Why every project should have gardeners

Just as a gardener takes care of his plants to ensure some fruit, we should also have people in the projects who help us to learn and develop so that we can move to the next level. Unfortunately, this is not yet common practice, so I would like to show how this could work in our projects, by staying with the image of a gardener.

Everyone started small. Even the tallest and strongest tree started as a seed and over time, thanks to a lot of sunlight, rainfall and good soil, it became a deep-rooted, reliable and sturdy tree. Very much the same also applies to us, people who are involved in project work, when we try to do our best to make the project a success.

We work in projects as subject matter experts, as experienced project managers or as newcomers that will need support from the team to grow to the next level. Roles and tasks are assigned based on our experience. Experiences from former projects are our soil. We are able to grow with new and demanding tasks, but may fail if tasks are overwhelming. If our specific responsibility lies within our comfort zone and things are just business as usual, we will not reach our limits. We need challenges, such as finding new solutions and new approaches, in order to grow. Just as a plant needs more and more space to become bigger, we need space and the opportunity to make our own decisions and take responsibility. We need staffing managers who see the potential of the project and also the required skills when staffing such a project with team members. Managers that are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each person and if there is a realistic possibility that they can perform well and do a great job in the project.

In addition to soil, a plant also needs some kind of physical support right at the beginning. While the roots are still not deeply anchored, and the stem is still fragile, it is important that the plant is supported. It is exactly like that with us when we grow in our projects. When we have all these challenges and opportunities to grow, sometimes we make a mistake. Sometimes we do not fulfil the expectation of our stakeholders, do not communicate well, do not take the right decisions, and do not act as expected. These are the moments when we need support and orientation, when this situation takes us to our limits. We need someone who takes care of us, helps ensure we do not break in the storm and instead become stronger and are prepared for the next time we face a similar situation.

Most often, we expect the project manager to support and stand up for us, but this is not always the case. This may be because of personal reasons or political issues such as internal - external employees. From my perspective, it doesn't matter which role supports me, as long as I know right from the beginning that I can count on a person who is going to support me. This supporting person should be one of the project stakeholders or at least in the area affected by my activities. It could be the PL, the sponsor, a team lead, someone from operations, business representatives and so on. The crucial aspect is that this person is aware of the project and what's going on, that I am linked and in close contact with the person, that I have open and transparent communication with the person and that the person is a supporter of mine. To this end, bilateral meetings can be arranged or feedback requested.

Even if our soil is nutritious and we have support, we still need water, heat and sunlight to grow. Only with this can we become what we would like to be. Within a project, this means that we have someone close to us ("the gardener") who ensures that we deliver on time and with the expected quality, and that we not only choose the straightforward way but also try new solutions if the time and place are right.

Looking at the easiest way and what occurs most often in projects, people ask for help or reviews, or carry out pair programming e.g. consult peer groups outside a project to share experiences and ask for advice. As this is most often related to objective questions or tasks, my experience is that people are often happy to connect to others to improve the results of their work. In self-organising teams, team members often transfer tasks between them when required, in order to achieve the best match of skills and performance to the respective elements. Maybe you have also the possibility to be supported by a consulting coach or mentor. As an example, we had a setup in which the junior project lead was allocated dedicated tasks and areas for which he was responsible. Once a week, we checked the status and deliverables, and discussed possible scenarios.

The last aspect I would like to share may be the most critical one. All of you who have a garden with trees or roses will be aware of the fact that sometimes you have to cut back old branches to enable the plant to grow even more. Even if it seems as if the plant is destroyed and will never come to life again, by the latest in the spring it will be back again, bigger and brighter than ever before. And the same applies to us human beings. Sometimes we need someone to tell us we are doing the wrong thing, following old bad habits or should try new approaches.

We may not be pleased to hear that we are not performing well, but sometimes we have to decide to accept feedback and decide whether to follow the advice or not. All feedback should at least lead us to think about ourselves, even if we decide that what we did was actually ok, and we do not need to change anything. Possible ways to grow include, for example, asking for 360-degree feedback from team members, peers and superiors. Additionally, it is of great importance to always reflect on ourselves and on the feedback we receive. Therefore, it is important that we know our own strengths and weakness and find ways to further strengthen the strengths and to overcome our weaknesses. A personal mentor or coach can be very helpful in this regard; also, soft skills training or professional literature can help expand your personal horizons.

The conclusion of my recommendation is to check the staffing of the project team right at the beginning in order to find someone to take on this mentoring role. Not only the availability of the resources but also if they fit for the project. Sometimes it seems to be a good idea to have a "training on the job" setup. In this case, it is important to ensure that there is someone within the project who has the trainer role and to take this approach into account in the project planning (time and budget). At the same time, it is also the responsibility of each and every one of us to take the opportunity to grow by looking for our personal gardener or a growth concept as well as being prepared to be the gardener for someone else, and thereby provide support in the growth process.

By Sabrina Lange