Project Practitioners > Will Work for Peanuts

Will Work for Peanuts

By DeAnna Burghart

Sometimes you hear a chance remark that captures a completely unrelated sentiment. I had that experience recently on a commuter flight, listening to the flight attendant try to reset the expectations of her catering supplier. We don't often give a lot of thought to the coordination these people do (the flight attendants or the caterers either one). It's project management in a nutshell—each flight is its own little project, subordinate to the overall project of that day's flights.

In this particular case, delays were stacking up all over the coast, and our little commuter flight was delayed by 30 minutes; not really all that terrible, but a little unnerving when you have a late afternoon flight into an airport with a curfew. We were all getting a little antsy—the flight crew included—and were eager to be on our way. The caterer insisted on taking a hurried galley inventory while the pilots ran through their pre-flight checklist and the passengers hustled to their seats. The caterer mentioned several small items that needed restocking: we were low on napkins, ice, and some of the drinks, and there were no snack packages. We all know just how much we treasure those little bags, right? He kept saying he needed just a few more minutes to round some up, and the flight attendant kept telling him no, no don't worry about it. "I don't want to delay over this stuff. It's not worth it." The caterer hurried off to try to find it anyway. The attendant noticed that some of us had overheard and said, "I hope you don't mind. We don't have a few things, but I don't want to delay the flight any longer. Especially not over peanuts." We all got a good laugh out of it. None of us could have cared less about the peanuts at that point; we were tired and the flight was already late, and we just wanted to go home.

Meanwhile, the caterer was very focused on living up to what he thought was important (for him, of course, it was) and came rushing back just as they wanted to withdraw the gate, to apologize profusely that he had managed to procure the napkins and ice, but he hadn't been able to find peanuts. "I told you not to worry about it," she said. Her voice was completely pleasant, but with perhaps the slightest tinge of impatience to it? "It's fine. We're all ready to go here, and we just want to push back. Thanks for trying." And they pushed back.

I think they turned that flight around in record time—we were actually taxiing twenty minutes after they unloaded the previous flight. I was suitably impressed, as were most of the passengers around me. The caterer, on the other hand, obviously felt like he'd let us down. If he could have kept us at the gate another five minutes to hunt down those snack bags, I think he might have done it, with a smile in his heart and a lilt in his step.

The whole exchange struck me as a great metaphor: I don't want to delay this any more, especially not over peanuts. But, by golly, that was what he was in charge of. It's probably part of his metrics assessment; his entire world is circumscribed by peanuts. I'm sure it is a source of pride for him to make sure each plane is well provisioned when it leaves the gate. I wonder if he gets any credit at all for their on-time measurements or their gate turn-around? Makes the trade-off decisions a lot more complicated!

How many times have we done the same thing to our teams, by assigning lofty project goals and then measuring the production of peanuts? I will admit that from time to time I get so focused on serving up those little snack bags that I lose sight of the larger goal. Do you have a flight attendant on your project team reminding everyone to keep their eyes on the really important goals? If you've got team members whose worlds are circumscribed by the need to meet smaller, incidental metrics, are they getting credit for the big goals as well? Any of those things might help, but I think the key takeaway is to be sure that every member of your team is aware of the critical factors the customers are using to judge success. It might have nothing to do with peanuts!

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