What My Kids Taught Me About Leading Project Teams

Posted by Ryan McClish - 27 March, 2013

by Ryan McClish

I lead delivery execution teams that create custom software. I’m accountable for the overall results and the delivery of projects. It wasn’t until I had kids that I realized how much I could learn from them about running projects. I have been a parent for around two years now, and my kids are still teaching me more and more every day. All I have to do is listen to them.

My son, Kaeden, is the older of two kids. From the beginning, my wife and I have consciously tried to provide structure and consistency for our little ones. When we brought Kaeden home, we setup schedules around everything from eating to sleeping. This helped us provide structure and set expectations right from the start. Although the first month or so none of this worked out as we planned, we found that if you keep at it, eventually your kids adapt the schedule you provide them. At some point things become like clock-work.

In a lot of ways you could compare our home life to a project plan:  We know when things have to happen. If something changes we know ahead of time and make the appropriate adjustments.

In addition to the schedules, my wife and I wanted to create good habits for him. Our thinking was that if we set expectations early, then it would be much easier for Kaeden to adjust. For example, we wanted him to know that meals were eaten at the table … not in front of the TV set. When he was an infant we made sure that every night at dinner time he had his bottle at the table. As he grew older and was eating baby food, he ate dinner with us at the table. When both my wife and I were home, we ate breakfast and lunch at the table. This way he learned that eating was always done at the table.

While none of this is revolutionary, that doesn’t mean we didn’t have our struggles. We were simply making it up as we went along to avoid some of the struggles we have seen other couples have, like kids misbehaving at the table, throwing food or simply not eating.

We have had a fair amount of success with Kaeden.  He has slept through the night since an early age. Putting him to bed is easy. He does not throw his food, except the occasional spill. He even folds his hands and joins a prayer before we eat.

Have you ever started a project doing all the right things only to have it go horribly wrong?

Things were going great! Life was good and our Kaeden was following the rules and schedules. Then, all of the sudden, he started behaving very badly at the dinner table. Instead of eating, he grabbed his food and dropped it on the floor. He threw tantrums, screaming and crying at the top of his lungs. This was not like him. He was about 19 months old and all we could think was, “uhg, he hit the terrible two’s early.” Was this what eating was going to be like? Dinner accompanied by fits and high pitched screams?  Mopping the floor every night? We didn’t understand it, and it was frustrating to regress from what we were used to.

After weeks of tantrums, lost patience, and even multiple “time outs” per meal, we tried something different. This particular meal started out just like all the other recent nights.  We set the table, call our son and tell him it’s time to eat. He seemingly ignores us so we go to the other room, pick him up and put him in his booster seat. The screaming begins.

This time, however, instead of getting upset with him, I do the logical thing and talk to him. “Are you hungry?” “Do you want milk?” “Do you want mac and cheese?” He doesn’t respond to any of my questions. Finally, I ask “Do you want down?” He says “Yes”. Ah ha, we are getting somewhere! Since this kid has hardly eaten anything all day, I know he is hungry but he doesn’t want to be at the table.  I ask him if he wants his food in the other room and he said “Yes.”

Have you ever taken a shortcut on a project because it was easier at that moment and unintentionally created a bad habit?

This is when the light bulb went off! Rewind three or four weeks when everyone was happy. It’s morning and my wife and I are rushing to get ready for work. Kaeden is watching TV, absorbing his daily dose of Thomas and friends. Since we don’t have time to sit down, we don’t make a big deal out of Kaeden getting to eat raisin bread on the sofa in the living room. This works well since he is eating, happily watching his show and we can do what we need to do.  Little did we know that after a few days of this we were making him the little monster we eventually became so frustrated with. It was about that time that all the fits started at the lunch and dinner.

Although we didn’t realize it, we were actually telling my son that it’s ok to sit on the sofa and eat. He enjoyed this because he could eat at his pace and watch his shows.  Unfortunately, this small change in our daily routine created a problem because Kaeden didn’t understand that this was an exception and not the rule. With a vocabulary of only five or six words, his way of communicating his displeasure when he had to follow the rule was to throw a fit.

How is this anything like a project team?

In thinking about the lesson Kaeden taught me, I realized that it also applies to my projects at work. As we work through a project, we use different methods and practices to help us be successful. And, throughout the life of a project, there will inevitably be exceptions to some of these practices.  There are always good reasons for doing this, and sometimes it is the only way to keep everything on track. It only becomes a problem when we don’t clearly articulate to the team why we are doing it and for how long it will be acceptable. The result is a confused team -- just as Kaeden was perplexed as to why he couldn’t eat every meal on the sofa.

The next time you need to break from normal patterns and best practices, keep the following in mind:

  1. First and foremost, know that you’re breaking the pattern. If you don’t even know you’re breaking the pattern then the new behavior can unintentionally become the pattern.
  2. Weigh the pros and cons. Why are you breaking the pattern? Evaluate the benefits vs. detriments. While every decision has a consequence, some are more detrimental than others. Make sure your decision to deviate from the norm is the best choice for the project.
  3. Don’t assume people won’t notice. Communicate and let the team know you are  going to take a shortcut or deviate from the plan. Make sure they understand what the impact is to them, and how long or how many times to expect this. For example, you want to hard code something because the CEO is flying in to town in the next couple of days and wants a working demo. Make sure everyone knows why they are going against the coding norms. Tell them you’re aware that this will require extra work in the long run because all hard coding must be fixed after the demo.
  4. Get everyone back on track as soon as possible. Once the period of exception is over, communicate with the team that all normal expectations are back in place.

We all use different methods, processes, or rules thoughtout our daily lives to keep things in order. There is nothing wrong with occasionally deviating from these rules in specific situations. When you do change the rules though, it is critical to keep the lines of communication open and work closely with your team. Knowing why you are changing the rules and properly communicating to your team is an important part of  success.

Topics: leadership, work smarter, product lifecycle


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