Tips and Tricks

Project Management and the Art of Herding Cats

“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

My experience of working with globally distributed, multistakeholder, volunteer communities as something of a project manager has taught me a few things.

Project Management: tl;dr

The short, short version:

  • Time zones suck. There’s no way around that. Plan for duplication of information so that you can respect time zones.
  • Give up on the idea of doing things quickly but always remember that the work is important. It needs to happen. Be patient (but not too patient).
  • If it isn’t written down somewhere that stakeholders can get to it, it didn’t happen. Even if it is written down, if it’s not well indexed, it still didn’t happen.

Collaboration in More Detail

The somewhat longer version…

At the moment, I project manage about five (maybe seven) different collaborations. Those collaborations have a few things in common.  They exist across several countries, time zones, and organizations.  They are trying to do something that they can give (not sell) back to the world and they all take a really long time to get there from here.

Project management differs in the details from one contract to the next, but in all cases: I am responsible for varied (sometimes more, sometimes less) levels of coordination. I get to interact with many of the stakeholders and help define the processes that will allow them to get their work done.  ‘Done’ might mean published or “go-live” with software. It doesn’t actually matter what ‘done’ is, as long as the authors, developers, or stakeholders know they have had the opportunity to be involved.

Coordination Challenges

The coordination aspects are always a challenge for a variety of reasons. First, time zones might seem like an odd thing to put at the top of the list; but time zones are the very devil to work around. It took me a year or two, but now anytime someone suggests a conference call, my first question is “what time zones are the participants in?”  Sometimes that means we actually need to play the telephone game because it’s not reasonable to get the people from Malaysia to Amsterdam on a call at the same time.

Second, the more people are involved, the longer the work will take and the better a chance the work has to be broadly adopted. In fact, it will take longer than anyone expects it to. Contract holders do not want to hear that a project they think will take a year will likely take two, or that a software rollout will never actually complete (clients always want one more feature). Sometimes a best practice or technical specification, once set in front of the organizations that would need to follow it to make it “real”, will take a life of its own as it evolves to meet the reality outside the minds of the people that created it.

Third, you can coordinate the heck out of something, but if the decisions weren’t written down AND indexed so that someone could easily find them later, then it didn’t happen. You might well have to do it all over again. Meeting notes, especially ones made public, are great.  But let’s say the project extends from two to five years or more. How easy will it be to find the decisions made at the beginning of the project? Everyone will likely have their own indexing method (I’m still working on what will serve my groups most efficiently) , but if you do nothing else; (even if you expect the project to last only six months) make sure that the decisions made and the policies developed are easy to locate.

Wrap Up

And those are the essentials of cat herding… ah, project management for global, multistakeholder collaborations. The work is definitely worth it. The quality of minds and perspectives you can engage with at this scale are amazing. But, seriously, write it down. And index it.

Photo by Dietmar Ludmann on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “Project Management and the Art of Herding Cats

  1. Heather, your post on Herding Cats is great. What are the best indexing strategies to meet the challenges you outlined? Can you point to examples of effective indexing of decisions made in globally distributed, multistakeholder, volunteer communities? Thanks!

    1. Hi Emily,

      It’s a tricky problem, isn’t it! I’m personally trying to move for a stronger action/decision section in the notes I take for key meetings. At the end of the year, I can then create a report of “here’s what was decided and done, when” that will be much easier to review when I’m trying to find the details on when something happened, who was there, the context of the decision, etc.

      I hope that helps!

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