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Learning Project Management at the Food Fair

I went to a cultural food fair over the weekend, and while the food was delicious, the way the event was organized left me scratching my head.

Each booth had 3-4 menu items, with each price corresponding to a certain ticket color. $7 for red, $5 for white, and so on. The tickets themselves could be purchased from a station near the entrance. Ideally, this system would be able to track how many of what item was purchased, so that the different booths could compete to see which menu items were the most popular.

With me so far?

Unfortunately, the system broke down the moment diners started buying. Many buyers tried to use the wrong tickets, using larger denomination tickets for lower priced food, and using multiple smaller tickets for the higher priced food. Some booths tried to enforce the ticket hierarchy, but customers didn′t want to hike all the way to the entrance and get the right types of tickets. After a while, everyone just gave up and let the customers be.

I didn′t see the results of the competition, but I′m pretty sure they had to come up with some alternate ways of tracking sales. I certainly didn′t see anyone writing things down–they were too busy serving up the food.

Project managers can learn a lot from this kind of event (and not just event managers). Things like:

Think of the End User

Yes, the system would′ve been a great way to track sales and figure out the most popular foods, but it was pretty clear that the organizers didn′t realize how it would affect customers. The system was inconvenient and awkward, and because of that both customers and vendors were forced to come up with their own solution. Had the organizers had a better understanding of customer behavior, they would′ve been able to devise a better procedure.

Stress Test Your System

What annoyed me most about this system was how simple and preferable it was to break. I broke away from the system right after my first purchase, when I wanted to buy another red-ticket item after I just spent one. Vendors who tried to keep the tickets straight lost customers who didn′t want to be hassled, and so the entire “vote with your ticket” system was rendered moot.

Nothing is truly “idiot proof” unless you′ve put it in a live environment and tested how the project would perform in real situations. And even then, you have to make sure you push the boundaries of the system a little further than what is projected.

Backup Plans

I didn′t stick around for the end, so I don′t know if they had a backup system of tabulating votes. I certainly hope they did.

Project managers should always ask “what if” and make plans for when things go wrong. Better to not use a backup plan than be caught without one.

Whether you′re organizing a food fair or leading a multi-million dollar project, many of the same principles still apply: strong leadership, thorough planning, and a flexible mindset. If you have those three traits, you′ve got it made.


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