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Barbecue and Project Management

As I begin to write this article, it’s 8:30 on the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, the de facto start of the summer season in the United States. In most parts of the country, and especially in the South where I live, that means it’s also barbecue season.

I take my barbecue seriously, so I awoke at 4:00 this morning to start smoking a pork butt for a party this evening. I’m also rather old-fashioned about preparing barbecue, so I use a barrel smoker with a firebox rather than an electric smoker or an automatic pellet feeder. Not only do I like the end product better, but I also enjoy the process of smoking with an actual fire.

Preparing barbecue this way isn’t easy, though. There’s a lot of craft involved. I have to select the right kind of wood, with the right amount of seasoning (not too green, not too dry). I have to keep the fire just low enough to keep the temperature in the smoker in a narrow range. I also have to keep the fire burning and not smoldering to impart the best flavor to the meat.

Going through this process got me thinking about a few parallels with project management, particularly in the field of software development.

The temperature trend is more important than the current temperature.

Keeping the fire in the right range isn’t just about the current temperature. It’s about knowing which way the temperature is headed. If it’s headed up, I need to prepare to open the vent to let out a little more heat in case it gets too high. If it’s headed down, I might need to add a bit more wood. That’s not the whole story, though. I need to see where the temperature might settle before I do anything drastic. If it’s above 300° F or below 200° F, it’s clearly in a bad place, but I still need to know where it’s heading before I get too excited.

Parallel: It’s difficult to jump into a project and know just how it stands until you get a sense of what kind of progress, or lack of progress, is being made. A metric may tell a story, but multiple metrics tell a more complete story.

Should I add wood, open the vent, or leave the fire alone?

Have a stack of wood chopped, split, and ready to add to the fire.

I started working on my stack of wood yesterday afternoon, and even this morning I’m chopping, splitting, inspecting, and sourcing more wood. I don’t want to get caught with a dying fire and no prepared wood to add to it.

Parallel: When a project is critically understaffed, that’s the wrong time to start recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training. A well-tended talent pipeline is critical for handling staffing disruptions on a long-running project.

Add wood to the fire before you need it, not after.

If I add a perfectly seasoned, quarter-split piece of wild cherry log to a dying bed of coals, the temperature in the smoker is going to drop precipitously, and I’ll find myself furiously blowing on the embers to “inspire” the fire to light so it can cook the meat.

Parallel: Adding an qualified, experienced hire to a staff that is overworked (and, like an ember, “burned out”) will not yield as effective a result as adding the same hire to a staff that is fully engaged. The new hire can get up to speed on the project more quickly when the team can take the time to train the hire and share their unique team culture.

Add the right kind of wood, in the right amount.

Different kinds or cuts of meat call for different kinds of wood. Hickory will impart a strong flavor to a couple of racks of ribs smoked for an afternoon. A large pork butt or brisket may call for a little bit milder smoke flavor, since those have to be smoked for several hours. Poultry may call for an even milder smoke. Even with the right wood, too little may not keep the fire going, and too much may either smother it or overheat it.

Parallel: Staffing a project, at the start and especially when it’s in-progress, calls for the same kind of care. Most of us probably have seen a project with too many bodies thrown at it, or without the right amount or mix of talent at inception.

Messing with the fire makes the temperature go down before it goes up.

Whenever I lift the lid on the firebox to check on the fire, I lose about 20° F of temperature in the smoker. It’s better to watch the trend on the thermometer or peek inside the firebox vent to see if it’s burning properly. Even so, I do have to open the lid to stoke the fire or add fuel. I can’t get too worked up when the fire’s “productivity” drops immediately after I’ve taken action to improve it. I have to trust that I’ve made the right change and let it take effect.

Parallel: Whenever a project is in trouble, managers tend to institute process changes and add status meetings and reports to track the effects of the changes. It’s not uncommon for those new reports to show that productivity has actually worsened. This can happen if there is overhead in learning the new process, or if the staff has to be trained on a new technology, or if there are additional meetings that initially take away from time that could be spent doing actual work. If the right changes have been made, however, productivity should eventually increase. A little trust and patience may be required.