Being Operated On

September 2, 2007 by
Filed under: People, Project management, Teamwork 

Have you ever felt like an outsider on a project? Like you are being operated on rather than participating with everyone else?

I’m in the final stages of writing a book, a project that has already taken 18 months. For the first 17 months it has been, for the most part, a lonely journey. Long periods of time as the sole participant, with periodic interjections of review feedback and a few contacts with the editorial staff to ensure I was on schedule (or at least close to it). Then, a couple of weeks ago, the publisher had what they call their Release to Production meeting: the point where they determine that it’s time for them to drive, to take over the schedule and bring the book to market.

Initially, this felt great, almost like they finally believed this book would come to fruition, and they could commit resources without risk. One morning, though, I woke up with a strange feeling, a sort of deja vu. It took a while, but I realized where I had that sensation before. It was a few years earlier, when I went into the hospital for surgery.

The ailment had been bothering me for quite some time (looking back, the flashes of pain eerily corresponded to the review feedback for the book), but the remedy was still something that our strained medical system categorized as elective surgery, so there was no commitment to schedule. I was to be fit into the queue when there was an opening, or more likely when the situation escalated beyond the ‘elective’ stage. Finally the day arrived, what I would call the equivalent of a Release to Production point.

The system took over. I was poked and prodded Suddenly I was surrounded by more people than I could imagine. Forms to fill, blood tests and interviews. It was more than 18 hours between when I entered the hospital and when I was in for surgery, so there was time to think and wonder about what was going on, how many people were actually involved behind the scenes. The questions I asked were given perfunctory responses, deeper probes for information fell into a black hole. They were all busy, to be sure, but the important thing was that they were all busy dealing with far more cases than mine. I was a minor part in their day, another routine case with nothing particularly interesting to elevate it above all the others. Regardless of how I felt about the issues, or how personal this was for me.

The same thing is going on now with the book. After having only a couple points of contact with the publisher, I now have the names of almost twenty people with all kinds of roles, and I know there are many more beyond that. More forms to fill out, and some of my queries seem to get lost in the shuffle. I know they have many books in production at any point in time, and have no illusions that my title is anyone’s core focus for any length of time. I have learned to be assertive in my queries, and to do what I can to ensure I still play an active role in this project. There is no morphine or general anesthetic here, but fortunately there isn’t the same kind of pain in this case, either.

In both cases, it is interesting to watch the factory in motion. Efficient systems built to process high volumes of product, it would be horribly inefficient to take the time to focus on any one case. It is a different level of perspective, and though individuals being processed through the system may disagree at times, it does tend to achieve its goals. I recovered from surgery, I know the book will be completed as well (mark your calendars for early November – as Jerry Weinberg told me recently, it is never too early to start marketing…).

It is still difficult, though, to put so much effort into a project and reach a point where control has been taken away. It is not the loss of control so much (frankly, I’m glad someone else was wielding that scalpel), but the loss of visibility into what is happening. I like to know what is going on, both to better understand how the system works, and for the possibility that I might actually be able to contribute in some way if I possess that understanding.

One more tie between the medical world and projects in general.

I think we have a great family doctor. While the diplomas on the wall of his office don’t tell me if he was first or last in his graduating class, what sets him apart is that when I’m in his office, his focus is on me. His empathy is spectacular. If one of the kids is sick, he will call in the evening to see how things are going. Regardless of how many people are waiting, he takes the time to explain what is going on, and he doesn’t treat me like an imbecile. We have a two-way discussion, I don’t get a lecture.

As a result of all this, he benefits as well. I would guess that this focus and empathy makes the job more interesting than writing prescriptions or taking vitals, though that same empathy can make the job more painful at times. More importantly for me, the more informed I am about what is going on, the better equipped I am to provide him with precise information so that his diagnosis is accurate. The better I understand the tradeoffs between different modes of treatment, the more likely we are to agree on an approach that meets all of our needs. Everybody wins.

Back to projects in general. Even when you are working on a project where you are ‘the expert’ and it would appear expedient to simply forge ahead, don’t ignore the concerns or insights of others around you. There is value in empathizing with the needs of others, and often you will find that deeper collaboration will provide stronger ties, better insights, and a more rounded solution. Others will not feel left out, and I would suggest that some of the most effective experts around are those that have the greatest capacity for soliciting and processing a broad range of perspectives.

With an inclusive approach on projects, everybody wins. – JB

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