Thanksgiving is not a Project Manager’s Holiday

Thanksgiving is a great holiday.  I love all the wonderful food and the enjoyment of family and friends without the obligation of gift giving.  (As Seth Godin wrote, no gifts, no guilt, no doctrine.)  Most of us get a 4-day weekend away from work.  But it is not a holiday for project managers.  In fact, it may be the most stressful holiday a PM can experience.

First of all, you need some planning and organizational skills to pull off a good Thanksgiving event.  Thanksgiving is the superbowl of holidays in that it demands that you work in advance to make the day a success.  You have to plan out the attendees, the menu, the agenda, and even the seating chart.  You have to create a menu and then use that to create a master bill of materials for shopping and a cooking schedule.  You have to shop ahead of time and prepare some dishes days in advance.  How many of us have a story about waking up to a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning and doing everything short of microwaving it to make sure dinner was not delayed for hours?  We’ve learned to develop contingency plans for major risks like this.

Project managers also tend to be control freaks.  We want to make sure we control the event to get just the perfect outcome.  So we are challenged when we rely on others to make the day a success or when we have to give up control to others.  For the most controlling of control freaks, we choose to take on the entire event ourselves.  We want perfect and we don’t want to put the fate of our event in the hands of others.  So we do it all ourselves.  We may wind up cooking all day and not really enjoying either the meal or being in relationship with others.

Our desired to control can also play out when we visit others for Thanksgiving.  In fact, showing up for Thanksgiving dinner at someone else’s house can be more stressful than hosting Thanksgiving at our own.  Should I eat beforehand because I never know when they are going to serve dinner and I fear starving to death?  What is the appropriate dish to add to the many that will already be there?  How will I make my dish stand out from the others, so that I can look good?  Are they going to burn the dinner rolls again this year or have the football game blaring so loud that nobody can talk?

The worst part for project manager is seeing others do project management so poorly.  Like not properly planning for the finish-finish dependency on the various cooked items with the turkey.  Or not planning for enough chairs around the table.  Or forgetting to plan out the menu to avoid the last minute trips to the store.  Good project managers are so accustomed to structure and organization that we erroneously believe we need to apply this thinking to Thanksgiving.  Bringing in Thanksgiving dinner on schedule and budget may not be necessary or even desirable.

Take for example the argument my wife and I nearly always have about how to accomplish a group of tasks.  As a project manager, I recognize that the most efficient use of time and resources is to divide up the tasks and assign them individually so that many tasks can be done in parallel.  This runs me afoul of my wife’s approach which is to do things as a group, which of course, is just not very efficient.  When she proposes that we all work together as a team to do this or that, I just want to scream at her about how dumb that is and how much better it would be to divide and conquer.

Which brings me back to the reason I wrote this post.  Thanksgiving is not a holiday that you need to project manage.  Yes the day could benefit from some basic planning and organization concepts, but, for the most part it doesn’t require any of that.  You don’t need to labor over a plan and a task list worthy of a D-day invasion, you don’t need to have bi-weekly conference calls with your family members and other stakeholders, you don’t need to have the day scripted and timed.  Instead, you could ad lib, be spontaneous, and invite others to pitch in and help when and where it is needed.

I am actually at my best at Thanksgiving when I take a break from those key PM skills to be a human, to engage with those around me, and to be in relationship.  With plenty of therapy and some coaching from my wife, I have come to appreciate that even as a project manager, I can let go a little bit and just enjoy Thanksgiving for what it is.  I have come to expect that I will be sent out on the last minute shopping trip on Thursday afternoon but I will do it in community with my brother-in-law.  In fact, this excursion has become a part of our holiday ritual and we joke around with the other men that we see out at the supermarket on that trip.

I relax now and don’t try to control the food as it is cooking or worry about whether they started the green beans too early or if the dinner rolls are going to burn.  I strive to be a good team player; supportive without being controlling.  And I enjoy doing the unglamorous work of cleaning up the dishes afterwards.

I recognized how far I had come this year when I was able to laugh when my two-year neice smashed her plate of food on the floor right behind me during dinner.  Life is too short to freak out over that type of thing.  Instead, I am reminded of how grateful I am to have my health, my family, and a bounty of resources.

Happy Thanksgiving!
Anthony