Last week, I wrote about a powerful leadership lesson learned when my key project crashed and burned. People Equation reader Nancy asked about the lessons learned from that experience. Indeed, there were several. But first, the story of “The Institute”, the project that gave me both fits and gifts. . .
Years ago, I joined a Fortune 500, “100 Best Places to Work” company to work in their training and development department as a Program Manager. Three weeks after joining the company, I was assigned to manage a project called the Institute. The Institute was an annual, week-long conference that our company offered to the sales force of its distribution channel. Planning the Institute was an intensive, 10-month project. In addition to coordinating the week’s curriculum with 7 product managers, I also managed the conference planning (meals, facility tours, lodging, etc.)
When I joined the company, preparations for the Institute had already begun. That year, a decision had been made to go with a “Go Back to College” theme—complete with the experience of staying in the dorms. Yes, dorm rooms. What I didn’t know at the time was that Institute participants were a tough crowd, with more than its fair share of prima donnas.
Think about it:
Prima donnas + dorm rooms = very unhappy campers.
Yep, that’s one “people equation” that doesn’t add up. I questioned the choice and was assured that it would be OK and besides, the contract with the college had already been signed. I was new to conference planning and foolishly, I didn’t trust my inner Voice of Reason, which was screaming, “What professional wants to stay in a college dorm? Super bad idea!” Setting my reservations aside, I went along with it.
Boy, do I wish I had listened to my Inner Voice.
Even though we had publicized that they would be staying in dorm rooms, it was still a shock to the arriving conference participants. Things went from bad to worse as word spread throughout the conference about the ill-equipped accomodations. The anger built upon itself until nothing at the conference was acceptable: the cafeteria lunches were deemed “inedible”, the conferences rooms were “freezing” (or, “boiling hot”) and then there was The Train. As in, “Did you hear about The Train that runs right outside our dorm window in the dead of night? I’m nearly deaf from it!”
The rest of the conference went smoothly, but the unacceptable lodging cast a pall over the conferees’ overall experience. I spent much of the week doing damage control and trying to appease angry, disappointed customers. At the end of working an 80-hour week, I drove home, exhausted and demoralized.
So, what did the week from hell teach me?
- Trust your gut. There wasn’t anything to be done about the accommodations—the contract had been signed and there were limited facility choices for a group as large as ours. In hindsight, what I could have done was a better job of communicating the limited amenities and outlining the conference participants’ options. Instead, I foolishly, adopted a hopeful stance—“maybe it won’t be that bad.” Well, it was bad for many of the conference participants. If I had listened to my gut, I would have been more proactive in helping manage a non-negotiable feature of the conference that had huge implications for its overall success.
- Hard work doesn’t guarantee a successful project. I wasn’t the only one who worked hard bring the Institute to life. It was a true group effort involving at least 30 other co-workers, vendors and external instructors. I personally put in many 50 – 60 hour work weeks to get the conference up to speed. Still, even with all the preparation and hard work, it wasn’t the success it could be due to the next learning point:
- Get clear on who your customers are— all of them. Nearly every project has multiple “customers”; this was a point I didn’t consider fully. I had been assured that lodging the participants in the dorms would be supported because the owners of the dealerships were supportive. These were the business owners paying to send the sales people to the Institute. True, the dealership owners were happy because it cost less, but they weren’t the ones staying in the dorm rooms. I clearly didn’t understand the expectations of my other customers— the conference participants. They were used to being “wined and dined” and treated like V.I.P’s. Staying in a dorm room was not going cut it.
- It’s OK to fail. Big-time failure leads to better things. This was the first time in my professional career that I had failed so publicly. In the moment, it didn’t feel like there was anything positive about the Institute experience. In the years since the Institiute, I’ve learned that mistakes and set-backs can be instructive, if you let them. It’s easy to play the victim, dwelling on the bad rap you’ve been given. Truth be told, I spent the first couple of weeks having a pity party over the failure. Then, I slowly began to assess the project: what could I have done better? By objectively analyzing the project, I was able to improve it for the next time I managed an Institute.
- Perspective comes, but only after the pain has subsided. As we were cleaning up after the Institute had ended, I turned to our stalwart administrative assistant Lillian and groaned, “I’ve never been so glad to have a project be over with!” Lillian matter-of-factly, replied, “Well, sometimes projects just don’t always go the way you want them to.” I was taken aback. Lil and I were good friends and she is a very kind person. Couldn’t she feel my pain? Didn’t she stand right next to me while people ranted and raved about the nasty room accommodations? Well, yeah she did. And, she had 25 + years’ life experience on me. Lillian knew that there could be much, much worse things that could happen in my life, so in her book, a failed work project wasn’t really all that much to get worked up about. At the age of 29, the botched Institute was a monumental deal to me. Today, not so much. But that perspective can only be gained with the passage of time.
These five learning take-aways have served me well over the years both personally and professionally. I would never advocate that someone botch a project just for the benefit of learning something. However, when something does go south, I wish for you the strength of self-examination and the support of wise people so that you may grow from the experience.
Readers, do you have an “Institute” of your own to share? What’s your list of “lessons learned” look like?