It was just amazing. We had these two little kids, growing like weeds. They seemed to always be hungry and ready to eat. We had installed an ornate little bell in the kitchen. When a meal or snack was ready, we’d ring the bell and the kids would come running, sounding like a mini heard of buffalos, usually with the cats and the dog chasing behind them.
Ringing The Dinner Bell For The Wrong Reasons
As the kids got older, they picked up household chores, such as helping Mom prepare meals. One day my wife needed the kids to come help out and they were not to be found. She had what she thought was a great idea. She would just ring the bell and she knew the kids would come running.
She rang the bell and everyone came running (including me, meals and snacks are pretty motivational for me too). You could see the confusion and disappointment on everyone’s face when there was nothing to be had. Mom, however, was smiling smugly, and assigned meal prep chores to everyone (even I didn’t escape!). We helped prepare the meal and then ate.
This went on for awhile. If she needed someone for something, she rang the bell. What do you think happened? Yup. After a short while, no one responded to the bell. Suddenly, and we all swore it was true (and it often was), we just never heard the bell. We also didn’t know who the bell was for. I’d find myself thinking “too early for dinner, must be for one of the kids.” A really great system, of ringing the bell to gather everyone for dinner, just ceased to work.
Ringing The Project Management Meeting Bell
I was just out of high school and had completed my technical training in the United States Air Force. I was assigned to a super secret agency (well, they were not secret, just what they did was) and worked as an intelligence analyst. The agency was wall-to-wall computers in a time when only really big businesses had computers. I loved to work with the computers and constantly found excuses to be doing something with them.
The agency had a special project they kicked off to get all the intelligence analyst’s data, insights and results into a central database and out of their desks. There was a recognition that there was a ton of useful information and insights into national security and foreign activities that no one could see unless we knew to ask the right people the right questions to get the insights. If we could get it all into one large database we could not only better find and use all the data and analysis that was going on, but also give the intelligence analysts new tools and the ability to integrate insights from other analysts into more meaningful and complete results.
The project needed a young gopher (“go for this, go for that”) and I was picked. I had been constantly playing around with the computers (um, one did not play on government computers!) and so looked like the right person for this project. I felt like I had gone to heaven (but with the initials, NSA).
With all the technical work I ended up doing (I taught myself to program data updates and retrieval in COBOL and learned the IBM Job Control Language), they decided I needed to start attending meetings. Wow, I had finally attained the big time. Here I was, a young airman in the Air Force and I was now going to be attending project management MEETINGS with all these much more senior folks. I was going to go where all the important things were discussed and all the important decisions were being made!
What do you think happened? Within a few weeks, I did everything I could to avoid these meetings. These meetings went on forever and I didn’t learn much except that people just loved to talk and argue, and call meetings to do it some more. I got a lot more done outside the meetings and the project management insights and experience I was hoping to gain never happened (well, not the ones I expected anyway).
Ring The Bell Only For Its Intended Purpose
As project managers we should strive to send people consistent signals and do things for well defined reasons. When we take a great idea, either the dinner bell or a project meeting, and overload it with alternate unrelated purposes, we degrade the usefulness and effectiveness of what is a great project management tool.
Are there any great processes that have been overloaded with unrelated purposes in your projects?