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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