Without a map we walk in circles.
We use maps to navigate in an unfamiliar town. We use landmarks to distinguish that coffee shop from the other coffee shop 3 doors down. The setting sun guides us when there aren’t any recognisable landmarks.
It turns out that when we don’t have any visual references, we walk in circles.1
Our instincts aren’t enough.
Leading a project to success also requires a map of sorts. I don’t mean a detailed plan, a fancy gantt-chart or scheduling software. Many projects don’t come with these kind of tools. And these tools aren’t what makes a project successful.
A successful project is dependent on the actions and habits of the people involved, not the tools you use.
A successful project is dependent on the actions and habits of the people involved. Not the tools you use. #TheLibraryBoss
Some years ago I was hired to install RFID self-service kiosks in 3 libraries north of Christchurch. The area was reeling from recent earthquakes. There were red stickers plastered on buildings, homes and churches, warning people of life-threatening danger.
I didn't experience the earthquakes which immediately marked me as an outsider. It was even more difficult to be an outsider responsible for replacing the desperately needed human interaction between library staff and community members, with a machine - a self-service kiosk.
I felt like a fish out of water.
But I also knew what needed to be done for this project to have any chance of success. My navigational guide in this project and in all projects, is a triangulation of 3 crucial actions - establish what is important, ask others for advice, and be a better listener. Actions that over time have become habits.
I knew I had to install RFID self-service kiosks into 3 libraries but I didn’t really know why the kiosks were being installed, or what the project hoped to achieve. So I spent some time talking with Kerry,2 the library manager. The conversation started with all the usual reasons libraries install RFID - less time spent on circulation duties, fewer errors in check-in etc.
It wasn’t until I delved deeper that I discovered what was really important about this project. Kerry hoped that installing kiosks would free up staff so they could have more conversations with the community - at the kiosks, in the shelves, wherever people wanted to talk. It was a time when empathy and generosity were very much needed.
Figuring out the why of a project was crucial.
It gave the project team a clear direction to work towards. And it made it soooooo much easier to get buy-in from the community.
So how can you discover the why of a project? And how do you use this information to improve the chances of your project’s success?
Figuring out why a project is important requires you to go to the source - to have a conversation and to ask questions.Talk with your manager, the project sponsor or the person who wrote the first project outline.
Ask questions like:
These questions help you get past the surface-level reasons to find a more meaningful, perhaps emotional connection. These aren’t easy questions to ask. Or to answer. But if you keep at it, eventually what is important will emerge.
When you know what is important, write it down. This makes it real and reduces confusion for everyone.
Documenting what’s important also goes a long way to getting everyone on the same page. Not just the project team but everyone that will be impacted by the project.
It doesn’t matter what kind of project you are working on. It is much easier to gain support if you remember to share the why of that project.
The second action that will help you manage your project towards success is to ask for advice.
Asking others for advice is a great way to gain buy-in for your project. And it’s a great way to find others who will help develop your project to its full potential.
Some people don’t ask others for advice because they think it sends a signal that they don’t know what they’re doing. Or that others will think they are stupid for not knowing something.
When in fact, the opposite is true.
When you ask someone for advice, you make that person feel good. You validate their intelligence, experience and expertise. And because you’ve made that person feel good, they in turn feel good about you.
Asking others for advice is a great way to find supporters and develop your project to its full potential. #TheLibraryBoss
One of my tasks was to write a Request for Proposal (RFP) - a document that described our RFID requirements and asked vendors to submit a solution (proposal) that met those requirements. RFPs go through a rigorous process before they are sent to vendors. And while I had written RFPs before, I hadn't written one for this library. I’d been employed for less than 3 months. I didn't know many people in Council, and I didn’t have a clue about how things were done around here.
I asked Kerry, the library manager if she had an RFP template. She didn’t. So I asked her who in Council would know the most about RFPs. Kerry suggested Janelle, the Head of IT. I didn’t know Janelle but I emailed her asking if she could help me.
Janelle sent me a template and an example I could use as a baseline. She also mentioned key Council people to seek approval from and how to sort out any legalese that may be required.
You may think Janelle went above and beyond a simple email request for an RFP template. But I didn’t email her asking ‘Do you have an RFP template?’ That might work, but it’s not going to encourage Janelle to share her expertise with me. And neither would it help me understand what Council processes I needed to follow.
Instead, I sent this email to Janelle.
It includes 3 key elements - context, a desired outcome, and the struggle.3
You should provide enough information for them to know how they can help you, but not too much to overload them.
Being "a good listener" is one of those skills most people think they are good at. We all believe we're good listeners just like we believe we are good drivers, yeah?
Listening is difficult.
We get distracted by our phones, our email or a myriad of other things. We stop listening before the person has finished speaking because we think we know the answer.
Research shows that the average person listens with only 25% efficiency — which means there is a lot go in one ear and straight out the other.
Let me tell you about Crystal. Crystal has a tendency to like things ‘just so’. Her desk is neatly organised and everything has a place. Crystal knows if you have borrowed something from her desk because it hasn’t been put back in the exact same spot she put it in. Crystal is the library’s cataloguer with her own way of doing things. For example the process of determining the dewey number of a new library item is exactly the same for every single item. No shortcuts. There is a process to follow. And Crystal will follow the process.
Crystal is also a talker. Crystal talks constantly about the minute details of her work. Mostly to herself. But loud enough for everyone in the workroom to hear. Most staff ignore her constant chatter because that’s just the way she is.
I came to know Crystal because she also manages the library’s daily banking. The new kiosks would allow library members to pay for fines and rental items without staff intervention. And Crystal was concerned about how this would disrupt the daily banking process.
The kiosks hadn’t even been purchased so I had no idea how to respond to her concerns.
Other than to listen.
I spent 2 weeks with Crystal learning about the daily banking process - how it was done, what Council did with it, and how to deal with anomalies.
After the kiosks arrived, Crystal and I spent another 2 weeks refining the new process. And when it came time to launch Crystal volunteered to train all the staff and turned out to be the project’s staunchest and most vocal advocate. Because I gave her the space and time to tell me about her area of expertise. I listened.
The consequences of not listening, especially to experts, are everywhere. Think climate change. Syria. Open access. Scholarly comms. The list is endless.
However the benefits of listening are significant. Benefits such as resolving conflicts, fewer errors, better relationships, improved trust and problems solved.
These 3 actions - establish what is important, ask others for advice, and be a better listener - are the map we need to prevent us from walking in circles with our projects. They are actions that through practice, become habits. And they are crucial to the success of any project. Do you agree?
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