Project Planning: The Pool Party Approach

“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”

Project Planning is to successful projects as Pool Parties are to summertime: a staple.  With pool parties you find a bunch of friends and family hanging around the grill, enjoying their cold beverage of choice, and sweating in the palpable summer heat.  All the guests were told this was a pool party.  Everyone side-eyes the refreshing pool, scratching at the swimsuit they wore under their shorts.  Everyone knows they will feel so much better once they take just a quick dip in the pool.  The host has even told everyone to feel free to enjoy the pool at their leisure!  There is nothing holding anyone back.  Except you know, even though everyone is prepared for the pool party, no one wants to be the first one in the pool.

Between my career in Restaurant Management and my time in the Oregon State University’s Computer Science program, I have been a part of a lot of different types of projects with many different types of teams.  Overall, I have been extremely lucky with my teammates.  I have had lots of teammates who are very talented, and I was able to grow from working alongside them.  Other teammates have been gifted leaders whose abilities left me in awe.  Others still, who were so creative in arriving at their solutions, I had to ask them how they got from point A to point B.

But.  One thing I have found to be more common than anything else in these teams, was trouble getting the project planning started.  Usually everyone on the team has had some time to prepare and think up solutions and approaches to whatever the problem we were all brought together to solve was.  But rarely does anyone want to be the first one to propose anything that is not immediately offered by the project leader or client.  

I don’t know if it is a culturally instilled sense of politeness that keeps us from speaking up.  Or if most everyone is naturally shier than I thought we were.  But I am empathetic to it.  For a long time I sat in the back of the classroom, never raised my hand, and never volunteered to go first in group presentations.  I always waited for someone else to start to share my ideas.  No one likes going first.

When I started working on more complex projects, and project planning became more and more important with less and less time to do it, I realized that this hold up was hindering our work.  We would eventually get to where we needed to be.  But there was wasted time in the beginning, waiting for everyone to wait for someone else to start the conversation.  So I started a more direct approach in my groups.  I was the first one in the pool.  

And it wasn’t even that I was just the first one in the pool.  As soon as the host greeted me at the door, I ripped off my tear away pants exposing my swimsuit underneath and ran hootin’ and hollerin’ through the party and did a straight cannonball into the pool (trying to get as many of the partygoers as wet as possible).  Now that the empty pool mystique was broken, it wasn’t long until everyone was comfortable jumping in the pool themselves!

“Except you know, even though everyone is prepared for the pool party, no one wants to be the first one in the pool.”

But what does that 10/10 first cannonball look like in a more project planning setting?  A lot of the time it can come off as enthusiasm.  I will show up to the first meeting for the group with an outline or rough draft of a project plan.  Before we even have a chance for that awkward silence to set in after we all introduce ourselves I have that plan in front of everyone, asking for feedback.  I KNOW that this plan is going to get reworked, even likely completely re-written.  But it gets everyone talking from the same starting point.  It allows me to rope in people with specialties as well.  “Michelle!  I know you are great with Machine Learning, do you have any thoughts on the algorithm section?”.  It also lets people get to their ideas faster, without waiting around for a more traditional slow build planning meeting.  “Does anyone know a better way we can store the data for the login server?”.  All in all, the goal is to break the ice, or in this case the surface tension of the pool.

After my initial cannonball entrance, as the pool becomes more filled with revelry, I myself settle into a nice back float.  I observe, contributing where I have something to add, but mostly letting the those in the pool dictate the pace of the party now.  Comfortably I get out of the water for awhile and grab a bite from the grill.  Because I know, now that the party has moved into the pool, it will be going strong all night.

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