One of my wise strategic mentors, Greg Reid, instructed us on the "dinner table analogy" when it comes to project management and project team member interactions:

  • When you’re with your family eating around the kitchen table, you can argue, squabble, and be a little unruly with few concerns about it.
  • When you have friends over to eat, you need to be on better behavior, mind your manners, and say “please” and “thank you” even if things aren’t as formal as they could be.
  • When guests are over for a formal supper in the dining room, however, you have to be on your best behavior and make sure you don’t do anything to embarrass the family in front of your guests.

He likened the family, the guests, and the different dining situations to project management interactions we encounter at work.

What Type of Dinner Table Are You At?

Family Dinner around the Kitchen Table

The first situation is when you have project team members working actively and closely together. You owe it to each other to introduce, build on, modify, and vet ideas while recognizing not every idea will be fully developed (so you need to go easy at this early stage). The opinions and ideas aren't yet ready to share with others, which is completely appropriate. It’s the time from a project management standpoint to ask tough questions and challenge ideas in a productive way as the project team then moves forward with a unified strategic approach.

Having Friends over for Dinner

The second dinner table situation applies to introducing more prepared ideas or a plan to a broader audience, but not yet the ultimate one. You're looking to introduce what you’ve done, be ready for questions and handling suggested modifications from your audience. The key among family members (i.e., the project team) is not using the opportunity to ask fellow team members challenging, damaging, and embarrassing questions. Those need to have been handled before the presentation or afterward in a future “family dinner” setting.

Formal Dinner

The last situation is when you present a final project deliverable, often to a senior management team or client group. By this point, things are very choreographed, all the project team members knows their parts, no strategic or even tactical side discussions are raised, and everybody uses their best manners while presenting the final project deliverable. It is definitely not the time to voice intra-project team disputes, grievances, or objections. It's all about making sure the guests come away with the best possible experience.

Putting the Dinner Table Analogy  into Action

The dinner table analogy all sounds pretty straight forward, but it was surprising how often you’d see project team members put fellow team members on the spot in a "formal dinner" setting. Bad move and completely unnecessary.

When you're on a project team or in charge of project management, think about what type of situation you're in and make sure you're using the appropriate manners and behavior for whoever is coming to "dinner."  – Mike Brown


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