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