When you encounter a great project manager, you usually know it. They typically have a sense of calm because they understand deeply what’s going on in their projects, and they have confidence in their ability to address issues, risks, and opportunities as they come up.

Now, let me change just two words:

When you encounter a great cook, you usually know it. They typically have a sense of calm because they understand deeply what’s going on in their meals, and they have confidence in their ability to address issues, risks, and opportunities as they come up.

Sounds like a Top Chef contestant if you ask me.  In fact, almost every time I cook dinner, I think about how the experience resembles a complete mini-project. Here are the key components:

Hangry Pillow

Image via Wanelo

Objective:  Feed 2 kids + 2 adults healthy food that (almost) everyone will like

Deadline: 6:30pm, no later (everyone gets hangry!)

Resources: Whatever is in the fridge and pantry

Work Breakdown Structure: All the steps to get the meal on the table, can vary widely in number

Schedule Set By: The longest thing it takes to cook, taking into account dependencies

Risk Management:  Identify ways to salvage the things you screw up along the way

Post-Mortem:  Dinner table conversation about how everything tastes.

Think I’m crazy yet? Perhaps, but before you go back to thinking about cooking as just another household chore, consider some lessons learned in the kitchen that could help you become a better project manager.

1. Read the recipe all the way through.

Ever gotten 2/3 of the way through a recipe for a dish you’re planning to eat in an hour and read, “Marinate overnight”?  Or realize that you don’t have the right equipment, or that the recipe only makes two servings when you need six? If you don’t read the recipe all the way through before you start, there’s a good chance something will jump up and bite you.

If you do the same thing when you manage projects, expect a similar outcome. Whoever your client is, find a way to get on the same page with them about their expectations for the project – and in as much detail as the two of you can stomach. Get them in writing if you can. But above all, make sure YOU understand the requirements, because you’re ultimately responsible for delivering them.

2. The order in which you do things matters.

Here’s a stir fry scenario. It pains me to watch people spend 30 minutes chopping vegetables, and THEN turn on the water to boil for rice. The rice takes the longest and can sit when it’s done indefinitely, and will even stay hot. The vegetables are quick to stir fry and can be done at the last minute. Clearly, it would be more efficient to get the rice cooking and then chop. Then the rice and the veggies will both be ready at roughly the same time and you can get to the business of eating.

I realize the order of events in this example is obvious, but nevertheless, I’ve watched this scenario play out on multiple occasions.  Given some thought, I’m sure the cooks would come to the right conclusion, but with multiple distractions, the first task that comes along is usually the one that gets worked on.

In your projects, it’s tempting to spend your time putting out fires and plucking low hanging fruit because it’s right there in front of you. But if you want to be Top Chef, you’ve got to step back and look at the big picture, put your project in the context of the organization’s larger goals, and try to determine the most efficient way to order the work to get the biggest return on your investments.

Chef Kitchen Post3. Watch the clock.

A forgotten timer can be the kiss of death for a cook. The bitter taste of burned pizza is punishment enough for this crime.  Good timing is everything in meal preparation. You’ve got to estimate and then re-estimate when you’re behind the stove. For example, your recipe said to sauté the chicken for 3-4 minutes per side, but it’s still raw on the inside. You are forced to keep cooking and thus must re-estimate and make the necessary adjustments to the rest of your meal. Quick, get your sauce off the heat before it evaporates!

The same thing holds true in your task estimates. If you estimate some work to be 10-15 hours of effort and find, a few hours in, that it will be more like 15-30 hours, it’s time to raise the flag. Update the plan, update your team, and let it be known that other adjustments may need to be made. You’ll be seen as an important team player – one who can help avoid risks to the schedule by identifying them early.

4. Don’t overcommit.

Ah, the lure of impressing people with your fantastic entertaining skills. It’s easy to find mouth-watering recipes for appetizers, entrees, side dishes, desserts, and cocktails, and set your sights on wowing your guests. Then suddenly you find yourself with 45 ingredients, 79 steps to complete, and $250 in groceries. Not to mention that the chances of pulling off all the dishes without a hitch is very slim. A better plan? Pick one “wow” dish and keep the other ones simple, easy, and elegant. Ideally you’ve even made them before.

See where I’m going with this? Be extremely careful about what you sign up for. More importantly, be realistic about what you can accomplish given your resources and the time you have. This is where planning pays off. Lay out everything it will take to accomplish your goals, estimate each of those things, and have a serious conversation with your team about what’s practical. That might mean you have to reduce scope on non-critical areas of the project, ask for more resources, or reset expectations about timelines.  Better to address any one of those constraints up front then to find yourself mid-way through the project and oversubscribed to the hilt.

5. Fill the gaps.

This is my favorite part. Every time you preheat the oven, start something in the microwave, wait for a pan to warm, or allow meat to rest, you’ve got an opportunity to move the ball forward on something else in the plan. You can set the table, pull out ingredients you need, clean a dish, measure something you’ll need soon, you name it. There’s always something that can be done while you wait. And that means your overall schedule comes in, you feel more prepared for each step to follow, and your kitchen is cleaner at the end of it all.

Filling the gaps in your projects – either at the macro or micro level – can go a long way towards pulling in your overall schedule (or at least getting you out of the office a few minutes earlier each night!). Your best bet is finding a scheduling tool that automatically looks for ways to fill gaps caused by dependencies. When you hand off a project to a client and you’re waiting for feedback, make sure your team knows exactly what to do in the meantime. When you find yourself with five minutes to spare before a meeting, get that darn email you’ve been procrastinating on out the door. As the end of the day, it’s about constantly scanning the landscape to find ways to maximize your impact in the time you have.

Maybe when it’s all done you can treat yourself to a nice meal. Just don’t forget to thank the chef!

Project Management Lessons Learned in the Kitchen was last modified: June 13th, 2013 by Liz Pearce