How Project Management Can Be Like Playing Cards.

So much happens in a project manager’s day that sometimes it’s easy to get distracted from what’s important. In hindsight, the distractions are often no more than things that create a false sense of busy-ness.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by feeling busy but not actually getting the important stuff done, the following article is for you. It highlights areas we get distracted by and calls out areas that a successful project manager should be focused on.

The end of the year is a great time for family and friends to get together, and our house is no exception. Each room is filled with people visiting from near and far, and while adults don’t mind sitting around for hours and talking, there are always those moments when one of the kids will say, “Hey, who wants to play Spoons?”

A pile of spoons is put in the middle of the table, exactly one less than the number of players. Each person is dealt four cards, and the rest are placed in a stack. The goal of the game is to be the first person who has four of a kind. The dealer picks up the first card from the pile, and decides if he wants to keep it or send it on to the next player. Players keep taking turns until one player has four of a kind.

The moment a player has four of a kind, that’s when the real game begins. He grabs a spoon, the signal for everyone else to grab a spoon as well — and quickly. Remember, there is one less spoon than there are players, so the person that doesn’t have a spoon in their hand is out.

Yelling is only half the chaos of the game in our home; nails have scratched the table, spoons have flown across the room and people jump out of their chairs. The game continues until it comes down to the winner, the last player left holding a spoon.

In between hands, people will share their strategies for winning. Some think it’s all about the cards. Some swear that keeping their hands placed strategically near the spoons is the best strategy.

Others use a multi-card approach that allows them to scan a ton of cards at the same time. One man doesn’t even pay attention to the cards at all…he is focused on the spoons so that his reaction is instantaneous. He knows that what really matters isn’t so much what is in his hand, but what’s on the table.

Brilliant! To him, the cards were an unnecessary distraction and he focused on what was important. Not surprisingly, he did well throughout the evening.

How often do we focus on the wrong things while engaged in project management? The following are some of the rules of the game that can keep us very busy, but aren’t as important as we think.

The Wrong Things We Focus On

Quite a few project management activities are wrapped in Focusing on the wrong things the pseudo-importance of tools and processes. These are activities that feel important but, in the grand scheme of things, really aren’t.

E-mail — How much time do you spend on email each day? I bet a lot — at least a couple of hours. Admit it; it feels good to come to work and see all the messages that came in overnight. We audibly complain about the mountain of email we must sift through, but deep inside we’re thrilled. It allows us to sit at our desk, sip our coffee, look busy, and feel a shallow sense of accomplishment. “Ahh, that’s better, I just clicked through 102 emails. That was some tough work,” we tell ourselves. It’s like the sugar rush you receive after eating a lot of candy. It gives us a whole lot of energy for a little while and then leaves us feeling empty.

Paperwork and Administrivia — A close second to email is getting bogged down with paperwork and administrative tasks. These include submitting reports, filling in timesheets, completing expense reports, and other non-value add activities that sometimes expand to take up inordinate amounts of time. We’re not saying that these activities aren’t important. You need to get reimbursed for what you spent on behalf of the company. Just don’t let these activities suck too much time out of your day and delude you into thinking you’ve done something productive.

Meetings — Some companies are what I call meeting happy. It’s as if one person can’t make a decision without dragging five or six other people into a meeting to discuss it. Not only do meetings cost the company time, but they are also literally expensive. For argument’s sake, let’s say the average salary of everyone that attends a meeting is $70K. That is roughly $35/hour. If you have an hour-long meeting with five people, it costs the company $210. Could you have made that decision on your own and let everyone else spend their time more productively elsewhere?

Process Overkill — Another area that can distract us from what is really important is undue and unnecessary processes. These may be processes that someone else set up, or they may be self-inflicted. Sometimes people, departments, and even companies will follow process blindly for process’ sake, losing sight of the very reason the processes were started.

It reminds me of a lady that always cut two inches off each side of a beef roast before putting it in the pan. Someone asked her why she did this and she really did not know. It was something her mother had done, and her mother’s mother. When they dug a little deeper, it was determined that the grandmother made the roast smaller because she could not afford a pan big enough to fit the entire roast! Times and circumstances changed, but this process endured through generations.

Email, meetings, paperwork, and process can keep us very busy if we are not focused and sensible about the time they consume. They can ultimately distract us from what is really important…the spoons!

The Right Things To Focus On

What you should really focus on is what is going on Focusing on the right things with the spoons in the middle of the table. Whose deliverable is inching closer to completion. Who is shifting their schedule to free up time for other projects? Who is fidgeting when you ask for a status report? Focus on the following spoons as a project manager and you will find yourself a winner every time.

Is the Project On-Time? Rather than reading email in between every possible task and attending unnecessary meetings, head out to the front lines of the project. Meet with the people responsible for executing on the deliverables. Get a real feel for the status of the project. Ask them what obstacles are preventing them from delivering on time and spend your time removing those obstacles.

Is the Project Within Budget? Review the project’s financial reports. Is it proceeding according to plan? Are you on track as it relates to labour hours and expenses charged against the project? If not, this is an important area to focus your time and attention and reign things back in.

Is the Project Still Relevant? You should always keep focused on whether the project is still relevant within your company. Projects that take a long time to complete sometimes fall out of grace.

Company strategy changes in the middle of the year and a project that takes a year to complete may no longer be the golden child. It is not that the project should not be completed eventually; it’s just that you may need to be reminded of how important it is to the company at this moment in time. Your attention may need to shift towards the next great thing the company is working on.

Are the Stakeholder’s Happy and Informed? Happy and informed are mutually exclusive. You may have stakeholders that are happy, and those that are not happy, but they are informed. It’s your job to make sure your stakeholders are up to speed with all aspects of what is going on with the project, including bad news. The last thing you want is to surprise someone with bad news and have them say that this is the first time they heard of such a thing.

The game of Spoons is a lot of fun if you stay focused amid the chaos and friendly competition. Project management can also be a blast if you do not get distracted by all the moving parts around you. Stay focused on those things that really make a difference!


Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store