July 28, 2010

Lessons from One Week | One Tool – Part 1, Project Management

Three days into One Week | One Tool, I’m beginning to see that one of the nice things about running an NEH Summer Institute as a practicum rather than a classroom is that the organizers learn as much as the participants. For me, this week has reinforced and clarified an important set of related lessons about decision making, leadership, and team building in digital humanities. (I’ve learned some other lessons as well, and I’ll talk about those in subsequent posts over the course of the week.) As you can imagine, things are a little busy around here, so here they are in short.

  1. Snap decisions are good. When faced with a choice between A and B, it often pays simply to pick one and move on. It’s tempting to think that hours of study and deliberation will yield the “right” answer. But the truth is most project management questions don’t have right answers. Furthermore, no amount of research will insure that everyone will be happy with your decision. At the end of the day, some of your stakeholders or team members are going to be disappointed with your decision, and time spent purely in hopes that you can satisfy everyone is time wasted. Finally, no matter how much prior study and deliberation, decisions are always and inevitably made in the moment. Put another way, the moment of decision always involves a snap judgment. You’ll never know if the decision you’ve made is a good one until after you’ve made it. Bottom line: when faced with tight deadlines, do just enough research to understand the consequences of A or B, pick one, and then deal with those consequences.
  2. Leadership is momentum-making. It may seem obvious, but the job of a leader is to move people forward. To keep people with you have to be constantly in motion. This is the importance of snap decisions. People will forgive a leader a bad decision. They can’t forgive indecision. Like a ship, leaders create a wake that pulls people along. If you stop, they will drift away.
  3. Collaboration is shared doing. We tend to think of collaboration as shared decision making. But more important is shared accomplishment. Consensus on a project is certainly important, but strong collaborations aren’t forged in talking, they’re forged in working. As noted above, one or more team members will always be unhappy with every decision that’s made on a project . Trying to understand and accommodate their concerns will help mend any hurt feelings or disappointments, but what’s really going to bring them back into the fold is getting down to work on the task they had previously opposed. Getting people to invest some time in a decision they opposed initially is the quickest way to help them see its merits and reengage their coworkers. Helping them contribute to the team is the best way to make them feel valuable and valued again.

More to come. #oneweek #buildsomething


  1. Boy, I sure agree with #2 in particular. I could a tale unfold about one particularly protracted decision-making process. I had a definite opinion on what the decision should be, but after weeks and eventually months of research and argument and discussion, I was so, so willing to have the decision go against me if only someone would bloody well make the decision, any decision.

    One big problem was that no one knew whose decision it was: it was everyone’s and no one’s. In retrospect, that should’ve been the first thing we decided — who the leader was. Leaderlessness is rarely a good option.

  2. When I ran an incredibly compressed exhibition development process with a team used to having a lot more time to work, I found two things invaluable:
    1. Tom’s #1: snap decisions. As I would say, “we can just as easily make a bad decision in a day instead of in months.”
    2. Being accountable. Whenever a team member became concerned that we needed multiple layers of approval, or that we were plowing ahead without that approval, I said one magic sentence: “Blame me.” Even though to my knowledge no one on the team was ever pressed by management about the project, knowing that I would stand up for them and take the responsibility 100% made everyone confident about continuing.

    And we made a great freaking exhibit.

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