What Training Project Managers (and everyone else) Can Learn from the Japanese Disaster

March 23, 2011

There’s been a lot of commentary about the way the Japanese people have responded to the series of disasters happening there. I think of other societies, including here in the US. In comparison, we’re kinda pathetic. I think back to past disasters, and the looting, chaos, political posturing, blame, near riots, and other forms of ugly human behavior. And as a training professional and project manager, I can’t help but look for parallels and lessons to how we do business. How we conduct ourselves in our day-to-day projects. Here are a few things I came up with…

Be prepared.
Bad things are going to happen. Sometimes really bad things. You don’t know what, where, when, and how. But bad things will happen. The Japanese are super prepared. Children, employees, and citizens in general are well educated on what to do in an earthquake or tsunami. People knew what to do, and this made a huge difference.

Similarly, I know backpackers and other wilderness enthusiasts stress the importance of carrying “the ten essentials” on any backcountry adventure. Comprised of things like a compass, emergency blanket, extra food, and fire starters, these essentials will help ensure survival if you get injured or lost.

We need to do the same at work. On projects and initiatives large and small, we need to be prepared for storms.  We need to have our own 10 essentials for launching into new learning projects and building healthy, functional teams. What will we do if a project suddenly tanks? What if our team is suddenly hit with unexpected departures? What if the kitchen blows up and we are left coffeeless? These things happen.

Capture from a Japanese Earthquake Survival manual

Watch out for the aftershocks.
Large earthquakes can cause a lot of damage. And we know from Japan that when the dust first settles, the danger isn’t necessarily over. Aftershocks, additional quakes, and tsunami can be triggered, sometimes causing more devastation than the original quake itself.

Organizational storms are similar. After a painful project issue hits and the dust seems to settling, waves of resentment resentment can rattle meetings and relationships, jeopardizing projects and even whole organizations. When hit by an unexpected quake at work, don’t assume the damage is over when the vibrations stop. Watch out for tsunami.

Be calm and remember your values.
Like many others, I’m impressed by the calm, kind, self-disciplined manner in which the Japense people as a whole responded. Geeze, how much most of us – and the rest of the world – can learn here. Enough said!

You are no more important than anyone else.
I can’t count how many diva-minded team members and even leaders have sabotaged a project or dammaged team morale by their self-centered, “it’s all about me” behavior. Let’s be honest – we all have had our moments. Can you imagine what that attitude would look like in Japan following the earthquake? Think Katrina!

We can learn a lot about Japan here. To have healthy, well-functioning teams that respond constructively to crises, we need to think in terms of the whole. Don’t be expected to be treated differently. If you do get some special acknowledgement, be grateful. But realize that as special as you may be, in terms of the whole (organization, work team, etc) you are just a cog in the wheel. An important cog, of course, but you’re still a cog! That’s not an insult. It takes a lot of solid, well-built, and trustworthy cogs to keep the wheel turning and the mission moving forward. Drop the ego and get behind the mission. And get in line like everyone else.

A boy waits in a line in front of a gas station in Kamaishi, northern Japan Monday, March 14, 2011 following Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Asahi Shimbun, Naoko Kawamura)

It’s no one’s fault.
When projects don’t go how we want them to, it’s really easy to look for blame. Try instead to get the big picture. Assume positive intent and help each other learn.  Don’t recruit others to join your blame-storming game. instead, recruit or join others in finding solutions to the situation. And keep in mind that sometimes there are no real solutions. Sometimes all you can do is reach out and show that you care. The dust will settle and  new opportunities will arise.


Rapid E-learning Challenge: Back in the Saddle

August 3, 2008

I haven’t posted much about my Rapid e-Learning Challenge in awhile. That’s because the project suffered a few roadblocks and set-backs. All of them were related to things like poorly defined project goals, lack of agreed-on specs, and non-responsive SME/sponsor. It wasn’t my fault, the sponsor’s fault, or the janitor’s fault. It was a process issue. My learning team had not defined and agreed on a process for initiating this type of project. Starting an e-learning project without such a process is a bit like reading the flight manual after the plane is mid-air.

AT ANY RATE….after a bit of floundering and false starts, the storyboarding is complete. I’m back in the saddle and the project’s moving forward. Yay!  The other good news is that now I have a graphic artist to help with the look and feel and original illustrations where needed. We do have a good process for actual course development. With the planning obstacles out of the way, I’m looking forward to the really fun part of development. We go full-tilt with this tomorrow, and plan to be finished with a beta release in a few short weeks.

All that said, I still want to “test out” just how “rapid” rapid e-learning tools are (in my case, Articulate). As the project plows ahead, I will jot down things I like, things I don’t like, new discoveries (tools, ideas, etc), and lessons learned. I’ll also post any challenges and requests for help here. Blogging is a great way to reach out and get feedback or help from the larger community “out there.”

Rapid Lesson Learned: Don’t move forward with a project if you don’t have clearly defined and agreed upon goals, as well as SME and sponsor buy-in. 


Improve your process with these two questions

July 7, 2008


In “The Leader’s Handbook,” Peter Scholtes suggests asking internal and external customers two questions:

What are you getting that you don’t need?

What do you need that you aren’t getting?

Several years ago, I asked similar questions of team members on an e-learning project that I managed. One of the things that the team clearly did not want was a detailed work breakdown report. Instead, they wanted an individualized report that indicated how much time each team member was allowed for each task in the upcoming week. As a result, I quit wasting time on reports that were not being read, and instead focused on a more useful tool that helped the team budget time spent on their tasks.

Try it yourself. Pick any ID or other process you are working on this week or, better yet, today! Now figure out who the customer is. Customers can be the team member that you hand your part of the process off to (such as when you hand a storyboard off to a programmer) or the final users of the product. They might be your manager, or your direct report. Whoever it is, ask them Sholtes’ two questions.

If you ask sincerely, you may be surprised at just how readily an answer comes. The hard part is to actually do something about it.