Project Management and Herding Cats

In managing a big project, have you ever felt like you were trying to “herd cats” to get everyone working together and moving in the same direction? If so, you’re not alone.

Several years ago, the Fallon agency of Minneapolis created a television commercial called “Cat Herders” for computer giant EDS. It’s one of my all time favorite commercials.

So what does cat herding have to do with project management? As it turns out, plenty. (That’s why this commercial is so funny.) I can think of three similarities:

  1. Cats are solitary animals. They don’t naturally herd. They shy away from groups. Some of your people may be the same way. That’s why as as leader you must constantly emphasize the value of collaboration.

    You must have a deep-seated conviction that people can do more as a team than they can on their own. You must force yourself to hold meetings and keep communicating about your projects. Otherwise, people go-it-alone, and the project begins to unravel.

  2. Cats are seemingly aloof. They just don’t seem to care. They can take it or leave it. Some people in the corporate world are like this, too. I often hear leaders lament, “My people just don’t care.” The truth is that this is a leadership problem not a people problem, and that makes it your problem.

    Your job as a leader is to get your people emotionally engaged. To do this you must first relate the project to the bigger picture. You must answer the question, “Why is this project so important?” Second, you must relate the project to their personal goals. You must answer the question, “Why does this project matter to them?

  3. Cats are easily distracted. If you throw a paper ball or drag a colored string in front of them, they almost instantly stop what they are doing and start playing. People are often like this, too. Let’s face it: we live in a world with lots of distractions. It takes enormous discipline to stay focused and on-task.

    As a leader, you must first of all model this behavior. Are you focused? Are you easily distracted? Are you frequently taken off-task? If so, then you are going to create a culture of distraction. You can’t fix this in your organization until you fix it in your own head.

My wife, Gail, who grew up with a lot of cats, just reminded me that the key to cats is showing affection. They love to be stroked. When you do it right, they come alive and purr. They won’t leave you alone and will follow you anywhere.

People are the same way. They need affirmation. They need recognition. They need to be told they are doing a great job. In a nutshell, that’s the secret to herding cats.

Question: What can you learn about project management from observing cats? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Doug Murphy

    This is epic… Love it!!!

  • Lindsey Nobles

    My favorite part is where the guy is sitting by the fire with the lint brush.

    • Michael Hyatt

      There are so many subtle things in this video. I catch new ones every time.

    • Steven Cribbs

      I caught that one too – added that much more to the laughter :)

      • Jeff Randleman

        I’ve watched it about a dozen times!

    • Gail

      I like the guy casually rolling up a ball of wool. It makes me think of knitting, which is so NOT cowboy ;)

  • Anonymous

    Nice post.  Just watching the video again made me laugh. I have also noticed that if you leave cats alone they will sleep or no do a whole lot until you engage them.  People are the same way.  Unless you are reminding them of commitments and timeframes they are due in, they will soon forget.

  • TNeal

    Cats are seemingly aloof. When I read this, I pictured church people. When I served as a pastor (and I know I’m not the only one who experienced this), I felt people seemed to play and work in their own little worlds–church was a hobby, not a lifestyle.

    Now I participate as a member rather than a pastor and my perspective has changed a lot. First of all, I think my attitude toward people tended toward the football fan’s attitude toward his team. The last game, whether a win or a loss, is what a fan talks about (the last Sunday’s service is the focus of a pastor). The team moves on to preparing for the next week. People leave a worship service with their own lives to live. A pastor’s passion for the lost or missions or the food pantry isn’t the people’s passion (Some, yes, but all? No!). People have a passion for their kids or their jobs or their hobbies. The pastor worries about church life. People worry about mortgages, bills, and doctor’s appointments.

    Your advice about cats–love them–works well for pastors/leaders toward those they serve. If you love them and they know it, then you can lead them.

  • Beck Gambill

    Impressive analogy and amazing video!

  • Kristen@PrettySweet

    That is an incredible commercial. Both so hilarious and so true! Thanks for this post. I’ll be sharing it. =)

  • Anonymous

    Cat often leave a mess in the neighbors your. I know I have a neighbor who runs a cat dude ranch. People are like this too and one of the rules of the road for project management must be taking individual responsibility for each players actions. The manager or team leaders role is to communicate that when mistakes are made the focus will always be first to fix it then to address the cause with training or re-structuring the process if it’s broken.

  • Cindy

    I will be using this post in my pre-service training for our staff. Your to-the-point observations will make a perfect intro. Team building with educators is a challenge!

  • Heather R. Asbell

    I’m not a cat person….  Leadership is tough.  I was reminded with this post how easily I personally get distracted on big and small projects.  Whether it’s the perpetual tug to email or the constant answering calls, to what the office is planning for lunch, it’s helpful to identify the distractions to minimize them and help those I lead identify their own distractions.  I can’t expect more out of those I lead than what I’m willing to exemplify.

    It’s also being reminded we are all human.  So thankful I work with people and not cats… 
    We all need affirmation and encouragement on what we are doing well.

  • Jmhardy97

    Very interesting, I was just talking to my team about this yesterday.


  • Daren Sirbough

    Thanks for sharing. I think cats are more like people who you haven’t won over and Dogs are the people you have won over because you have been faithful and shown yourself faithful to the vision and to their growth.

    I definitely have been aloof at times but the times where I have come to realize that I need to buy into the vision of something is when I have seen my leader’s integrity through seasons. It gives me hope that it is not about fixing them, but by leading by example.

  • Uma Maheswaran S

    Thanks for the fantastic analogy. The comparison was awesome. I loved it. I have learnt something new today.

  • Gina Burgess

    Cats only seem to sleep/nap 80% of the day. That isn’t true unless they are bored and unstimulated. They either love high places or low places and will gravitate to their natural comfort zone. They love sunshine. Even though they are most comfortable inside with the person they own, they are survivors and will land on their feet even falling from great heights. With no human contact, cats become feral and focus upon self much more than cats who own people. They are trainable.

    Good sales reps are trainable. They will enter the jungle to snag something so they can eat, they get bored if that is their only stimulation. They will gravitate to their own comfort zone getting lazy, approaching customers with the same pitch rather than exploring each customer to find their need. Good sales reps are survivors and will land on their feet from great heights and even while under severe attack. Sales reps think they do better on their own, but they thrive in a good environment with healthy competition and managers who will stroke them when needed, coach them past the scary parts/customers, and stimulate them to break outside the habit/comfort zone.

    Some Christians today are taking napping to new heights. Some are in comas. Some are bored without realizing why. On the other hand, I see a lot of Christians who are back in the saddle every morning racing through Christian living making it look easy when it is the hardest thing to do. We suffer scratches daily. We gravitate to our comfort zone, we get caught in sunbeams and settle into them with a lethargy that makes Satan jump in joy. We fall from great heights and only land on our feet because God is our safety net, but why is it we don’t immediately give Him the glory?

  • Anonymous

    We just moved to for all of our project management, and it has revolutionized our business.  We have tried basecamp, goplanapp, activecollab, and nozbe.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I will have to check it out. Thanks.

  • Katherine Hyde

    Cats also respond to food. Don’t underestimate the power of tangible rewards. :)

    • Steven Cribbs

      True.  I tend to always offer food when people do something that seems above and beyond (especially if it is near meal-time).  My thought…if they are going to take care of me, I am going to take care of them.

      As well, it never fails, offer free food and people will come out of the woodworks chomping at the bit to get some.

      • Jeff Randleman

        I love free food…

    • Michael Hyatt

      Excellent point!

  • Extreme John

    Great logic! I love the video! What it has shown is just what it ought to convey to the viewers– how good leadership and excellent project management can yield fascinating results. One more thing about cats is that they love being fed. So if we cater the team well as a leader, this would create better cooperation which would lessen or prevent difficulties along the way. 

  • Alex Humphrey

    This encourages me a lot. I’m building a coaching business and remembering that “We can do more together than a part” will probably help me a lot as I work to help others work through their finances

  • Steven Cribbs

    Great thoughts!  I love the connection with “herding cats”.

    I am working on a post where I am using the same idea of “herding cats” in talking about managing chaos.  It is based on the chaos that comes with a Vacation Bible School with 750 children and 300 teen and adult volunteers – not to mention the hundreds of parents dropping off and picking up children.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Now THAT is chaos!

      • Jeff Randleman

        No kidding!  Have you been following his blog on this experience?  It’s been incredible to read!

        • Michael Hyatt

          I’m afraid I haven’t.

  • Jeremy Myers

    I can herd cats with a shake of the cat treat food box. 
    So…. donuts and coffee for project management?

    • Gail

      But both have to be pre trained to that response. For some people the manager bring donuts and coffee is a sign of pending doom.

  • Gail

    As a Project Manager and cat mum I think this is so true. I like :)

    Here’s another one:

    Cats need space – Micromanaging rarely succeeds in the workplace and even rarer with cats. Cats have their own minds. They like to do their thing at their own time and in their own space. Even in the middle of the best tummy rub a cat will suddenly get up and wonder away. As a Project Manager your role is one of leadership through influence rather than leadership through position. This can make it much more difficult to herd the cats / staff into the place where they should go. Particularly for those cats who don’t like cat nip.

  • Martin Longden

    EDS and the airplane is a great analogy for our department … business as usual and delivering on improvements in our project is like that AND herding cats. Thanks for the post Mike!

  • Martin Longden

    The airplane analogy reminds me of our department and how we are running business as usual and delivering on improvements with our project at the same time … including the cats. Thanks for the post Mike!

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  • Jan beery

    If you’ve ever worked in the health care industry, it is exactly like herding cats! 
    1. Physicians are solitary animals2. Physicians are seemingly aloof3. Physicians are easily distracted

    Love this! Thanks for sharing.

  • Gail

    Yep,  know the hand that feeds you.

    Sometimes the gift is a geniune attempt to help ease the pain of change. I only started drinking coffee when I led one particular project and was regularly bringing in coffee for the team while they went through the extra workload of learning new things while maintaining normal productivity levels. The coffee was much appreciated.

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  • Jeff Randleman

    A friend of mine once wrote a book called Herding Cats.  Great stuff, and so applicable to the church.  Thanks for sharing!

  • Katie Fassl

    Great post, Michael.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “This is like herding cats,” in the last week.  I have a client who is really easily distracted, so #3 really resonated with me.  I need to take a good, hard look in the mirror and focus more :).

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