You’ve probably heard the Chinese proverb: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Another way to think about it: all big and complex things start with a simple step forward.
In many situations, however, that first step might not be so simple.
You likely have your own personal list of to-dos that have been gnawing at you for what seems like forever. For whatever reason, you keep procrastinating and pushing them to the back burner.
That tendency is multiplied when you consider projects that require a team or collaborative approach. Maybe you have a list of projects that you want finished, but you never seem to have the time, energy, or organization to move them forward.
At Reach Partners we’ve seen projects fail to launch or stall because a successful start was an obstacle. Starting is harder than it looks.
Whenever we plan an event, an in-depth meeting, a social gathering, or virtual experience Reach Partners will always argue for the same thing. Every time.
This thing is the most important detail for every planned interaction. It is the life blood of our work and what drives us to do better every day. Most importantly it’s the power, the energy that fuels the work at hand.
How do you tap into this energy? How do you make it work for you? Draw the right audience? Craft the right marketing activities? Align stakeholders? Create value?
You start by defining purpose.
Project managers are good at risk management.
One of the things we do is identify what we can’t control and then find solutions or actions to mitigate these things. Typically, this means we’re thinking through things like potentially bad weather affecting an outdoor event or how to contain a protester at a women’s event.
These types of risk management plans are appropriate, necessary, and responsible.
And then along came the coronavirus pandemic. We’re not going to lie – this challenges even those of us who spend a lot of time identifying and planning for risks.
Once the last event attendee has left and the vendors have packed up, go ahead and put your feet up.
Only for a minute or two, though.
The event may be done, but that doesn’t mean the work of an event planner is complete. Every event should include an evaluation or survey that helps you determine whether the event accomplished what you set out to do.
Consider evaluations your reality check. They confirm whether you’ve done what you wanted to do and help improve your next event or program.
After all, we don’t plan events or programs for ourselves or because we’ve always done it. Events fall flat if the participants didn’t learn anything or didn’t enjoy the day. If you’ve done your homework and established a great strategy, you’ll want to know what participants thought.
"Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” – Gene Fowler
Okay, the quotation above contains a bit of hyperbole, but let’s face it: writing can be harder than you expect. Whether you’re drafting a document or creating content for your website, finding the right words and tone can cause the even the bravest to break into a sweat.
And then, we complicate things by bringing in the team.
Every meeting has the potential to veer into a tangent, to carry its attendees into a deep forest so far from the original path that it’s nearly impossible to find the route home.
It’s easy to blame this on others – those who arrange the agenda, those whose comments lead us astray. But whether we like it or not, we are all accountable for keeping meetings effective. If you’re in charge, the steps you need to take are more obvious. If you’re not officially in charge, there are still things you can do to keep everyone on track.
But wait, you say. I’m not the meeting leader. What can I do? A lot, it turns out.
With a 150th anniversary approaching, leaders in Otter Tail County knew they had a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to celebrate the region’s history and culture. People were excited and passionate about getting involved in the milestone event, but that enthusiasm came with a price tag.
“The more ideas there were, the more opportunities there were for things to get chaotic,” says Nick Leonard, communications and external relations director for the county.
Key stakeholders including the Otter Tail County Historical Society and the Otter Tail Lakes County Association established a planning committee for the sesquicentennial, but the group needed someone to serve as a single point person for communication and project management.
Reach Partners stepped in, helping with event strategy and support.
Have you ever stepped into a meeting and experienced that “walking on eggshells” feeling? Like you’ve missed the joke, and no one is going to share it with you? Have you been in a meeting where you were afraid to tell the truth, bring up the hard facts, or provide constructive feedback?
The fact is, good meetings are a symptom of great teams.
Even if “project manager” isn’t part of your title or job description, you likely will have to oversee a project at some point in your career. After all, projects occur at every level of all organizations, industries and professions.
Maybe you’ve been asked to organize a day-long staff retreat or a special anniversary celebration. Or maybe you’ve been asked to coordinate art and text for a marketing campaign.
For projects both complex and simple, a practical and solid plan can make everything flow more smoothly – AND make you look brilliant. (And who doesn’t want that?)
In short, everyone can benefit from a few project management skills.
Whether you’re new to project management or are looking for a few tools to effectively run your own projects, we recommend starting with these five tips.
1. Identify the project objectives.
Every project begins with two questions: What is your understanding of the task? and What will the deliverable look like? Don’t even think about starting a project until you answer those. Jot the answers into a document. This is the start of your project charter, a go-to document that lists the project basics from goals and scope to budget and timeline. This helps you communicate with stakeholders and measure progress. Use it!
2. Develop action steps.
“Begin at the beginning," advised the King as he prompted Alice in Wonderland to tell about her adventures. That’s good advice for managing a project too. Start by listing the first three steps. Categorize each task. Continue this process until you’ve listed every action step needed to get the work done. This work breakdown structure is basically a glorified (and very detailed!) to-do list. It will help you identify where team members and other resources are needed.
3. Get organized.
Maybe you've never won any “most organized” awards. Now is the time to do better. Capture ideas, requests and actions using one notebook, sticky notes, or an Excel document. Experiment using digital tools like Trello to keep you and resources in one place. The type of tool you use is less important than being confident that you know what is required, the action steps needed, and most important, how to communicate them to the team. What tools work for you?
4. Identify risks.
For project managers, a risk is anything that she doesn't have control over. For example, could less funding come through than estimated? Might a timeline be crunched because of a scheduled vacation? What if an event sells out quickly or a new product is so popular that supply can't keep up with demand?
Take a few minutes to list all of the risks that may affect your project. (Go ahead – put them in the project charter.) Think about both positive and negative events that you can't control. Once you've identified the risks, you can work on finding solutions or contingency actions to mitigate them. Trust us. You will never regret taking the time to think through potential risks and brainstorming ways to turn them into opportunities.
5. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
As your project moves forward, be sure to track and communicate project progress. Be sure you know who your team and stakeholders are. Think about what information they need and how frequently they need it – and the best way to reach them. Tools for sharing your progress include communication plans, meeting agendas and project reports. Communicate frequently road blocks, successes, failures, resource needs, meetings, and action steps. You can never over-communicate.
These five steps will get any project heading in the right direction. And you’ll know you’ve done everything you can to make it successful.
Few things make people in a group setting more uncomfortable than silence.
People look awkwardly at their phones or notebooks while the lack of speech weighs heavily in the air. Nobody makes eye contact until someone breaks the tension with nervous laughter.
But, shhhh . . .
There’s power in that silence.
Musicians know this. A few (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Claude Debussy, as a start) have been credited with variations on the sentiment that “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Or as the jazz musician Miles Davis put it: “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”
Silence gives noise meaning. In many situations, it is a golden ticket to stronger communication and building trust.
After all, when we have a message to deliver, we want people to listen. Silence may signal that someone is actively paying attention and they need a moment to collect their thoughts before responding. Silence, in this case, suggests they’ve actually listened to the conversation before forming their own commentary.
Posing a good question to the group also may result in quiet space. People are thinking, figuring out how to frame their responses. Consider the communication styles of those around you. While some people work through their ideas verbally, others need a few minutes of quiet time to collect their thoughts and courage.
If a group is brainstorming or sharing ideas, you can expect that conversation will ebb and flow. For a few minutes, ideas may come very quickly and then the pace slows down. Just as a piece of music may contain different time signatures, this rhythm may change multiple times throughout the conversation. If you don’t allow space between the noise, ideas could be left out.
There are times, of course, that silence signals a problem.
For example, phone conversations or conference calls are difficult to monitor when it comes to silence. Because you can’t read non-verbal cues, it’s challenging to know whether silence means a person is thinking (perfect!), walked away in frustration (not perfect!), or got disconnected (oops!).
If you are gathering in person, silence could signal that everyone isn’t prepared for the meeting. Just because you created a thorough agenda doesn’t mean everyone has read it. Watch body language to determine whether people need a moment to compose their thoughts or they haven’t completed their homework.
The most difficult part about silence may not be interpreting it, but in allowing it to happen. Handling a bit of silence may be more challenging than you think.
We’re so used to filling quiet with sound that true silence may feel like eternity even if it’s only a few seconds or more.
If you’re tempted to jump in with a comment, stop. Count silently in your head or watch the second hand of a clock. Don’t fall into the trap of rescuing anybody. Let the awkward silence achieve its superpower.
You won’t have to wait long. In my experience someone will start talking in 10 seconds or less. Someone almost always does.
Shhh . . . wait for it.