How to succeed in a new job or project – go to your “mountain spot”

When starting a new job, I have coached many people on the value of those first 100 days. It’s the time to be the new guy. Enjoy learning and building new relationships. No one can mandate trust; you have that grace period to build trust with your colleagues. In the first month, making decisions should not be a priority, first immerse yourself and be open to new ideas. Think about innovative decisions for the future. This is great advice for starting a job, but I was recently reminded that it works on a new project also.

Maybe 100 days of planning for a project is a little much. Most initiatives are funded and assigned because action was required. Maybe consider the project equivalent to be more like five days. Like you, I am never working on only one project at a time. I am balancing many stakeholders, tasks that may take an hour, and working on projects that may take years. But when recently asked to take over a sizable initiative, a key stakeholder said, “If you need to go the mountain and think about this for a while and plan your attack, we understand.”

That was a kind nudge, but I didn’t take it. I continued to balance all the conference calls, e-mails, project-timelines and meetings. I needed to be building the foundation for a critically important endeavor and I found myself doing most of the planning in the evenings when I was tired and just brain-dead.

That mountain comment crept back into my mind one night. Mostly because it was a good way to put off the planning to another day when I could escape the workday. I woke up the next day, cleared my calendar for the next three days and headed for the Santa Monica mountains. For me, my mountain spot is indeed a mountain. I love the fresh air, nature and serenity. For you, it may be a noisy coffee shop that really gives you calm and allows you to forget about everything and think.

I started the day with a three-hour hike, no note pad, just me and my thoughts. I was all over the place, literally, almost walked off the side of the mountain once because I was bantering 10 different approaches around in my head. By the time I had made the planned loop, I was physically tired and hungry but energized by all of my new ideas for this project. I grabbed an energy bar and some butcher paper from the car. I rolled out the paper on a picnic table, wolfed down the black cherry almond bar, took out a marker and began scribbling ideas all over the place. Some would get scratched out, some started to look like they worked together. The sheet was filled full of arrows and circles highlighted the best ideas and how they would work together.

My mind was worn out again. Time for more thinking. A quick trip 15 minutes down the hill and I was on the Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the ocean. Don’t underestimate the inspiration of a big expansive beautiful view.

This is where it hit me. This project was very similar to many projects from my past that will require keen attention to change management over time. I often use the metaphor of a road trip for these projects. But all the stakeholders had seen this before. All my ideas from the morning where about how to technically make this happen. Now, inspired by the vastness of the view, I realized this was way bigger than a road trip, bigger than even a sea voyage, this was like going to the moon. It would require a rocket ship. The theme of the project was born.

This project requires many volunteer participants. I’m excited about inviting everyone to be astronauts on a rocket ship that we will build collaboratively. Back to the picnic table and the butcher paper. I start drawing pictures and thinking about the mission and the mission guidelines. I focus on how to ensure that everyone gets the full picture and signs up for that task at hand.

By now, I have overridden most of the ideas from the morning and I have gone into hyper-drive, building out my project plan as though I were NASA command central.

But it was only day one. I wrapped up a decent time as I was ready for day two. It was time to phone a friend. I thought I had the answer, but I needed to talk to some colleagues and bounce these ideas off of them. The first couple of calls, I opened with my process. Soon I decided it was better not to tell them of the beautiful mountain and ocean view I was experiencing. Throughout the day and the calls, I continued to tweak the ideas. Some I just threw out because I could hardly explain them. It’s one thing to think it in your head, but if you cannot explain it to someone on the phone, it’s likely not going to succeed.

Day three was forming this up into a little more than just butcher paper. I needed a real plan on paper and my audience was expecting to see a PowerPoint deck, so out came the laptop. But, it was really on my lap, I had a comfy Adirondack chair with a view. Not being at a desk and not having looming deadlines cleared the slate for a fantastic presentation. I found some public use pictures from NASA that really helped visually reinforce concepts.

As I ended three days of thinking in the mountain, I could not go straight back work, put on a pressed shirt, and begin catching up on all those missed e-mails. I had to see this five days of planning through to the end. So, I planned multiple offsite meetings with colleagues, most at restaurants and coffee shops. This way I got to stay in jeans, which I believe to be critical to innovative thinking.

I would make the presentation to each person as if I were in front of the real audience. Yes I got a few blank stares. This is what I wanted. I needed to know where I would lose the connection with my audience. Between each meeting I would tweak my plan and my narrative. By the end it was a solid plan that continues to get immediate understanding and buy-in.

So on a new job, 100 days is that precious window to be the newbie but don’t forget on a new project, spend 3-5 days in your mountain spot.

photo by Katrina Snaps used by permission

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