Think about the best and the worst trips you’ve ever had. My best trips were those that turned out to be much better than I had expected. I had great company, met nice people, saw great things, loved the food, etc. They were not necessarily great because I loved every single second, they were great because the overall experience was great. Actually the best memories come from these that make good stories because of the unexpected situations I had to go through. Regardless of how good or bad my trips turned out to be, I am happy I made them all because of the memories they created. But would I want to repeat all of them?
Trip = Project, Project = Trip
If you look at a project like a trip then there is specific action you can take ahead of time to make sure you will have a good trip.
Whenever we start a new project or enter a new phase within a project everyone is excited and wants to dive right into the action. Optimistic plans are made, timelines are set and everything is all puppies and rainbows. This is where I used to be the killjoy who comes up with all the buts (with one t) and wants to talk about possible problems. I was the one who either ruined the party at the beginning or this “I told you so” person afterwards. For a long time I thought that is my job as a project manager. But a project manager doesn’t ruin the party, a project manager makes sure everyone has a good trip.
So why should I be the killjoy? Let them do the work.
Now, I simply ask everyone involved (my co-travelers) three questions while we are still in the puppies and rainbows phase:
For this trip (project) what is:
- something you are particularly excited about?
- something you are not excited about?
- one problem you can foresee?
You want at least one answer per question and you answer them, too. Don’t do this in a meeting – meetings are mostly useless – either have them send you emails or tell you personally. I like the personal one-on-one approach, because it helps clarifying questions immediately and everyone feels involved.
Can you see how great (almost magical) this method is? No one is being told while still excited that it won’t be easy. Everyone has to actively think about the trip and get invested in it.
What is something you are particularly excited about?
With the first question you can build on the excitement to learn what exactly everyone cares about the most. For trips it is great to learn for example that your spouse is looking forward to do a lot of shopping or wants to complete a half marathon with you. You can learn your kids don’t care about the beach, but love the pool. And so on.
For projects it helps to figure out where everybody sees themselves. Mary is excited about the big conference we will host halfway through the project. Bob on the other hand likes the public outreach component in the initial phase a lot. Dwayne loves surveys and he can hardly wait to see what people think. Sandra on the other hand loves the international aspect of it all and wants to learn a lot from the other partners.
It certainly depends on your hierarchies – the kids will have to go to the beach after all – but you may be able to utilize the interests of your project members, and at least you know what everyone cares about.
It is important to know that without shopping it won’t be a good trip for your spouse.
What is something you are not excited about?
The answers to this question are essential for avoiding conflicts. Clearly if you hate shopping it should come up before the trip, so you can find a compromise. If your daughter is already panicky about the 10 hour car ride then make sure to take enough breaks and have fun things to do distract her during the drive.
So don’t have Dwayne work on the conference when this is the one part that seems pointless for him. If the public outreach is one central component of the project, those who don’t think it is important or worth getting excited about need to at least understand why it matters. The first two questions not only help you to see how your team thinks about the project you can get an immediate feel of how well it harmonizes.
What is one problem you can foresee?
Now you have all others dealing with the possible problems. It is no longer you who kills the anticipation. You may even get some ideas you haven’t thought of.
What may not be a problem for you at all may be one for some one else. It is very valuable to understand the concerns and fears of the people you will be spending a considerable amount of time with. There is no problem to small or too big to remain ignored.
The follow-up: Compromises and solutions
After you gathered all the information it is time to have a meeting (now it makes sense) and talk about the brought up items. Now everyone can play his/her part in making sure it is going to be a good trip (project). You can try to find compromises for opposing views and even if you don’t, at least everyone knows what they are getting into ahead of time. The expectations are set now with everyone involved ensuring there are no failed expectations later. You can see how important this process can be for your relationship with clients… and family members of course.
And even better you get the chance to have problems solved before they even come up. It is important to address the possible solutions now and not directly when you ask for the problem. Otherwise some problems may not be mentioned if someone doesn’t want to make a bad impression because they don’t know the answer.
You never know what is going to happen, but if you manage to get everyone involved as early as possible then even unexpected surprises can be tackled. What you need is the right attitude and good team spirit. You have just done your best to make it a good trip no matter what.
This strategy certainly applies to everything you are planning to do, even if it is only you who is involved. Also read about the framework for effective action.
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