Sunday, September 19, 2010

Table manners and project management

Have you ever bitten off more than you could chew? That was my parents’ favorite metaphor for taking on a bigger task than you’d be able to finish.

When I was about ten years old, I learned what that meant – the hard way. My little brother and I were misbehaving at the dinner table, walking the line between what would earn us a scowl and what would earn us a beating. We had made up a game: Demonstrate what not to do at table. I decided I could win the game by taking a gigantic bite. I put half a slice of bread in my mouth all at once. My father glared down the table at me. “THAT was a piggish bite,” he said.

I was unable to answer. My mouth was so full, I could not bring my jaws together without having food come out of my mouth; and if that happened, I’d get the beating of my life.

I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

I knew my father would not let me excuse myself to go spit it out. I had to swallow it somehow.
What was I going to do?
  • I did not want a beating, so food must not come out of my mouth.
  • Food must not choke me to death.
  • The solution had to be implemented before bed time.
Those were the requirements, in order of priority.

I found I could work my jaws a little bit. Carefully, I began to chew. I swallowed a tiny bit. Chewing got easier. I swallowed a little more. Finally I was able to get through the entire wad of bread.

Since then I’ve made a habit of taking small bites when I eat. I still sometimes realize I've bitten off more than I can chew at work, though. Many of us do. Business realities mean there's often more work than people to do it. Partly this is my own reality; I choose to work for organizations that fit a certain profile, and the day I sign on, I've bitten off more than I can chew. I know this about myself. It's become a repeatable process for me:
  1. Realize I’m in trouble. (Can't chew!)
  2. Identify and prioritize the requirements for a good outcome. (How am I going to get through this?)
  3. Identify the actions that will fulfill the requirements. (Maybe I can chew a little.)
  4. Work through the list of priorities in order. (OK, this is working.)
  5. Deliver what I’ve got when the deadline arrives. (Done!)
The solution doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to meet the requirements that everyone agrees are the most important. I can do that every time. The key is to follow those five simple steps. I allow myself that moment of panic in the first step, and then get to work solving the problem.