Making a meal out of project management

city restaurant table pavement
Credit: Pexels:LEEROY.ca

Project management lessons can be found in the strangest places. Lessons in communication, transparency, planning, control, task management, process, negotiation, leadership and much more can all be learned from one bad meal out.

Sometimes, as a project manager, you can feel that you are in the loneliest of places, up late at night sweating over a project that is running late, working long weekends when everyone else is at the game. You can feel like you are the only person on the planet facing your challenges.

Although the problems you are trying to solve may be unique to your project, take small solace from the fact that somewhere else a PM is burning the midnight oil over their own.

I’ve learned a lot through my work helping organisations score greater IT project success. Project challenges can be project unique but often the same approach can be successfully applied across a spectrum of seemingly very diverse challenges – suddenly you’re not as alone as you thought! In fact, increasingly I’ve begun to find project management lessons in many different areas of my life.  

For instance, the waiter or manager in a restaurant is dealing with the challenges of project management at every table, every day. 

Picture a restaurant where, front of house, they are short staffed, the service is not great, you can imagine the waiters biting their lip trying not to convey their sense of frustration. This was my experience tonight in a restaurant.

The sounds of crashing pots and pans and the smell of burning coming out of the kitchen.

The problem was compounded by the restaurant also being short staffed in the kitchen. The quality of food, as a result, was not great – that is, when it arrived! There was a 40-minute wait for food!

What did the team do?

They apologized, they offered a free drink.

The table behind me were not impressed. They had a child, and they had waited 40 minutes just for soup! They received no apology, they weren't offered sauces when their main course arrived, they weren't even offered a steak knife! The offer of a free drink was met by – "we just bought one."

Result: A disgruntled customer who probably won't be back and who may take to social media to complain!

My experience was roughly the same – a delay of 40 minutes for food that wasn't great when it arrived. The restaurant offered us a free drink and were totally transparent, apologized that there was an error with the system. Then, following my meal, a surprise!

"Sir, the problem is our fault and in our opinion not acceptable so there is no charge."

I double-checked, "No charge?"

"No charge!"

Result: Happy customer.

As project managers, what can we learn these experiences?

Consistency. Remember, these happened on the same night, parallel to one another but the customer experience was very different in each case. Each project or table should be given appropriate time and effort. In the instance of projects, of course, priority should be given to projects with strategic value and deadlines must be considered – the case of the restaurant both projects (or tables) were of equal importance so should have been given equal treatment.

Communication. To us, the restaurant was upfront about the delays. When projects hit problems PMs who communicate with stakeholders about delays and what course of action is being taken find that they are cut more slack in the future. The truth lands you in less trouble than lies and cover ups. 

Transparency. The restaurant was not only upfront about the delays, it was quick to take responsibility and "put their money where their mouth is" by backing their words and insisting on no charge for our meals. Throughout our experience, the situation was openly communicated – but it was not for our fellow diners. 

Planning. In IT projects, as in restaurant kitchens, you have to have the right staff in place to service your customers needs. Failure to do so risks your mission whether that's dishing up haute cuisine or integrating cutting edge IT into a legacy system. In project management, every skill and part of the process can now be bought in as a Service – even the process itself! If only "Chefs as a Service" was a thing!

Control. During my meal at the restaurant, I didn't feel that the staff were fully in control of the situation at any point, that is until the manager waived the charge. Without control, there can be no assurance of project success. Milestones need to be mapped and ticked off along the way whether you’re running a complex IT project or trying to ensure your meat and vegetables  are ready at the same time.

Task Management. Control is achieved by creating a task list, delegating work to appropriate individuals and managing their progress. Staying on top of your to-do list either comes naturally or you have to develop strategies to help. The restaurant was not in control of their task list that night and subsequently their "project" – my meal cost them hard-earned money!

Process. When you deliver "X" you must have a process in place that automatically offers the required "Y." You deliver a steak – you need to offer a steak knife. You deliver a new IT system – you need to offer training and support to those running it. 

Negotiation. It was interesting that when the offer of a free drink was refused the staff didn't seem to know what to do next – they were so sure that the offer would be accepted and all would be well that they didn’t have a Plan B. It's an often undervalued and overlooked project management skill that the best PMs have in abundance.

Leadership. In the heat of a busy kitchen or a key IT project, the difference between leaders and managers quickly becomes apparent. Project managers who improve their leadership skills find their motivational and communication skills develop organically.

Critical thinking. Essential to making good decisions. Consideration of the pros and cons of different solutions before selecting the best way forward. This is what distinguishes the habitual firefighters from the project managers who excel at managing issues. Critical thinking is like a muscle and the more you exercise it the stronger, more natural and more effective it becomes. The restaurant weighed up the pros and cons of waiving our bill but failed to act similarly with its other customer.

Quality control. Quality deliverables is all everyone wants – from stakeholders and sponsors to project teams and PMs. In the restaurant, it's the words 'compliments to the chef' and a huge tip left on a table, in your IT project it's on-time delivery, on budget completion and end user satisfaction. More project managers are now prioritizing quality management as a core skill. Those that do elevate themselves above their peers.

Retaining a sense of humor. Projects go wrong, meals get messed up. Retaining a sense of humor can diffuse a tense situation. Not sure if the other family in the restaurant were ready to see the funny side but my attempts to lighten the situation went over the heads of the flustered waiters serving that night. They needed to laugh about it - no-one died because my meal took forty minutes. Of course, most times you won't display to your client or project sponsor that you find humor in project delays but judging by the crashing of pots and pans the restaurant staff weren't laughing at the ridiculousness of their predicament behind closed doors either. Sometimes having a laugh can be like releasing a pressure valve and everyone is more effective afterwards.

Finally, the last thing that I took from my meal was that actually we're not alone.

And after that fateful meal I started to notice other professions wrestling with project management challenges – a train manager trying to keep a commuter service on time in terrible weather, a teacher trying to get the best out of a classroom whilst meeting the demands of paperwork, a nurse caring for a ward full of patients against a backdrop of health authority spending cuts.

Suddenly, I realized the whole world is in some way a project manager. It's just that some of us do it exceptionally well.

And that's what I learned. That ... and to get a free meal, go to an understaffed restaurant on a busy night.

Bon appétit.

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