Tales from the Field

Whether you're a manager removed from the day-to-day fray, a business analyst operating as part of a dispersed team, or a project manager struggling to understand the wants and needs of often too distant stakeholders, most of us in today's business world can relate to the occasional feeling of being on the outside looking in. That's why when opportunities arise to learn more about the people aspects of a project, I jump at the chance. Introverted PMs--keep reading! Even if engaging with others makes you tired, stakeholder observation doesn't have to be as high-energy as you might suspect.

What are the benefits of field observation?

Field trips

Field trips

Project management is both a science and an art, the latter primarily because you're dealing with people. One of the best tools in your kit relates to the scientific aspects of PM--the ability to observe stakeholders in their natural habitat. New Zealand's Science Learning Hub defines observation as "more than noticing something. It involves perception--we become aware of something through our senses." Interacting with your stakeholders helps you glean tidbits about them that can enhance project delivery.

Of course, observing your stakeholders is far from a controlled experiment. Humans, unlike many other organisms, can readily tell when they're under a microscope and may therefore behave differently. This is where introverts may triumph over their extroverted counterparts. The more you attempt to blend in with the surroundings (i.e., the less chatty you are), the more you may learn.

As a bonus--if you're lucky, field observation may involve some cool trips. Highlights of my career range from studying traffic in the desert to exploring underground forts in NYC to surveying roads in West Africa.

How do you make the most out of field trips?

Approach each field excursion with the diligence that you would employ when packing for an international voyage, even if it's a local day trip that doesn't require a passport. Here are some helpful questions to consider before, during, and after the event:

Ground-level observation

Ground-level observation

  • What is the purpose of the trip? Make sure that your team agrees on the objectives for the visit.

  • What are your goals? Goals and purpose may sound like the same thing, but they aren't in this case. The purpose is why you're going, and the goals are what you'll achieve while you're there. For example, the purpose of the trip may be to observe a training, but your goal may be to survey 20 stakeholders about their experience so that you can improve customer satisfaction the next time you deliver the workshop.

  • What issues may arise, and how will you troubleshoot those issues? For example, if you have to work outdoors, and it rains, what is your contingency plan? How will you communicate with your home team regarding any support needs while you are on the ground?

  • What does success look like? Continuing with the example above, you'll know the trip was worthwhile if you glean three recommendations for how to improve the training and update the curriculum within three months.

  • How will you represent your team? Like any visitor, be gracious. Acknowledge that other team members who would have benefited from the trip may be absent. Do your best to connect those team members with your stakeholders by asking questions you know they'd want answered.

  • What are your "bonus" questions? The best part of field observation is discovering the buried treasure. To aid in this quest, list three questions that you'd like to validate while you're away from your desk. For example, while participants respond optimistically in online surveys, does their demeanor suggest they remain apprehensive about implementation? Record your bonus questions on the plane ride or in the cab on the way to the cross-town meeting; the physical act of writing primes you to listen for potentially illusory clues that might otherwise escape your notice.

What if I don't get to go on the trip?

While nothing beats in person observation for getting to know someone, studies have shown that a few degrees of separation may yield more accurate results if you're conducting a research project. The Pew Research Center has found that, when people interact with an interviewer, "they are more likely to give answers that paint themselves or their communities in a positive light." You may be better off looking at the data without the rose-colored glasses.

That being said, getting left behind stings, especially if the trip would have been beneficial to your work. To compensate (and to increase the odds that you'll be asked to participate next time around):

  • Actively participate in trip planning meetings

  • Contribute your own stakeholder questions to the traveler's master list

  • Demand a trip debrief before the traveler even leaves. What should this debrief entail, and how will the team receive the information? If a trip report format doesn't exist in your organization, volunteer to draft one that maximizes value for those forced to subsist on secondhand news.