A few weeks ago, I wrote the first part of my experience in managing a 400 person conference and what it taught me about project management and operations. The first part talked about having the right people on your team (love my OC’s!). This next part will talk about the principles that helped me keep order with almost 400 students from 20+ countries and 40+ staff members.
The principles are: simplify, standardize and centralize.
You will have many moving parts and pieces of information while you are working on any project. In order to keep details from falling through the cracks, look for how you can implement these principles.
When I took over the conference the first time, something frustrated everyone that took up more time than was necessary. I would get a request like this:
“Hey Louise, can you find my student, Mohammad’s, return flight information?”
I would have to comb through multiple spreadsheets and sometimes have to ask the counselor to clarify the spelling in order to make sure I found the correct student. This was partly due to the lack of tools I had to organize the students’ information (more on that later) but it was also because the students had complicated names than I and the rest of the staff were not used to. Some names were also very similar to others, which created further issues. This seemingly simple process frustrated everyone and took up precious time that none of us had.
Another challenge this created involved organizing the students’ passports for two separate events: into their counselor groups for a field trip and into their departure flight groups. Again, because the students’ names were so complicated and/or similar, it would take a long time to organize and reorganize the passports. The potential for error was also huge.
Solution: I created a simple numbering solution that solved this issue and minimized the chance for error. The students were split up into 32 groups and each group was assigned a counselor. I alphabetized the students by last name in each group and would assign them a number based on that group. An example for the students in Group 1 would be: 1A, 1B, 1C, etc. This created a much more streamlined process to identify the student.
The counselor could give me the number of the students they needed information about and I could find it quickly. I printed the number on the students’ names badges and I could remember the number of each student much easier after speaking with them, rather than remembering their name (may I repeat that there were almost 400 students?).
When we organized the students’ passports I had my wonderful OC’s place a sticker with the student’s number on the passport. This made the passport much easier to identify at first glance. This system made it much easier to organize the students into their travel groups. For example, the Pakistan travel group could contain students from multiple groups. The students in that travel group could be 3C, 3E, 10A, 10F, 12C, 13B, 15C, etc. Rather than opening up each passport to check very carefully that they had the correct student, they could find it by the sticker on the front instead. This was a much quicker process and minimized the chance for mistakes (and potentially sending a student to the airport with the wrong passport-eek!).
Questions to ask: Where can you simplify your project? Where you can take something that is complicated or confusing and make it as simple as possible? How can you accomplish something with fewer steps, words or moving parts? How can information be easily broken down so that it is simpler to digest and use?
When I first started working on this conference, there was no way to predict all the possible issues that could come up. And boy, were there issues. We didn’t have procedures put in place to standardize how situations were handled. Every time an issue came up, we had to scramble to solve it. If the problem happened multiple times, we didn’t have a system to make sure it was handed the same way each time.
After experiencing the many challenges from the first conference, I created procedures that handled any possible issue I could think of. These were procedures like:
What to do when a student needs to go to the hospital.
What to do when a student loses their room key.
How to handle travel issues at the airport.
When to allow students to use the office phone.
These processes were documented for the OC’s to carry out and implement. It created order because it standardized how issues were handled each time they came up. The OC’s were empowered to handle a situation because they had the right tools and training.
Questions to ask: Where can you standardize your processes? What should be documented so that when it happens multiple times you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time? Can you create a template that can be replicated so that it can be used in one or more situations?
Managing the data of almost 400 high school students from over 20 countries is not a simple task. The first two conferences, we didn’t have a sufficient way to manage the data and we had 10+ spreadsheets to lay out information for flights, their home countries, their groups, their assigned rooms on campus, etc. It was a mess.
Before I brought on the OC’s, I was also the only one that had access to all these files and information. It was very difficult to delegate if I needed help (and boy, did I need help!). It is impossible to work with a team when you are the only one that has access to information.
Solution: What I needed was a database to store ALL the information about each student. I could pull information I needed from one place (and not 10+ spreadsheets).
Let’s say I needed to know all the students who were riding in Bus 7 that were also from Yemen. I could pull a report easily from the database. This was not possible when I had to sort through 10+ spreadsheets and copy and paste. I used a free CRM tool called Zoho to organize the database of students.
To make sure I wasn’t the only one that had access to pertinent information, the OC’s had access to the database. I also stored the documents they needed, their assignments and the procedures in the cloud. I used Google Docs and Dropbox to manage this. These are all highly recommended tools!
Questions to ask: Where can you centralize information? In business and projects, this means something like a project management/virtual office tool that has all the tasks and files for your whole team. Everyone on the team that needs it should have access to this tool. What sort of information can you get out of your head and/or documented in a place so that others have access to it so you can potentially delegate (yay!)?
Phew! These principles will serve you well the next time you launch your project. Much of this work will need to be thought out in advance. Don’t wait until the project is running to figure these things out! Trust me- you will be glad you did.
What about you? Do you have a project that you need help thinking through these principles? Leave me a comment here or shoot me a tweet, or email and let me know how I can help.
Now go rock that project!