we do so frequently.
So, back to my summer of fun. I had the opportunity to do so many things with my family. Each and every summer I get to go to my favorite place on earth, Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. I am fortunate to have a close group of family members who are able to join every year. There are the usual 15-20 cousins, aunts, and uncles, but we also are lucky enough to have another 15-20 family members who come every few years. Why am I telling you all of this? It’s because I had an epiphany with regards to how much Project Management comes into play when this week comes around. I thought it would be fun to look at the five process groups that entail Project Management Processes (Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring/Controlling, and Closing) and how they really make a successful trip.
As an aside, my immediate family can identify with others living with a Project Manager, especially because of my usual PM focus, but there are occasions where it comes in handy. To give you an idea of how far I have gone, a few years ago I created a spreadsheet for our Disney World visit. You may laugh out loud or more than likely roll your eyes at this point, but I stand by my idiosyncrasies because my family each had requests of what they wanted to see and what they wanted to do. With some timely use of the processes I have learned through the years, everyone was able to see what they wished to see; be it a princess, a parade, or the Pirates of the Caribbean theme ride.
For those who don’t know about Chatham or Cape Cod, it can be treated like any other vacation spot and has tourist traps galore. With upwards of 40 family members all vacationing at once, planning is of utmost importance to avoid those tourist traps. So, on to the initiating phase. There are a handful of us that have been coming here for over 35 years so we usually are the ones who focus on some of the requirements. My older cousin and I usually are the ones who try to sort through all of these requirements since we are part of the original group. However, it’s not to say that we make all of the decisions without input. We need to make sure we take into consideration some of the constraints. This includes pleasing the younger cousins who always have a say in where we go and what they want to see. And there are also the older family members who may have some restrictions such as how mobile they are so care needs to be taken in where we go for some of the all-in family nights (bbq’s, beach nights, and dinner locations). Meeting both the young and the old is always a challenge, but usually dictates the execution, or whatever the activity is, of each phase.
With the use of text messages, plain old sticky notes and scratched notes on sides of old newspapers, we are always able to monitor and control how things are going. And one of the most efficient and relaxing ways of planning at the end of each night is to sit around a fire pit, roasting s’mores or enjoying ice cream and discussing not only how things went that day, but also looking ahead to the next few days. For the newcomers, the veterans of our family vacation always give options based on feedback to try for the next day. All of these Project Management tools come into play way more than I ever thought about. And, with most project close outs it is done with handshakes, hugs and the soon to be patented, “Corcoran sendoff”.
So, what makes all of this possible each and every year with so many people? It is due to the strength of family, but it is also due to the PM skills inherent in us as Project Managers. We are able to successfully get the most out of vacation each and every time because of the process. Sure, we don’t follow the PMBOK for each and everything we do in life, but it sure helps us all in areas that aren’t necessarily sitting at a desk or on a project site. Next time you set out on a family vacation I implore you to think of this approach and see if it might help avoid some sad faces, just like you want to avoid those faces in your professional life.