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Leader's Edge One Bite at a Time

No matter what your appetite for a project, you must still carve it up to complete it.

By  Julia Kramer

The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. We all know the old adage, but how many of us follow this advice when managing a mammoth project?

Whether you’re tackling a huge new assignment, making a monumental change, or otherwise surmounting the insurmountable, do you slice the elephant into manageable bites for your staff, or do you serve it all up at once? Portioning out small bits and pieces is more appetizing and less overwhelming, but save that for step two.

First, let the elephant take a turn in the center ring. A little drama never hurt anyone, and launching a project should be an inspirational event. Make sure you not only present the big picture but that you describe the scope of the project, your expectations and the value that this project will bring to the organization.

Give people the time to look it over trunk to tail, evaluate, question, express their concerns and generally take it all in. You’ll find that displaying the full scope of the project creates a common goal, makes each separate task more meaningful and promotes teamwork.

Once you’ve shown the staff the beast, get out the carving knife and dissect the project into logical parts. This could be as simple as identifying a beginning, middle and end, but more likely there will be parts that get accomplished concurrently, some that overlap and some that have to wait until resources or staff become available.

Make sure the cuts are clean and clear—any jagged edges or murky boundaries will result in a lack of clarity and possibly conflict. To avoid confusion, many managers make lists, use a Gannt chart or other timeline, or create visual diagrams much like a hierarchical organizational chart.

Who wants what? Nothing is more unsatisfying than being given a turkey leg at Thanksgiving when you prefer white meat. For maximum buy-in and productivity, and assuming your staff is skilled and competent, ask them which piece of the project they’d like and try hard to assign it to them. If two or more people request the same thing, sit down with them and lead a conversation based on their current workload, unique skills and abilities, and other relevant qualities. Build a team-based approach by letting them come to their own decisions rather than stepping in like a controlling ringmaster and making the decisions for them. Once everyone’s been served, if there are parts left over, delegate those remaining morsels. Most staff will find it palatable to be given a task they really want along with one they’re not so keen on.

If your staff is lean, mean and hungry, you may have to help them with portion control. Competitive types and those that think they can do it all may bite off more than they can chew. Make sure that you watch for this type of overindulgence by keeping to your original project and delegation plan. Those who are skeptical, disengaged or less energetic may not come to the table with much of an appetite. Encourage them by suggesting assignments that suit their strengths and satisfy their interests. As the project moves from planning to execution, check in with the staff on a regular basis to ensure that their plates are full but not overflowing. If things are out of balance, reassign tasks or put resources to faltering areas. Encourage your staff to let you know when they need help and when they become available to help others.

Finally, once everyone has cleared his or her plate and the elephant is but a memory, sit back and enjoy the feeling of satisfaction and camaraderie that comes with a job well done. Give your staff some time to relish the experience, talk about the details and thoroughly digest what they’ve accomplished. You may experience a period of downtime or reduced productivity. Expect this and certainly don’t think your staff is resting on its laurels. They’ve worked hard and met your expectations. They deserve to take a breath, to get away physically and mentally so they can recharge their batteries. After what you consider an appropriate amount of time, whet their appetites again by beginning conversations about exciting times ahead.

Smart managers know that project management and/or achieving a goal of any type is a combination of managing the work and managing the people doing the work. Planning the work necessary to reach the goal is the easy part. Make the people part just as easy by communicating the big picture and then breaking it down into small, manageable mini-goals. Include your staff in planning and allow them to select their role in the team effort. Manage resources along the way to ensure that the workload is balanced and that everyone is carrying his or her weight. And once your goal is achieved, take a pause and let everyone sit, fat and happy, to reflect on the fact that it is indeed possible to eat even the biggest elephant if you do it together, one bite at a time.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.


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