Lessons Learned from Japanese: For Project Management

KanjiI am a linguaphile.  

Not one of those people who spend hours pouring over grammar books or looking up obscure words.  My grammar has always been shaky and my interest in obscure words is almost nil.

I’m the kind of linguaphile that spends time immersed in other languages.  My current language of choice is Japanese.  

Before you start asking what in the world this has to do with Project Management – I have news for you – there is a connection.  Some of the habits I’ve used to learn Japanese seem to be just as useful in becoming more effective while managing your projects.  Habits I’ve used to stay engaged, improve and to avoid misunderstanding in learning Japanese I’ve also applied on my projects.

Lesson One: Be Quick to Change Your Approach
When I started to immerse myself in Japanese, I went whole hog: All Japanese All the Time  with no let up.  I listened to music, movies,  television programs and anime.  Eventually, I asked Comcast to give me TV Japan and I left it on whenever I was at home.

What I learned is that you get really tired of the same thing all the time – so you have to be flexible.  When something is boring or it isn’t working, you need to switch up.  Be quick to change your approach.  If your tired of the news – try an anime – if you’re tired of anime – try youtube.

Similarly, Projects do not come off the assembly line for you to manage.  Some may be suited to a large phase gate implementation, others may require a more nimble approach.  Be quick to look at the project, the scope as defined or not defined and use the PMBOK tools and techniques that help you most effectively deliver what is being requested.  If your normal process doesn’t work as expected, be quick to look at why it’s not working and tweak it until it does.  Make sure you get buy off from the powers that be – whether that’s your Quality organization or your PMO.

Lesson Two: Continue to reach out to learn from other books, classes, blogs, and/ or tweets
After you have learned the basics of a language, it’s hard to stay focused.  From your perspective, from day and day there may not seem to be any progress….or it is so subtle that it can tempt you to give up.

Keep yourself interested in the process even when you’re looking at a project that seems the same as the past five projects you’ve had by continuing to learn more around the project or environment. Read books, blogs, and follow other PMs that are encountering the same issues you are. Look for other ways to stay engaged.

Lesson Three: The same kanji can have completely different interpretations or meanings depending on the context.

Recently, I’ve started to immerse myself in Chinese with the goal of being able to read Japanese and Chinese literature and history.  Both languages use the same kanji, but a kanji in Chinese could have different syllables in Japanese.  And at times, it could have a completely different meaning.

Within your organization or team, you may be used to using a term over and over again.  But every culture is different.  When you talk to another team, they may be using a different set of assumptions about the same word you just used.  When you ‘close out a project’, what happens before you do ‘x’ and who owns what?  It is always good to define what you are talking about and what assumptions you have about owners and responsibilities.  During the conversation, it might seem over the top to push for specifics, but in the end, you may have avoided a misunderstanding that could have led to project failure.  

Have any of your hobbies helped you gain a greater understanding or fresh look at project management?  Leave a comment or send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.


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