How to Survive Family Projects: 5 PM Best Practices

If you’re reading this book, you’re probably aware of the power of project management (PM) to bring order to potentially chaotic human endeavors. Organizations everywhere apply tried-and-true PM practices to get higher quality finished products, more quickly, and with less pain and frustration than if no PM were applied. In short, PM works almost anywhere where there are formal relationships among team members: businesses, governments, not-for-profits, etc.

Still, there’s one organization in which we spend much of our time that is not generally regarded as a candidate for PM techniques: the family. Seen through the lens of PM, a family can appear to be a random collection of informal, emotionally-charged relationships whose team members struggle mightily for control, power, recognition, autonomy, or simply to avoid work and avoid spending money. It is within this context that family reunions, weddings, home repair & improvement, landscaping, graduation parties and countless other domestic projects are undertaken by families. Some families are more successful than others in emerging from these efforts with their affections intact. Many complete such projects with permanent scars to relationships that must still, somehow, last a lifetime.

So how might your family avoid such self-inflicted wounds? Below are 5 PM “best practices” that could help your family handle its next project more effectively. (Note: You might also apply these to other unofficial project teams made up of close friends, volunteers, or anyone with whom you’d like to maintain a healthy personal relationship after the project is completed.)

Five PM Best Practices for Family Projects

1. Be clear about your priorities & how this project aligns with them.

Ask: Considering all the projects we need to complete, is this the right time to work on this?… to spend money this way?… to expend the effort? … to take the time?

Consider this family project scenario:

Family Members: The family consists of two parents and three children. Both parents are working professionals who make a good income but are often busy with their careers. The eldest son is grown, newly married and generally helpful and supportive of his parents and their goals, though he sometimes spends extended hours at work building his new career. Their daughter is currently living at home, but has recently finished college and is soon to be married. A wedding date has been set and the father of the bride has declared he wants to give her a beautiful, memorable wedding. Their youngest son is in 7th grade, a good athlete who enjoys participating in sports and other extracurricular activities.

Competing Projects:

  • A complete kitchen remodel — Both parents enjoy cooking and share meal-preparation responsibilities. As a result, both are eager to remodel their ancient kitchen, which suffers from worsening plumbing problems.
  • The daughter’s wedding — This will be a major family event that is “… beautiful, memorable…”
  • A new car for Mom — Mom’s car is aging, sometimes failing, and generally racking up bills. Fortunately, when the car is unusable Mom has been taking the local bus to and from her office downtown. This adds time to her commute, but is tolerable. The couple wants to investigate electric or hybrid alternatives, so some research must precede the new car purchase.

Applying the Questions:

After a long discussion, Mom & Dad decide to endure their aging kitchen and Mom’s aging car for a while longer in order to give their daughter the wedding of her dreams. They’ve resolved to devote lots of time, energy and money to making it a success.

The PM Lesson that Applies:

There’s no point in trying to work together on a project unless all the players agree that 1) it’s truly important and 2) it’s the best possible use of money and time at this moment. Here’s why: To complete a project, a family typically draws upon shared, and limited, resources (money, work space, equipment, tools, etc.). In addition, each family member will be spending time that he or she could choose to spend elsewhere. Because they are essentially volunteers and not employees, family members must decide willingly whether to contribute their time and their portion of any shared resources. In short, they are free to choose among lots of options, so “they gotta wanna do it!” Unless they agree that the project is a top priority, they probably won’t contribute their best. Or worse, they could grouchily sabotage the project or simply walk away completely.

2. Have a clear project charter that is supported by everyone who matters.

Ask: Have we specified exactly what the outcome (finished product) should be?… should do?

Ask: What are our limits (boundaries) re: money?… time?… effort/days or hours?

Applying the Questions to the Scenario:

Before they speak to their daughter, Mom and Dad sit down and decide what the “upper limits” of their funding can be for the wedding. And they also discuss, in fairly detailed terms, how much effort and time they expect to spend themselves, individually, given the demands of their careers and support required for their younger son’s school activities. After they are clear about their own definitions of the wedding boundaries and their respective roles, they sit down with their daughter and begin to sketch out her vision for the wedding. They ask her to imagine the entire event in vivid detail and then they help her identify some options for those things that might cost more money or take much more time than is available. Finally, Mom craftily decides — “just to help me remember everything” — that she will create a list of these options, limitations and agreements and then share copies of her list with her husband and daughter so their joint decisions are gently, but firmly, documented.

The PM Lesson that Applies:

When the “project” of this wedding planning is finally up and running, other members of the wedding party, as well as outside vendors (like photographer, caterer, musicians, etc.), will be joining the “project team.” Each new person who joins will bring a new bundle of creative ideas. And each new idea, while it may thrill the bride if implemented, has the potential to impact the time, effort, and money required, as well as the quality of the overall finished product (the wedding itself). Without clear boundaries as captured in Mom’s “help me remember” list (This is essentially the team’s informal project charter.), there would be no way to distinguish ideas that are “outside the scope” versus those that are welcome enhancements that fit within the project boundaries.

3. Identify all the stakeholders and involve them in making project plans & defining outcomes.

Ask: Have we named everyone who can specify the work to be done and then actually do the work (or hire it done)?

Ask: Have we involved everyone who has the power to reject our results, complain about our results, or cause us to redo all or part of our work?

Ask: Have we made project plans that include 1) clearly defined results, 2) a list of tasks (chores to be performed) and 3) deadlines for completing tasks/chores?

Applying the Questions to the Scenario:

As they begin thinking about the chores to be done, Mom, Dad and our bride start to consider which family members might be able or willing to do certain chores. In her professional role, Mom has sometimes had to work with local venues (country club, hotel ballrooms, etc.) and vendors to organize public events. The elder son has organized several successful media promotions on behalf of his company, so he knows photographers and video people who might capture the wedding for posterity. One of the bride’s friends has a sister who is a caterer and also has connections among local musicians who might provide entertainment.

And then there’s Grandma: Our bride is her favorite granddaughter, so Grandma is fairly bursting with energy (and ideas) about this wedding and she is determined to get involved in “a big way.” Finally, our bride has distinct and passionate ideas about the wedding theme, colors, and other matters of style. In contrast, Dad seems a bit overwhelmed by the rapidly emerging list of chores and details regarding the design and social dimensions. So he has decided to simply step back, do what he’s assigned and “write ‘reasonable’ checks as needed.” In sum, the family appears to have identified specific people who will be able to “own” most of the important parts of the project.

All these people, with their varying interests, experiences, hopes, and dreams must now sit down together and come up with a project plan that includes 1) a fairly detailed description of the wedding, 2) a list of chores to be done and 3) deadlines (dates) for completing these chores.

The PM Lesson that Applies:

Instead of simply jumping in and starting to work, it’s best to step back and think about the talent, experience, preferences, and overall ability of potential team members to complete the project. At the same time, it’s important, early on, to involve people that will have strong feelings about the results (e.g., our bride & Grandma) regardless of their abilities, because they could potentially reject, rethink, and otherwise derail the project. By getting all these people around the same table, we can create a plan that is a reflection of their abilities, interests, hopes, and biases. In short, a shared “high resolution” vision (well thought-out & argued-through) is more likely to be successfully (and peacefully!) executed.

4. Openly declare project roles & responsibilities, then make sure all agree.

Ask: Exactly who will perform each of the chores required to complete the project? Does each responsible person agree? Better yet, did each responsible person help define her own work process and agree that she could handle this assignment?

Applying the Questions to the Scenario:

Based on the skills and interests of our family team, we’ve divided up the chores as follows:

  • Mom will identify one or two potential venues that fit the budget and then sign a contract with the final choice.
  • The bride will identify & finalize who will make up the wedding party, invitation list, etc.
  • The bride will finalize dresses, color schemes for the venue, etc.
  • Elder son will identify and interview potential photographers and videographers, then contract with whomever is chosen.
  • Dad will be available for miscellaneous assignments, “go for” chores and writing checks.
  • Bride’s friend will work with her sister to come up with a menu for the wedding and some choices for the entertainment.
  • Grandma will support the bride, Dad and Mom as needed in miscellaneous chores.

The PM Lesson that Applies:

Project chores should be assigned based on interests, willingness, abilities, and project need. The list of assignments above is based on 1) declared interests of volunteers, 2) skills and experience and 3) what needs to be done to complete the project. Given that this is a family project, it would be difficult to go much deeper into creating a detailed task list without offending the volunteers and making them feel micromanaged. (However, going to such detail could make sense in a more formal or complex family project.)

5. Align team members’ authority (power to act, make decisions, spend money) with their particular responsibilities.

Ask: Does each person to whom a chore is assigned have the authority to take independent action to complete the chore, make decisions related to quality or work process, spend money, and inspect or reject the inputs of helpers or suppliers? If not, who does have the necessary authority and how will this be used?

Applying the Questions to the Scenario:

Below is our list of authority/responsibilities as negotiated, right up front, with everyone on the wedding team.

  • Wedding venue: Mom recommends, bride approves overall choice, Dad approves cost.
  • Wedding party, invitation list, color schemes, dresses, etc.: Everyone recommends, bride approves aesthetics, Dad approves costs.
  • Photographer/videographer: Elder son recommends, bride approves choice, Dad approves cost.
  • Menu/food: Bride & bride’s friend recommend, bride approves choice, Dad approves cost.
  • Entertainment: Bride & bride’s friend recommend, bride approves choice, Dad approves cost.
  • Miscellaneous matters of aesthetics, style, tradition, etc.: Grandma, Mom, & anyone else recommends to bride. Bride approves.

Note that this list clearly distinguishes recommenders from approvers. This is important because as people become more involved in their roles it’s easy to become swept away with enthusiasm for “my recommended approach” and become heavily invested in seeing it implemented. But as the list above makes clear, input is welcome, but our bride and Dad have final approval.

The PM Lesson that Applies:

Decisions, decisions, decisions! This wedding, like so many family projects, will be made up of lots of little decisions that may seem trivial individually, but when taken together can have a huge impact on the success of the project. More importantly, how all these “little” decisions are made can either strengthen or permanently damage family relationships when the project is finally over. For example, if our bride feels she was bullied into a decision, by-passed, or ignored, she’s not likely to forget it soon. Alternately, if the bride over-rules a decision or vetoes someone’s work capriciously, after they’ve worked hard to make what they believed was an important contribution, they can be hurt and remain so for years to come.

So it’s important to define clearly, right up front, who is 1) responsible for doing the various chores [see list in #4, above], 2) who can make recommendations (i.e., have their opinions heard) and 3) who will make the final “go, no go” decision (i.e., who will approve). In this way, it will be less likely that someone “takes over” a chore or imposes a decision through sheer force of personality.

Conclusion

While there are lots more formal PM best practices that could be stretched to fit family projects, the five above are likely to have the greatest positive impact. Indeed, simply putting these five to work may challenge the diplomacy of any family project leader. If you do decide to try these on your next family project, by all means do so gently and with a sense of humor. What’s more, you might want to admit to everyone on your “team” that you’re only suggesting these tried-and-true PM formalities in order to make sure you all remain on speaking terms when the project is finally completed.

Good luck! And remember to share plenty of hugs along the way!

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