I’m sitting with the management team of a growing organization that seems to have money for projects when others’ don’t. They have money for more projects than they are ready for. Every department of this organization is doing some sort of project. They all need more help from their shared services than they can get. Every project is important. Every project is behind schedule. Some look to me like failing projects. I want to say “maybe you should focus on fewer projects.” No one is ready for that feedback yet. I need to say it in a way that makes a difference.
Projects are a vehicle to get us from where we are to where we want to go. I like this metaphor. Whether the vehicle is a car or a plane, many of the characteristics about travel apply to projects. Where do we want to go, what should the trip be like, how much stuff can we take with us, who’s driving (are they qualified), what will traffic be like, are we flying first class or coach, do we need trip insurance, or are we driving under the influence? All these questions, with a little imagination, apply to projects we do at work.
My client organization, it seems, wants all its projects to fly first class; but there are no first class seats on the plane. In order to jam everyone on the same flight, big seats, free drinks, and legroom lose out to tight quarters and not enough diet soda and cookies to go around. I ask the managers around the table “Do you want your projects to fly first class or coach?”
After some baffled looks, I get a question: “What’s the difference?” I reply “If you fly first class, you get treated like you are important. You have a nice place to wait, you get on first, you have a comfortable seat, and when you need something you get it. The airline wants you to arrive rested, happy, and ready to go; and you pay more for the better services. You fly first class so you have a more successful, enjoyable trip including and beyond the flight.” “So, how does that apply to our projects?” I say “Well, are your projects getting what they need when they need it, are you comfortable, do you think that your trip will be successful?” I can tell that everyone is thinking that they want a first class ticket, but know that they are riding in coach. Their seats don’t recline because their backs are against the lavatories. Their fellow passengers are reclining back into their space. They are pessimistic about the outcomes of their trips.
“So, you are saying that our projects could be more successful if we treat them like they are flying first class.” I’m smiling. “That’s what I’m saying.” Baffled looks become skeptical looks. “Well, that’s easy for you to say, but we can’t afford to fly everyone first class. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got.” I agree. “Yes, you are. But it seems that your projects are behind schedule and frustrated. People are getting worn out trying to support so much at once. What you are getting is lower quality than you need. You are all riding in coach, but you want first class outcomes. Is it possible that some of your projects are OK in coach – they can take on more risk and be more flexible – but that some just have to have a first class seat?” A few heads nod. “What if we identify what each project needs to be successful, and then consider what sort of ticket they should have?”
Full disclosure: I’ve had this conversation with a number of clients. In no one case did it go exactly like the story in this post. But, getting those who decide what gets done and how resources are allocated to think about first class vs. coach usually starts a good conversation about priorities, resource allocation, and risk tolerance.
Think about the projects in your organization. Have you explicitly decided what kind of ticket each one should have? A mission critical project that has to be done date certain needs to fly first class. A good departmental project that finally made it into the hopper and doesn’t have a fixed deadline can probably fly coach. The important thing is that you need to choose. Lots of projects will fall between these criteria. That’s where the managers earn their pay checks.
Make sure that those first class ticketed projects are happy and successful. Make them explicit top priorities for everyone. Celebrate their successful trips and give everyone credit. At the same time, don’t be tough on the coach passengers if they have to make a few adjustments because they couldn’t use their laptop, get a drink, or had to wait in line at the lavatory. Give them service with a smile when it’s their turn; and recognize and appreciate their hardships. After all, most organizations have limited capacity – not very many first class seats. Sometimes if you want to fly, you have to fly coach. Set realistic expectations for coach ticketed projects. While capacity constraints limit the number of first class tickets available, we all have capacity of our own choosing for patience and appreciation. These qualities can turn a coach ticket trip into a happy outcome as well.
Thanks for flying on “The Other Side of Risk” airlines. And thanks for reading.
Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012
Memorable analogy. What a great way to paint the big picture in common terms and let others make their own conclusions.
Good discussion, but never forget that the guys in coach may someday need to fly first class and you want them to choose your airplane.
Right, Vernon. We want to appreciate their sacrifices, set realistic expectations, encourage them to innovate, and reward their progress.
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