Project Management Lessons from a Valentine’s Party

by Jennifer Miller on February 16, 2012

in Learning, Personal Effectiveness

This week marked the 13th holiday party that I have coordinated or helped run at my kids’ elementary school. I’ve done ‘em all—Halloween, Thanksgiving Feasts, Winter Holidays, Valentines.  It was indeed “lucky number 13” because I realized something on my drive home from school on Valentine’s Day this year:

planning and running a classroom party is akin to being a project leader in the workplace.

Not convinced?

Read on and see just how you can turn those volunteer hours into a learning lab for your professional endeavors.


Personal influence is all you have to make it work. Let’s face it, as the Room Parent you have no real authority. The best you can hope for is that you have a reputation for organizing amazing parties for the kiddos and for being a fun parent to work with. Word gets around— the parents talk and your previous successes will help pave the way for future events. It’s the same for project managers; they have little or no title power. Project managers who use their influence wisely by leading with character and strong interpersonal skills will be the ones who have the most successful project launches.

Recruit the best team possible. This goes back to personal influence. If you’re seen as easy to work with and competent you’ll be able to attract the most talented people for the project. This is true whether you’re a Room Parent or Project Manager.


There’s no one “right” way to run a project. I’ve learned this by watching other Room Parents in action. Early on, I tended to privately scoff at parents who had a different organizational style than me. It’s easy to think that your own way of running the show is the best way. But the truth is, there’s more than one way to organize a classroom party and there’s certainly more than one way to run a company project. Be open to learning from other project managers.


Not all wheels need reinvention. One of the things I’ve learned in planning holiday parties is to take a really successful game and tweak it slightly so it seems different the following year. Rather than starting from scratch on each activity, it allows me time to focus on re-tooling the things that didn’t work the time before. In today’s corporate environment, there’s such a huge emphasis on innovation, it’s tempting to re-imagine every single thing, every single time. That’s not productive.


In the end, it all boils down to satisfied customers. With school parties, it’s very simple: did the kids have fun?  Of course, with project management, it’s much more complex, but the core is the same—did the project outcomes satisfy the customer? During the first few parties I organized, I used to fret about non-essential things.  I worried, was the event organized enough? Did everything come together perfectly? At some point, I finally realized what the core purpose of a school party was—to entertain elementary aged children. Once I got past that, I was able to let go of the extraneous stuff. In the same way, project managers who focus on their stakeholders’ needs are able to keep a balanced perspective of what needs to be done and can set the other “stuff” aside.


So the next time you’re asked to organize a gathering (kids’ party or otherwise), consider saying “yes”. Here’s why: not only will the party-goers have a great time, but you’re building your professional skills as well.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Beth Kelly February 21, 2012 at 9:48 am

It’s so true! Skill development happens in unusual venues. I’ve learned over the years that keeping a family running smoothly (or organizing a book club or bowling league for that matter) is a great predictor of organizational ability. Thanks for the reminder!

Jennifer Miller February 21, 2012 at 12:43 pm


Welcome to The People Equation! I love it when my IRL colleagues show up at my blog site. It’s encouraging to hear an HR professional like you support skill development in non-work venues. If only *all* HR people reviewing resumes would look at the full complement of skills that a potential employee has to offer. . .

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