Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Collaboration lessons from my grandfather

I studied computer science in college and started off as a programmer, but gradually moved into the role of a project manager.  Partly because I was curious to know more about the customers and their needs.  And partly because I seemed to have a knack for seeing red flags and opportunities (yes, those usually go together) where others didn’t.

So now, I’ve worked as a collaboration professional for 17 years, but it’s only recently that it dawned on me where I got that knack from.  When I was 9 years old, I started helping my grandparents at their sheep farm.  We always seemed to be shepherding (also called a roundup).  

My grandparents working on their sheep farm in 1967
There were roughly three different sizes of a roundup: The smallest ones were daily roundups during spring and fall. The sheep would be let out of the barn in the morning to graze in the fields near the farm and then brought back in the evening.  This was also every kids training ground for the next step. A few miles from the farm on a steep mountainside, there was a corral (a big fenced area) about two miles wide.
Once the lambs were old enough, the sheep and their lambs were moved to the corral. They were kept there for a few more weeks. Then they were sheared. Then they were moved up to the free range pastures in the mountains until the fall. That's when we had the biggest kind of shepherding which was done on horses, not on foot as the smaller ones.

1. Communication is essential.  
The thing about teamwork is that without communication, there is no team, no collaboration, just a bunch a people pulling in a random direction.  When we were shepherding the corral to shear the flock, my grandfather would give us the basics:  Oldest kid goes highest, and the rest of you line up below to make a horizontal line.  Once everyone is in position, you move across the corral, zig-zagging the mountainside to bring the sheep down to the shearing pen.  Seems simple enough, right?  Well, the terrain is a mixture of moor, creeks and hills, so the idea of a horizontal line was hard to implement, especially when you couldn’t see everyone else.  So keeping the communication going was very important (usually involved a lot of yelling and cursing), otherwise you’d be out of sync with everyone else very quickly.  But what if you couldn’t see OR hear anyone?

2. Communicate without conversation.  
What that means, is that when you are unable to get in direct contact with your teammates, you should look for other ways to communicate.  Running across that mountainside, even though I couldn’t see the people next to me, I could usually see the person that was at the bottom of the mountain.  If that person was hanging back and watching the people between us (but out of sight from me) I knew I had better hang back too...unless I got a hand signal, a wave that meant: “No, you should carry on, even though I’m waiting for the people between us to catch up”.  

We often assume that communication needs to be direct, face-to-face conversation.  We tend to think that a conversation is safer, that it’s the best way to avoid a misunderstanding.  But sometimes that conversation simply isn’t possible, at least not right away.  So every message may not be as accurate as you’d like it to be, but when the team learns to communicate more frequently, everyone becomes better informed.  So long as you keep that communication flowing, you will make up for any inaccuracy.  

3. Approximate and adjust.
Speaking of accuracy.  Too often we tend to aim for the crystal-clear, definite precision.  The 100%.  This may seem like a noble goal to aim for, but let’s not forget that perfectionism isn’t just misleading, it can actually be unhealthy and has been linked to fear of failure, procrastination and low self-esteem.  By aiming for the 100%, you’re setting unrealistic standards.  Am I thereby advocating no standards at all or to accept low quality of work?  No, I’m merely saying that it is better to figure out your direction and checkpoints.  Once you reach a checkpoint, see if you need to adjust your direction.  Has something changed since you last checked your progress?  Perhaps you have more information, information that is now more accurate than when you started.  So you adjust your emphasis accordingly.

The thing about shepherding is that once you get the flock moving, it’s easy to guide them in the right direction, as long as you keep them moving.  Say you had 250 sheep in that corral, naturally your plan was to get all of them into the shearing pen.  But you’ll settle for anything over 230.  Because in such a tricky terrain, you had to choose:  Do I have time to check every possible spot that’s out of my view?  Or am I risking that a gap will open up and the whole flock will come storming through?  Maybe there are some sheep hiding out of view, but how many?  Less than 7? OK, we can live with that.  More than 20?  Well, you’re gonna have some explaining to do once you reach the sheep pen.

4. Know your risks and learn how to handle them..
Sometimes you have to make decisions based on the unknown, but you should at least know your unknowns.  Sounds confusing?  It turns out that there are known risks that are common to any project, regardless of size or subject matter.  A study by PM Solutions gives a good overview of the top 5 causes of troubled projects.  I’ve already mentioned the one about unclear requirements.  It took me a while to figure out my grandfathers unspoken requirement of balanced risk and a successful outcome: “Yes, it’s better to miss a few sheep, as long as you don’t open up a gap in the line so we lose control of the flock and have to start all over again.  In this weather.”

Other risks mentioned in the study are lack of resources and resource conflicts.  Maybe I’m right on track but my rather inexperienced team mate isn’t.  Can I really trust those hand signals?  Well, my cousin is only 5 years old and kinda scared of the sheep, poor thing.  In order to help her, I need to risk opening up a big gap and have the whole operation fall to pieces.

The study also describes the top 5 actions that can be taken to recover a troubled project:

Of course I had a lot more lessons to learn from my grandfather, but these are some that turned out to be very helpful in my professional life.  How about you?  Do you have a similar story of transferring lessons in one setting to another?  Please let me know in the comments below.

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