Productive Project Assessment

As my career evolves, I’ve moved from project manager roles to roles where I oversee and assess projects.  I think doing this productively requires balancing cold objectivity with optimism and encouragement.  It also has to balance an independent perspective with collaborative input.  The challenge is ensuring that the assessment identifies strengths and problems, encourages improvement, and doesn’t weigh down the project while requiring accountability.  After all, being assessed is a powerful thing.

Think about it.  Few things cause as powerful an emotional response as being judged.  The coach says “Nice play!  Your footwork is really improving.” You feel great; motivated to get better.  You think about the input and accept the positive encouragement.  The coach says “No, you aren’t paying attention!  You have to learn the play and be in the right place.”  This brings out a more complex response.  You may resist criticism.  You may think about what you were doing right and are mad it wasn’t noticed.  If you are singled out, you may be embarrassed.  If the coach is fair and you respect him, you may more readily accept the comments.  But they can still hurt.

Here’s a lighter hearted example to give you something to think about.  Over the holidays we visited our grandkids.  My five year old granddaughter, Amberly, loves games and role playing.  We were playing catch with an indoor soft Frisbee.  I was admiring how much her ability to catch and throw had improved in the last few months.  Our game had changed in an interesting way, though.  Where it used to be that any throw was a good one, now we tried to make straight catchable throws.  I’d say “good throw” or “good catch, Amby.”  She’d say “good throw” or “good catch, Grampy.”  It got more interesting when Amby decided, out of the blue, to keep score.

Amby measures

Neither of us is a pro Frisbee player, so some of our throws would sail into the Christmas tree or under the couch.  Those throws gave two year old Ashlyn a chance to get the Frisbee and a laugh filled scramble ensued.  Ashlyn left for a nap, so Amby and I worked on accuracy.  Amby assumed a teacher-like role and labeled the throws “good” and “bad.”  She said “It’s a bad throw if I can’t catch it, Grampy.”  I said “What if it’s a good throw and you don’t catch it?”  “Then it’s still a bad throw.”  She said that with a mischievous smile on her face.

Then Amby said “I know!” and dashed out of the room.  She came back with a piece of paper and a blue marker.  “I’ll keep score.” she said.  Amby went to work drawing on the paper.  “I’m a heart and you’re a circle.”  “OK.”  “I’ll make a heart for my throws and a circle for yours.  I’ll put an A in the hearts for Amby, and a G in the circles for Glenn (Glenn, not Grampy).  If it’s a good throw, we get a check, if it’s a bad throw, we get an X.”  “OK.” I said with a smile.  This should be interesting.

After each throw, Amby would call out whether it was good or bad.  Then she’d carefully mark the score.  After a while she realized the A and G weren’t needed.  Then she decided to add a few stars because she liked drawing those.  The pauses after each throw got longer as she perfected her rating scheme.

Our good throws dutifully got checks.  My bad throws got a laughing snicker from the judge and an X. Her bad throws got X’s with less ceremony.  As the game progressed, my consultant/project manager brain made these observations about the scoring:

  • I respected Amby because she was consistent in her judgment.
  • I respected Amby because she tried her best to catch my throws good or bad.
  • I didn’t like it (in an amused mature way, of course) if Amby didn’t catch a good throw and called it a bad throw when I thought it was a good one.
  • I realized Amby just wanted to catch as many as possible so I tried harder to make good throws.
  • It was easier to take a “bad throw” score when Amby laughed and made a snarly face when she said “bad throw, Grampy” and I knew I was going to get a hug at the end of the game.

All experiments come to an end.  Amby’s dad, my son, came in the room, watched the game for a couple of throws, and said “Amby, you’re spending more time keeping score than you are throwing the Frisbee.  Just play catch!”  I said that was OK and had Amberly sign the score sheet for me.  And, I got my hug.  We found a new game to play.

What can we learn from Amby’s assessment tool?  Project assessment tools need to be:

  • Based on an approach that we agree upon up front
  • Applied consistently
  • Discussed so we understand why the rater is rating the way she is (we might not agree, but someone gets to set the rules)
  • Applied in a way that ensures the assessment doesn’t become about the assessor
  • Applied directly, constructively, with a sense of humor, and with as much love as possible.

I’m sure that no project dashboard I come up with in the future will be as simple, as effective, or as much fun as Amby’s.  But, I’ll try.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright 2013 Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk”

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