Monday, July 5, 2010

Lessons learned from my first "Doing the right thing" project

Sustainability, Social Responsibility and Charity are all used to mean the same thing - I'll use my own phrase, doing the right thing. When in projects, "Doing the right thing" can be much the same as any other project. But when you have people giving their work for free these projects acquire some specific characteristics that are worth while exploring. I just ended my very first "Doing the right thing" project and so it's a good time to make a balance and check what can be learned from it. My plan is to tell you what this particular project was, what we did, what went well and what could be done better the next time - that's called Lessons Learned, I've been told. This is a Project Management blog so the focus will be on Lessons Learned part. Hopefully it will be useful for you when you get a project with characteristics and features similar to these. I don't find these characteristics and features all that common but at least they can occur on some "Doing the right thing" projects as it happened in this case. And if that ever happens to you, well, you can use them.
Let me just add that charity is something that have always bothered me for the simple reason that it's the easiest way for someone to feel good about someone else's misfortune: you just write a check and that's it, you feel good because you've done something about it. At least that's the basic principle. And I think that in order to feel good you should work for it. This post is not about charity, it's really about projects that sometimes acquire some very different features from the "usual everyday stuff".
Are you wondering why I associated a lion's picture with a "doing the right thing" project? Keep on reading then...

Some context first
Some children have chronicle or terminal diseases. That's the kind of world we live in and we better get used to it. But. Some people take the time an effort to make their lives a bit better and make the lives of people that live around them (like their parents and brothers) a bit better too. This is not about money, as some of them are from high social-economic environments. It's just about kids and bad luck. And to get involved you don't just write a check and make a donation. You have to work face to face with the kids, parents, brothers and friends.
The basic idea is to get a small group of people making such a child's dream come true. This is done in the following steps:
  1. Find out who is close to the child, starting with his/her parents
  2. Talk to them in order to find (i) a way to approach the child and (ii) what his/her dreams might be
  3. Talk to the child to get 2 or 3 of his/her dreams confirmed
  4. Get approval for the dreams
  5. Make his/her dream come true

And our project was... take a 14 years old girl with some nasty disease to the Zoo. Surprised? So were we, but yes, it's possible for a teenager's dream to be as basic as going to the Zoo. I'm not sure if she has never been to the Zoo just because of lack of money but the fact is she never did go to the Zoo. And it was a natural dream for her because she loves animals and she has cats and dogs. But most of all, she loves lions. When we talked to her the first time her eyes shone when we got her to talk about what animal she loved the most - the lion.
We started last September and it took us over 9 months just to take her to the Zoo, she was already 15 when it finally happened. This was somehow justified by each member of our team, the point being that actions took much, much longer than in any normal circumstance to the point of almost despair.
Anyway, all is well when it ends well and this was the case. Going to the Zoo was a huge success and she enjoyed it very much. The highest moment was when we got there before the Zoo opened and our Zoo guide took us straight to the lions that were about to be fed. She immediately spotted 2 lion cubs which was a great unexpected bonus. We were with our Zoo guide and the lions' keeper and talked about the lions and the keeper's job at the Zoo. In short, all this made her feel special, not only by going to the Zoo, but mainly because she was able to see things and talk to people that weren't available to most Zoo visitors. I do think we made her dream come true and I'm pretty sure that she won't ever forget it.

Starting off with the Project Management stuff
The first thing I want to make explicit here is that this was not a project because it wasn't a continuous effort - it took us 9 months just to take this kid to the Zoo. Nevertheless there were some Project Management tools, processes and knowledge that we could use.
Differences from regular projects included the fact that all members of our team were doing this on free time exclusively which made progress a hard thing to accomplish. Even gathering the team in one place and one time was impossible most of the times. This was bad enough in itself, but actually seeing that getting some work done in the office was systematically more important than to take a kid with such a health problem to the Zoo that was hard to deal with. Projects don't deal with emotions as strong as this and in such a direct way. The other thing that working on free time does is that there is no way to set authority. On one side no one felt comfortable making pressure like asking if something was done as agreed; on the other side when I said I'd do something I'd know that I'd be excused if I didn't do it so things got to the point where I'd say I'd do something and then forget all about it! When that first happened I was kind of chocked with myself, I mean, I'm a better person than that but it actually happened. And I don't think I was the only one taking advantage of this lack of authority, even if not intentionally or on purpose.
But working for the good of someone else really gives you a good feeling. We knew we were doing the right thing and that was reassuring. I mean, the difference between actually doing something for a kid like this and writing a check for some institution that we think will use the money wisely for someone we don't know is really huge!
In short, this project was different from other projects because:
- it was not a project (big difference!)
- team members used only their free time for the project
- dealing with strong direct emotions
- lack of authority
- the "feel good" effect

Self organizing teams
The problems that Agile addresses are much the same as the ones found in these projects. In both cases there is a call for creativity, there is a path that no one is able to see so you have to keep on going and keep checking where you are and where you want to go and a complete lack of structure in any sense other than some very wide guidelines. In this particular case, our biggest problem was the lack of authority, the attitude of letting things go whatever way they were going with no worries. For instance, to give someone the responsibility to do something the Agile way is to let that someone assume in front of all the other team members that he's going to do that. It's a lot more difficult not to care about some task you assumed in front of other that you were going to do.
This works when people are together, which was not this case, we met from time to time only. So one other approach was to this virtually but some of us didn't use the internet on a daily basis so it was hard to find a way to do this. It would have been helpful if we took little some yellow papers, like the Scrum way, even if would have done it on some web application. I didn't mentioned before but there are no project managers on these projects so Scrum did come to mind.
Anyway, what I missed on this project was the lack of responsibility and initiative. Most of the time we would be waiting for someone to come forward and say he/she'd do something and that's what I'll have to fight harder the next time.

Information radiators
I believe this was our second miss, a way to let everyone know how we were doing. Again, it was a miss because (i) we were not together at the same place and (ii) some didn't use the internet on a daily basis. Next time I'll work harder on this too because it's something really important, it provides a very needed bigger picture, like the things I discussed on "Working for a better good". A sense of a bigger picture is needed and knowing where you stands is a must. Like feedback is, which I haven't talked here yet - but will sometime soon.

Everyone does good and wrong. The problem arises when you don't know if you're doing one or the other. Or if you can't talk about it with pinpointing someone and say "it's your fault". Somehow we had a hard time dealing with these issues. I'd definitely go for a honest and trustful attitude here but it was something we couldn't really do for reasons that should go on another post. The point being: look for what is going wrong (not who) and what is going well (and why).

This is a bonus, I mean it's something required but... it makes sense when you have people that are doing this on a regular basis. If they're better at it they can influence other people on doing it better also and it might work n some cases. I don't have much free time, but if I was going to do this on a regular basis I'd definitely want someone on my side helping me do it better. I'm a pretty good project manager and I know I went wrong several times along the way. If I had someone along the way with me pointing that out I'd me a much better team member on this project and, better yet, I could help other to be better at it. Unfortunately, I only realized these "wrong doings" sometime after they happened.

What we should keep doing
Not everything went wrong, sorry if it sounded that way. My main purpose with this post is to give you a warning sign to stuff you should look out for because they went wrong with me. But somethings went great, the main thing being that "our kid" had her dream come true! And let me tell you that it's something worth, no matter if there's no pay, no recognition or whatever. It pays by itself and it's so overpaid that you have to experience it for yourself to know. But to give some examples, when we interviewed "our" kid she was in the hospital for some treatments and something really good happened there: although our plan was completely broken by some good intended nurse we pulled it through very nicely. One of the rules of these projects is that it must be a surprise for the kid. This nice nurse didn't know that and so she asked the kid to think about something she really wanted to do so we could make that happen. When we got there and saw what she's done we kind of panicked but the team member who was with me started talking with her about the kids with same limitations she had and how we could help them overcome them and all of the sudden the dream was forgotten. And that did it, as simple as that.
One other thing that went particularly well was that all interviews were done in pairs and with people with different kind of mindsets, if you will, different takes on stuff. In the case of the interview I was talking about we planned for me to conduct it. But as the other team member did so well at the start she continued. And then eventually when she started stammering. That was when I stepped in and continued the interview normally. Until it was my turn to stammer and the roles reversed. It worked very well, really smooth.

In conclusion
Some of the Agile ideas are applicable in cases such as these, namely the ideas related to:
  • Self organizing teams
  • Information radiators
  • Retrospectives and
  • Coaching
 Don't be stuck on these but please keep them in mind when you have a similar project at hand. I do wish I had someone telling me about them when I started this last September but I didn't. I mean, how much hard can it be? To take some kid to the Zoo? Well, in my case it was 5 people and 9 months hard...
Keep this info in the back of your mind even if it's not useful for you right now because if you have such a project...
Then you can be a better Project Manager!

Images taken from National Geographic Magazine

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