Keep Those Cowpies Coming!

By Mike Aucoin

Projects have more in common with cattle than you might think. But the most obvious area of commonality is the production of cowpies.

For those of you who think that milk comes from the supermarket, a cowpie is a byproduct of the gastronomy of cattle - you know, the byproduct that produces fertilizer. Project teams are known to create their own cowpies, those pesky mistakes and problems that cause project managers nightmares. As a cowboy, or a project manager, you need to be prepared for the inevitable, and believe it, cowpies are inevitable. But, with the right frame of mind, you might find that they are even valuable.

To deal with cowpies you need to create a personal line of defense from the problem. In the pasture, it's a pair of boots. Notice I didn't say a good pair of boots - save those for dancing on the weekend. No, get boots that are utilitarian so you won't get upset if they get a little messy. In the same way that boots are your physical line of defense when stepping in cowpies, you need an emotional line of defense to create some distance from your project foibles. You will step in cowpies, usually several a day. Just remember to take off your boots - and disengage from your project - at the end of the day.

The next rule is to have a plan of action for when a cowpie is on the way. When you see the inevitable about to happen, it's time to move back and get upwind. Then, let nature take its course.

OK, now you have a fresh cowpie - what do you do with it?

A lot of people will get themselves all in a lather and immediately dive into the problem, but that just makes matters worse. Please� resist the urge - the LAST thing you want to do is step in a fresh cowpie. Instead, take a moment to accentuate the occasion, a few words are all that's necessary: "Whew! That's a dandy one! Ol' Bossy must have been saving it for a special occasion." Then, go someplace else.

This is a good time to repair to the local cantina and buy a round for the gang. The people who created the cowpie don't need a bunch of hand-wringing or blame-slinging, and they are usually in no shape to fix the problem in the heat of the moment. Better for everyone to regain their perspectives and address the problem in a day or two. That cowpie will be a lot more tolerable to approach and examine after it ages a bit.

In fact, after a while cowpies reach a stage where they make great Frisbees. In projects, these are the best cowpies because today's project crisis becomes next month's knee-slapping war story.

Here's where this gets philosophical. Go around any cow pasture and 95 percent of it is covered in cowpies. You can't see them all? Well, that's because half of them are so old you can no longer distinguish them from dirt and grass. It's the same with the quality seen in a project deliverable. Most of what you see and approve of in the deliverable is the result of countless mistakes and learning from long ago (remember the first time you tried to spell "kow"?). The success of your project is built on mistakes from the past; cowpies fertilize the pasture to make more grass, which in turn makes the steak!

Cowpies are a fact of life for the cowboy project manager. You'd best not try to stop them from coming out - the results would not be pretty. You're better off if you just accept them, and value them for what they are.

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