Why PMs Hate Advent Calendars

21-December-smallMy kids love advent calendars. Each morning they wake up and before their eyes have cleared enough to see straight, they’re hunting around for that daily morsel of breakfast chocolate. It’s like a series of appetizers for Christmas morning; each day leading up to December 25, they get a delightful little surprise. Best part of their day.

By contrast, project managers hate advent calendars. Or should, anyway. By our nature, we’re just not fond of surprises. Surprises are the enemy. All those tiny doors should be opened, and if they’re not when the project starts, it’s the PM’s job to find the key. We need to know what’s behind each of those panels: to anticipate surprises, plan for them, have a contingency plan for them.

(In fact, I think we should market an advent calendar just for PMs where the front cover is transparent and the doors are in numerical order. They would still always finish on schedule, though.)

Don’t Be a Surpriser

And if PMs hate surprises so much, it should go without saying that we should never be the source of them. We shouldn’t be giving people info one day at a time; we should be presenting the whole picture – and doing so early and often. That’s part of our JOB.

Case in point: I once witnessed a project manager whose project was going over budget. He knew it and I knew it. Every month I would tell him he needed to talk to his client and give them a heads-up. Instead, he avoided it and avoided it until we issued the final invoice and the client freaked. SURPRISE! Not cool, man. Not cool.

When Surprises Happen Anyway

At the end of the day, though, we need to realize surprises will always happen. If you’re good and focus on avoiding the crises, that will be 90% of your day. But you need to know there will always be the 10% wildcard for which you need to be ready.

In these cases, dealing with surprises with the right level of controlled urgency is important. We should never panic, but we should also know the right amount of pressure to apply. It’s like driving and hitting a patch of ice. If you slam the brakes, you’re going to end up in a ditch. At the same time, you can’t sit back, do nothing, and simply hope it all works out.

This is where, just like driving, experience takes a front seat. The first couple times we all had to react, I’d be willing to bet we either over- or under-reacted. It takes time to learn how to gauge the right level of pressure, the right amount of urgency. Knowing your client really well (e.g. how big of a deal is this to THEM?) can also help you gauge the type of reaction needed.

And if you happen to find yourself in a ditch, you must have the grace and professionalism to say, “Crap. I didn’t see that coming.” We have to let our egos go, admit when something wasn’t anticipated, and have a plan for how to address the situation when we communicate back to our clients. They’ll respect us for it, trust us more for it, and it gives us the freedom to work on solving the problem rather than worrying about how to cover it up or make it look like we didn’t miss it in the first place.

Eliminate Surprises

So how do you toss out the advent calendar of project management? How do you minimize those surprises and – when they do arise – know what level of urgency (or admission) is needed to handle them?

You take a strong dose of healthy paranoia and combine it with real-time active reflexes. This means looking around corners to see what might be there, sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to open the advent doors before you get to that date in the calendar (don’t tell your parents!) and wondering often about “what-if” worst-case scenarios. And it means conveying this information to your client – and doing it soon.

So, while it’s true that advent calendars are NOT a PM’s friend – and we should boycott them on principle (except for the chocolate part) – we all have to realize that more often than once a year we will be confronted with them, and it’s up to us to know how to handle them.

How are you going to do that?

amy-kapellAmy Kapell

Amy is the VP of Client Strategy and Communication at Closed Loop, where she synthesizes the contributions of their design, UX, creative, and strategy teams into comprehensive plans for improving the user experience, usability, and conversion rates of enterprise-level websites. As a teenager, she wrote a short story entitled “The Mysteries of Stonehenge,” which also had aliens in it for some reason.
Connect with her on Twitter

carson-pearceCarson Pierce

Carson has been doing the digital project management thing for about a decade now, and is currently consulting with various digital agencies to help them develop better PM processes. After hours, Carson plays hockey, hangs out with his family, and cleans up after his fat chihuahua that poops in the house on purpose—all of which involve a lot of yelling.
Connect with him on Twitter