Cocktail Napkin Project Management

Before there was project management software, desk-bound power bar lunches (and dinners), and every kind of cessation support group, there was lunch at a restaurant on payday, cocktail napkins (on which to rest the occasional cocktail), and shared fun – all in the middle of the reasonable work day.

What was so wonderful about these lunch time get-togethers was that they took place in someplace other than the workplace, and not always the same place. Looking back, I realize that those lunches usually involved:

– Teamwork (at least two of us in attendance)

– Decision making AND diversity (Italian, Chinese, or burgers – not to mention dessert, anyone?)

– Finance (Ann had the extra cheese, so her bill is $1.00 more)

– Dependencies (I’ll have what she’s having)

– Leadership (waitstaff instinctively knew the leader; s/he got the check)

– Reasonable risk (OK, I’ll have one glass of wine with lunch)

– Empowerment (I know what I want, I’ll order first while you make up your mind)

– Compromise (let’s share one entrée)

– Congeniality (we laughed – out loud – and enjoyed ourselves and each other)

– Measures of success (that was delicious, let’s do that again).

Sure, at least half of the lunchtime conversation centered on workplace gossip and life-outside-the workplace. Just as often, though, the topic turned to the one thing we all had in common: our work. Problems, now referred to as “challenges” or “opportunities,” were as common then as they are today, and sometimes dominated the hour (yep, a whole hour and maybe even an extra 15 minutes!).

And where one of us invariably saw roadblocks, rockslides, and stop signs, another of us saw side roads, detours, roads less traveled, and new roads to be built. Almost everyone had a freely-offered option or what-to-do-to-fix-it opinion.

The opinions and options were often good, and sometimes were written down so they could be remembered, brought back to the office, and implemented. Not every one carried paper and pen (after all, this was a pre-blackberry world, my friends), so we’d grab the nearest thing at hand – the mostly clean cocktail napkin and a BIC pen.

The cocktail napkin, that little 5 x 5 square that started out lunch somewhere between a tablesmock and a hard place (underneath the cocktail glass). Who knew it could become a vehicle for successful project completion!

With a few precious words or phrases and an occasional drawing scribbled on the napkin, lunch was happily and productively concluded. If it was a really big initiative or a particularly complex problem, it grew to a two-napkin project plan.

The idea-filled napkin went from tabletop to desktop, from thought to action. No planning meetings, committees or subcommittees, no vying for credit, and no trees killed. Oh, yes, and we went from work to home at a reasonable hour most of the time.

In today’s sterile (in my opinion, anyway) work environment, there’s little time for lunch, and even less time for fun. It’s all about power and speed. Funny thing is, there is no power in power bars, PowerPoint or show of power days. And, speed kills.

We’re asked to embrace teamwork, but there’s no team in the room at performance appraisal time. We’re told to think outside the box, but we’re more often rewarded for getting it “right,” than getting it different. In office, out loud laughter is a rarity (and an “LOL” text ain’t no substitute!!)

After all the leadership training, many of us are still more comfortable taking direction than making direction. We avoid accountability at the same time we claim credit. And we make no moves without a mostly pointless 50+ page PowerPoint presentation at the ready. Speak softly and carry a big “deck.” Sigh…

Project planning has moved far from the cocktail napkin to intricate, time-consuming, bell-and-whistle laden multi-megabit software. Project Managers are now certified, and add “PMP” on their résumé. All it takes is about 20 training days, and a few homework assignments; no real projects with which to get hands on experience. To paraphrase Three Six Mafia’s Oscar-winning song, it’s hard out there for a PMP!

More time is spent now managing the project software, monitoring tasks, and endlessly updating the plan than on the actual project work itself. There are pre-planning meetings, planning meetings, after (little) action review meetings, operations review meetings and get-our-story-straight alignment meetings. After which we submit our “accomplishments” lest someone else get credit. All the while we’re starving and cranky because we’ve not had any lunch or any fun, and the prospect of leaving work “early,” grows dimmer, along with the daylight.

It’s never been truer, in today’s work-mad world, that home is where the heart is. Why? Because there is precious little heart in the office or the boardroom, and the rest of our anatomy spends most of its time at work. Heart is left home alone, along with those whose hearts we profess matter most.

Here’s an idea: next time you have a planning meeting, bring a few clean cocktail napkins and throwback BIC pens (no PDAs, no anyberrys, no wireless laptops. You might even have the meeting in the corporate café, or nearby eatery. That way, you can have lunch, too. Keep the time to about an hour, 90 minutes at most. Spend the first 15 minutes talking about any and everything but work. Recall the sound of shared laughter. Then, kick around relevant ideas (the reason for the meeting in the first place), scribble them on the cocktail napkins, pay the check and return to the office.

Even better, get a box of cocktail napkins…then you can really think outside the box!

What’s the worst that can happen? You leave work at a reasonable hour feeling good about what you accomplished – and that you accomplished something workwhile? The trees will love you for it, too!

Can I offer anyone a cocktail…. napkin!?

Source by Ellen O’brien

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