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Lessons in How Not to Manage Your Project From Reality TV's Losers

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 8/25/2011

Many reality TV challenges require participants to work together in groups or teams and compete against one another. Sometimes, grievous errors are made; other times, really innovative means of project management are demonstrated. No matter your take on reality TV, I'll bet you can learn from it.

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    Another's Loss May Be Your Gain

    When many people get home from work, the last thing they want to do is engage in an activity that requires them to think. So, they flip on the television, sink into their favorite spot and catch the latest television show.

    For the past decade or so, reality TV has taken off in its popularity. While many people simply dismiss reality television as junk, I'd like for you to think for a moment about the shows with challenges where the "reality" stars are expected to produce some product or another—shows like Apprentice, Project Runway, MasterChef, Survivor and Top Chef. Some of these challenges are masterfully executed, but others are painful to watch. While many challenges are individual, there are also challenges that they have to perform as teams, and on Apprentice, they even work together with one person overseeing the process as a project manager.

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    Make It Work, Andre

    Tim Gunn wants you to think through your project steps carefully to make it work. Tim Gunn, advisor on television favorite Project Runway, is always running around telling everyone to "Make it work." The reality show involves a group of fashion designers who compete against one another for a contract allowing them publicity for their clothing lines. There are a lot of high-pressure challenges on the show, and sometimes you see the competitors fall apart.

    You've got to make it work. Whether you're overseeing only yourself or you're in charge of a team of people working together to produce a final project, you are in charge of ensuring the different pieces of the project work together.

    The best way to "make it work" is to take a moment, define the scope of your project well, and plan your project carefully. Otherwise, you may get halfway through and find that your project efforts don't work. In fact, you may find that the fabric you've constructed your project out of isn't substantial enough to hold it all together.

    Successful projects involve tasks that are carefully woven together. If you find that your fabric isn't working, then you've got to carefully manage change in order to get the job done in the time you have without wasting all of the resources or effort that has already been put into the project.

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      It Won't Work if the Body and Legs Don't Cooperate

      On MasterChef and other shows when the competitors are put together in teams this happens a lot. You'll watch as the egos of a few of the team members bring down the entire team. Someone on the team believes that he or she can do it all, and what winds up happening is the person either doesn't delegate enough of the tasks to other members or doesn't communicate well enough with other team members. While sometimes this is the team leader, it can also be a team member who takes on more than he or she can handle.

      In a recent episode of said show, one of the contestants brought her team down by failing to communicate with the team that making dessert was not something she was comfortable with. She wound up struggling, and didn't communicate this until the very end of the challenge.

      Communication is the glue that holds your project together. If you're the project manager, it is vital that you understand the importance of solid team communication. Listen to your team. Delegate tasks appropriately. If Ashley says she is not comfortable taking on tasks x, y, and z, then don't delegate those tasks to her. It's that simple.

      Likewise, encourage all team members to raise their concerns. Do not encourage a culture where your team members are afraid to voice their concerns. Otherwise, you could find yourself in a situation where people are struggling and not saying anything until a minor problem becomes a crisis. Be diligent about checking in with team members as to the status of their projects.

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        There Is No "I" in Teamwork

        Have you seen episodes of Survivor where there's a team challenge and one person on the team has decided that he or she has the right way to do things, and everyone else winds up sitting around because said member won't allow them to do anything? That team member then goes on to brag how he or she single-handedly did x.

        The problem with that situation is often you have errors that would have been caught should others have been brought in on the project. Additionally, you could have resentment among team members, and team members may begin to lose their motivation.

        Watch out for lopsided teams. Not only do you have to watch out for communication in teams and make sure that you're delegating tasks and talking with the members on your team, but you also really need to be sure that no individual on your team is taking on all the work while others sit around.

        Very closely related to this, you've really got to be sure that your team members are not competing with one another and that no one is trying to show anyone else up. If you start getting competition or conflict amongst team members, it is important to focus on methods to take care of this as soon as it starts. Otherwise, what will happen is that the conflict and competition, not the project, will take center stage.

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          Never Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

          It is vital that you understand the limitations of the project. In Top Chef and other projects, you often see the competitors taking on much more than they can handle in the allotted time. In project management, this kind of thing can lead to the death of your project.

          For instance, in the show, competitors will try to make meals to impress judges, but they will be too complex for the time they are given. Worse, during the middle of the competition for that episode, some of the chefs (or designers, or competitors) will decide suddenly that they want to do x in addition to what they've already done. By giving into this temptation to allow scope creep into the project, they often sign their ticket right off the show.

          Know the limits on time, cost and scope. It's been said many times here in the project management channel—there's a joke amongst long-time project managers. Of the three, you can choose two. If you want a low cost and a quick schedule, you better limit your scope. You would never broil something that needs to be slow-roasted. Likewise, you would never expect a client to pay big bucks when the scope of the project runs away from the initial intentions.

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            Integrity Is Key

            The Apprentice is often known for participants who have a hard time sticking to ethical practices. There have been many situations that were morally questionable, if not controversial, on the show. When managing your projects, it's important you don't take short cuts. Otherwise someone could get hurt, money could get lost, and in a worst-case scenario you may hear the words "You're fired" or "You're being sued."

            Evaluate the project's risks and adhere to all industry and safety standards. Create a risk assessment for your projects. Don't cut corners on this. Don't ask employees to do things they are uncomfortable with. If you're developing a new product, make sure that product will be the safest possible. Nothing's worse for your company's reputation than having to initiate a recall. Before releasing software, make sure to test that software to ensure it will not crash your customers' computers.

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              Reality TV gets a lot of flack for being devoid of content. However, if you're paying attention, you can pick up some good strategies for life. You can learn how people become successful—often it's a matter of keeping calm, knowing limits, and being diligent in making strides toward each milestone of the competition—and how people shoot themselves in the feet.

              What sorts of things are your favorite reality shows teaching you about project management?

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              References:

              NBC The Apprentice. http://www.nbc.com/the-apprentice/

              Lifetime Project Runway http://www.mylifetime.com/shows/project-runway

              Fox MasterChef http://www.fox.com/masterchef/

              Bravo Top Chef http://www.bravotv.com/top-chef

              CBS Survivor http://www.cbs.com/primetime/survivor/

              Image of Tim Gunn courtesy of Wikimedia Commons