In a past life, I produced and managed large conferences. When I first started this line of work, I had no idea it would teach me everything I needed to know about launching and running successful projects. The one conference in particular that taught me the most was a week-long conference for 350+ high school students from mostly Muslim countries that were part of a Department of State sanctioned exchange program (not your typical conference in any way, shape or form).
When I managed the first conference for these students, it was- for a lack of a better word- a shit show. The second conference was also a shit show. There were sleepless nights organizing flight information for students flying to Lebanon, missing documents required to take students to the hospital and so on and so forth. When the third conference rolled around, lots had to change. I took what I learned from the first two conferences and revamped the whole planning and onsite execution process. The next time you are launching any sort of project, there are a lot of key things to keep in mind, but this one will be vital.
Work with the right team
Having people in the right roles is downright essential to a big project’s success and preventing burnout. The right people can be a sounding board, a problem solver and frankly, a life saver. When you work with a team, you need to have the right amount of people that get the big picture, and the right amount of people that get things DONE. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it is what gets so many projects in trouble.
The big picture people
The people that understand the big picture have the job of keeping the integrity of the goals of the project uncompromised. It’s important that these people know the purpose behind the project and to be aware of all those goes into accomplishing the project- creatively and operationally. If one person can solely be responsible for that, great- but if not, they can be split into two roles: the “Creative” and the “Operations/Project Manager.”
How the big picture people work with the doers
When the role is split into two roles, the operations/project manager person functions as the one that makes sure all the right things get done and at the right time. They determine what other team members are necessary and oversee the project to completion.
They oversee the doers and work to give them proper context so they can do their job effectively. Proper context also serves to give the doers a sense of purpose so they aren’t simply just checking tasks off a list.
Sometimes, it makes sense for the project manager to be a “doer” too, as long as they are able to keep focus on the big picture. When they get sucked into too many details, THAT is when projects can go down the tube.
Back to the conference I managed as an example.
When I managed the conference the first two times, the staff was structured this way: Me—>30+ staff members (counselors)—> 350+ Students. The staff members acted as counselors and mentors to their group of 8-12 students.
The problem was that whenever a counselor had a question or issue with one of their students, they needed someone to handle it because they had the other students in their group to take care of.
The issue would always fall onto my shoulders to handle and before I knew it, I’d be working on 20 student issues simultaneously. The issues could be anything from: clarification on the student’s departing flight information, a lost room key, a health concern, etc, etc.
Working on these details pulled me away from the big picture of running the conference; Instead of ensuring that the next piece of programming would run smoothly, I was working on individual student concerns. Ultimately, this is what led to the first two conferences being such disasters.
What needed to happen, in this case, was that I needed other staff members (doers) that would play a different role- one where they would scale me and handle the issues I didn’t have the bandwidth for. After learning my lesson from the first two conferences, I created a role called the Operations Coordinator. There were five Operation Coordinators and each had 5-7 counselors that were assigned to them.
In order to make sure the OC’s did their job properly, they needed context so they were given a separate training. They learned: how to access the database that stored all the students’ information, about the frequent issues that could come up with the counselors and about concerns that the students face as exchange students. All of these things gave the OC’s context so they had all the tools and knowledge to do their job.
When the third conference rolled around, it was the five OC’s that saved me and held the conference together. They handled whatever student issue came their way from their assigned counselor.
They were responsible for many other things, including overseeing their own bus for the field trips where they would lead all their counselors and students to and from the designated locations. Before, it was me trying to lead all the counselors and 350+ students on my own- eek!
The OC’s were able to be problem-solvers in ways I was not able because they had the capacity to absorb and understand the issues and how to best handle them in the moment.
With the OC’s in place, I was freed up to manage the overall programming and major crises (like when over 100 of the student’s flights back to their home country were canceled due to a technical glitch with an airline that will remain nameless. I still get nightmares about that one).
I still was the “doer,” meaning I set up the systems and organized the information for the OC’s to do their job properly, but when it came time for the onsite execution of the conference, the OC’s were vital to the conference running successfully.
When you work on any project, think through these questions:
The Big Picture people: Are there Big Picture” people in place that understand the purpose and goal of the project – from both a creative and operations standpoint? In the case of this conference, my boss was the creative person that crafted the curriculum and the program of the conference. My role was to execute his vision for this conference.
The Role of the Big Picture People: When you have the Big Picture people in place, what is their capacity to hold the intention of the big picture and not get sucked into the details? Does this person have the capacity to take on some aspect of the details? If the big picture person can’t handle all the details, what sort of systems can they setup for the ones that will get the remaining work done?
The Role of the Doers: Once it’s determined at what capacity the Big Picture person can take on the details what are the right roles that need to be put in place for the others to get the remaining work done? What sort of context and training does the big picture person need to give these people so they are setup for success in their role? How do they collaborate with others that are also the “doers?”
I hope these questions and my real-life example help your next project to not go down the tube. Have the right team and systems in place and your next project/product/endeavor launch will be a huge success. In future posts, I will share other things I learned from managing this behemoth of a conference. Happy project planning!
Update on 8/29/13: Read Part II here.