“We’re Engaged!”

I heard those two enchanting words a few weeks ago from my nephew and his wonderful girlfriend.  Immediately, I could imagine all the eventful things that would happen between then and the August wedding.  Weddings are pretty big projects, after all.  Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people make changes in their lives to come together in celebration of a new life for two people they love.  Those making the plans set objectives, constraints, and timelines.  They identify stakeholders and strategies, find people they can assign work to, and then they make commitments and get things done. And they do it with the sort of zeal, creativity, and commitment that is part of the most successful non-wedding projects.  All this comes from the power of those first two words – “We’re engaged!”

Who really becomes engaged when an engagement happens?  Is it just the future bride and groom?  I think it’s everyone who will be at the wedding or who will help the couple celebrate in some way.  Their collective engagement makes the whole event special whether they send a gift and a card, travel long distances to be present, or work hundreds of hours to find places, services, and make the plans that make the event.

I think I love going to weddings because there is no other event with the same potential for love and good intention to come together with great commitment to a single purpose.  Even if we have some concerns or doubts, we try to cast those off so we have a complete commitment to the happy future of the couple we love.

Well, this isn’t a blog about love and marriage.  It’s about projects.  I’ve been reading about “engagement” a lot lately as I go through my favorite consulting books to consider how consulting and project management overlap.  When I think about my most successful projects and how the teams found what could go right on those projects, I think an essential part of their success was that they engaged in the solution.  The project manager or sponsor or some team members (sometimes me) helped create an environment where everyone gave their full attention and most creative thoughts, accepted personal responsibility, stretched, and committed to the success of the project.  The team engaged.

Engagement on a project isn’t much different than engagement leading to marriage.  People on a successful project are usually bound not only by the logic of a business improvement or the orders of the boss.  Ideally, as they come together and find a common purpose, there’s some love there. In fact, the more love (platonic love) the better.  At meetings, people work hard to agree on what the problems are and how to solve them.  They work together productively on their assignments.  They aren’t afraid to ask questions or ask for help.  They go above and beyond.  They help and support one another.  They find ways to have fun.  They do it for their team members as much as for the cause, themselves, or for their organization.  They are engaged with the team, the goal, and with the idea that they are individually and collectively important.

How can this engagement happen on a project?  Let’s look to consulting for some ideas.  In “Flawless Consulting” Peter Block describes eight ways to engage people in a change project.  I’ve listed Peter’s points with my own brief interpretation of each and a little engagement/wedding analogy thrown in (forgive me, Peter):

“Open with a Transparent Purpose and a Level Playing Field” – Get it all on the table.  Say why are we here, what we need.  People can’t bring all they have to give if they don’t understand the problem or aren’t invited to be part of the whole solution.   Love happens for lots of reasons, but engagement happens when you deeply understand one another and commit to meeting each other’s needs.

“Negotiate Expectations About Participation” – Invite and expect people to participate; not just show up to be entertained.  Announcements might go to everyone, but invitations go to people you want to be there and engage in the celebration.  When they come to the wedding, you want them to bring their gifts and love, drink to toasts, laugh and get to know one another, and get up and chicken dance.

“Rearrange the Room” – Let people influence how they will come together.  They need to be participants, not just spectators.  While the wedding starts with a formal spectacle and spectator orientation, the reception is more about allowing interaction and flexibility.  You start with some structure and assigned seats, but after a while you are up and moving around, talking and dancing, making the event your own.  Weddings are beautiful, but the receptions are what you really remember.

“Create a Platform for Openness and Doubt” – Give people a voice, listen to their concerns and accept their reservations.  Tell the truth and earn trust.  A traditional wedding has a point where the presiding person asks for objections.  Hopefully, that moment isn’t the first time where the question is asked.  The wise couple has dealt with “are you ready?” or “is this the right person?” and all the other doubts in those “meet the parents” moments.  Whether all the answers were satisfactory or not, when the questions come out up front and are accepted and truthfully acknowledged, people can accept the situation and, in the spirit of love, make a commitment to finding how they can contribute to what can go right.  And avoid “The Graduate” moments.

“Ask, What Do We Want To Create Together?” – This question asks people to engage in two things – finding a solution that involves their unique contributions, and doing it with others in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  The engagement to wed is fundamentally about believing that we will be better together than we will be on our own; and about wanting to create things together.  It’s about putting two before one.  Not an easy decision to make, but once made it makes all the difference.

“Create a New Conversation” – A new conversation focuses on what can go right in the future.  The old ones focus on what has gone on or gone wrong in the past that led us to the point of change.  The new ones look for opportunities and motivation to go out of our comfort zone and make a change.  The old conversation is safe, but its inertia can drain our energy.  Getting engaged starts a new conversation.  Every conversation afterward is done in a new light of love, change, fear, hope, and the opportunity for wonderful things.  Marriages endure because they keep looking forward more than they look back.

“Choose Commitment and Accountability” – A project depends on people making commitments and being accountable to the project’s purpose and the people making it happen.  For the commitments to be made and fulfilled throughout the project, people choose to make them.  They can’t be compelled to do it.  If they feel that they have a choice, and they choose to commit, you can count on it.  If they commit to their teammates, you can count on that.  If they feel that they have to do it, without choice, they will look for things that they can control which may take them other directions.  If they commit only to their boss and not to their peers, watch out.  At a wedding, the bride and groom are traditionally asked if they are choosing their commitment to one another freely and without reservation.  It’s the right question.

“Focus on Gifts” – Throughout a project, there are opportunities to recognize what can go and has gone right.  They can look at strengths to build on, how today’s meeting went, or what lessons we learned at the end.  The conversations can easily dwell on what went wrong.  Useful, but do the resulting lists of what can go wrong really inspire you on your future projects?  The more we bring out the gifts brought by people to the projects and understand what went right and why, the better we get at finding the gifts that will make our projects successful.  And, the better we like our projects.  The last wedding reference isn’t about wedding gifts.  It’s about the bountiful praise at the wedding.  We extol the wonderful qualities of the happy couple.  They give heartfelt expressions of appreciation for their families’ and guests’ support and love.  No wonder weddings leave us feeling optimistic and happy.  And, that’s what we all need.

So, with a tear in my eye, here’s congratulation and thanks to Steve and Lexy; and my wish to all of you readers for loving engagement on your next projects.  And don’t forget to chicken dance.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012

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