Couch Time

We're discussing options for growing our office at FreshBooks, and somebody jokingly said, "Couches for everyone!" -- which got me thinking about the Queen.

See, the Queen came to Vancouver a bunch of years ago, and her route took her past our office at NGRAIN. I don't know where she was coming from or going to, but in any event, somehow everyone knew that the Queen would be going by that afternoon. (if you don't know, I'm kind of a fan of the Queen)

And conveniently, my couch was right next to the window overlooking the street. So everyone gathered at my couch and watched a Rolls with blacked-out windows drive by, flanked by motorcycle cops.

It wasn't really MY couch. Originally it had been somewhere else. In a meeting room, I think, where nobody ever sat on it, which troubled me, because it looked like such a comfortable couch. So I think it was Ivan and perhaps Derek and I who one day just picked it up and moved it to the window beside my desk. We brought a potted plant along as well, and so suddenly beside my desk was this nice little nook where someone could plop down and take a break.

Which turned out to be a great information-sharing device. I was managing half-a-dozen projects for NGRAIN at that time, and so I'd have stakeholders and developers and QA folks come round once or twice a day just to flop on my couch and hide from the crazy levels of work everyone was dealing with. And they'd tell me how their day was going, and very often just happen to mention that they were roadblocked on something, or that a date was not realistic, or that they were done a bunch of stuff ahead of time and really didn't have anything to do.

That couch made me about TEN times more effective a project manager than I would have been if I'd had to walk around and ASK everyone how they were doing. Possibly eleven. It was so easy to find out what was going on because folks would just come round and tell me. I didn't have to insist on weekly reports, or complicated time tracking systems, or anything fancy at all. I just needed a comfy couch.

They took the couch away, of course, and projects started falling over. Way it goes. Nowadays they probably pay a couple hundred dollars a month for some project management software, and congratulate themselves on spending so wisely. "Look! I can sort all tickets by estimate time divided by actual time, superimposed on a calendar and translated to the new Gantt 2.3 format!"


The lesson I learned from the couch was that if you structure your HUMAN environment so that information naturally flows to where it needs to get, AND you make sure that you're open and available for that information, you don't need a bunch of complicated tracking systems. It's less expensive and it makes for a far more pleasant environment.

We're social creatures (demented and sad, but social). The real art of project management is about understanding our social needs and inclinations, and working with those to help a team work together.

The Queen drove by (at least, I assume the Queen was in the blacked-out Rolls; for all I know she took the Skytrain) and the entire project team sat around arguing over whether or not the British royalty had any worth in today's world. No milestones got knocked off that day, and we didn't track that half hour against any project tasks. But as the team went back to work, I remember being pleased that we'd all come together as the social beings we are, and taken some time that didn't need to be accounted for just to share our worlds with each other. Sitting on a couch arguing politics may not seem like something that improves project effectiveness, but a shared world is really what it's all about. Once a team has built that shared view, anything is possible.

It's not my job to tell people what to do. It's not my job to get them inspired and "motivated". My job is actually very simple: to observe how people are communicating and to help alleviate any breakdowns in that communication, so that a shared world can emerge. One of the best tools I ever found for that was a beat-up old couch.

Photo: Kia Abell