Project Expert: Lessons Project Managers Can Learn from Gardeners

A project is like a garden. It requires nurturing your greatest asset: people.

My parents live in India and have kept a prodigious garden for four decades. During a recent visit, I spoke with their gardener about how he produces the abundance of flowers, fruits and vegetables. I realized that project managers can learn from what successful gardeners have known for centuries.

Each planting season, the gardener examines the ground to assess whether the soil is well suited for the planned crops. Occasionally, he has agriculture experts analyze a soil sample to identify which nutrients will bring the soil to top condition. This, he assures me, is one of the secrets to an abundant garden.

Similarly, project managers must perform capability assessments to determine team members' strengths and weaknesses. This should be followed by appropriate education and mentoring, which are the "nutrients" necessary to create a high-performing team. To nurture the crop, gardeners use fertilizer and water; for project managers, praise and support are these additives' equivalents. Without continual nourishment, a project team will wither.

Weed Out Pet Projects

During one conversation with the gardener, I asked, "Who decides what to plant?" "Your mom," he replied. "She knows which vegetables are better grown in the garden and which ones are better to buy from the market." Then he added, smiling, "Ask your mom about the lettuce fiasco."

When I asked her about it, my mom said she now supervises the gardener strictly; last year, almost half the garden had been planted with lettuce. I had brought lettuce seeds to India, and the gardener wanted to impress his friends with the latest import from America. But lettuce isn't used in Indian cuisine, so it remained a mere ornament in the garden.

IT departments are guilty of similar behavior. IT ends up working on its own pet projects, and end users get left out of the decision-making process. The outcome: projects that no one wants. My recent assessment of a company's projects that are under way revealed that out of 73 active projects, 17 had no alignment with corporate strategy; the sunk cost exceeded $4 million. The lesson here is the need for management's vigilance concerning which projects get launched. Otherwise, pet projects will pop up like weeds.

Crops also need varying amounts of nourishment from sun, water and fertilizer. Too much, too little or the wrong timing can damage the crop. Likewise, a good project manager knows that team members need different levels of supervision and guidance. But I seldom see plans to develop individuals; employees often get packaged, not individualized, training. If a typical team's training is compared with a gardener's regimen, most project teams are malnourished.

Thin and Prune

Another lesson from the gardener: Be ready to thin and prune, or you'll end up with an overgrown garden and poor crop yields. Similarly, the project portfolio requires constant care, so be prepared to thin and prune nonperforming projects.

Finally, know when to harvest. If a project is implemented before it's ripe and without being fully tested and well documented, it will cause more harm than good. Tend your projects, be vigilant, monitor every weed and blossom, and your harvest may even be a bumper crop.

Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification. To comment on this story, email ProjectExpert@ciodecisions.com.

This was first published in December 2005

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