Project Management Lessons from Volunteering in Vietnam
Guess what everyone? I’m back! I’m sure you’ve missed (or, at least, noticed) my absence from the world of project management commentary, but fear not, I’m back and armed with more material.
Last month, I traveled to Hanoi, Vietnam to volunteer alongside a local NGO where I taught English to young impoverished children and aspiring business professionals.
Living and working in Vietnam was an eye-opening experience that showcased different cultural lifestyles and management practices. Besides making me redefine the term “low-maintenance”, it also highlighted the importance of Easy Projects guest post writer, Mike Rolfe’s, idea of the Minimal Viable Project.
Intrigued? Read on for my top 3 project management lessons learned from volunteering in Vietnam.
1. Communicate Clearly
The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Vietnam was that I didn’t speak Vietnamese. Okay, that should have been obvious, especially since I was going there to teach English to locals. Still, I remember my frustration when I ordered a pineapple smoothie and got coconut because the Vietnamese words for pineapple and coconut are the same (quả dứa’ and ‘quả dừa) except with different tonal inflection.
The second thing evident was the eager excitement from my students to learn English. Figuring their behavior would mirror the stereotype of a bored and inattentive student, I came armed with stickers, songs, and games to win everyone over. While my bribes were appreciated (especially by the young ones), the students’ commitment and desire to learn floored me completely. Since knowing English often makes the difference for them between getting a job and not, every moment is taken as an opportunity to learn.
Whether it’s the simple pleasure of getting the right drink order, the crucial reality of getting a job, or staying on the same page with all the stakeholders involved in a big software project, communicating clearly is essential for success.
2. Define Project Needs
In April, we featured a story that put a twist on Eric Ries’ Minimally Viable Product, where Primal’s Mike Rolfe described how he avoids micromanagement by managing a minimally viable project. Instead of over-planning or over-scheduling, the project manager focuses only on the most crucial elements of a project that make the difference between its success or failure. Known in the PM World as finding and managing the critical path, volunteering in Vietnam puts that theory in practice over and over.
NGOs are always busy with a million things to do. Sure you might be an overwhelmed international volunteer but it’s obvious your request for bed-sheets falls much lower on the priority list than ensuring everything is running smoothly at the local orphanage.
Defining your minimal needs to function and carry out your work-duties eliminates time wasted from more important manners. Save your energy for things that matter, and work towards tasks that will further the overall aims of the project.
3. Go with the Flow
Sometimes you make a critical project management mistake. Sometimes your lesson fails in the first 3 minutes of execution. Sometimes you have a boss who hates you. And sometimes your cab driver drops you off in the middle of nowhere and you’re thankful that you invested in that Vietnamese SIM card.
Whatever happens, getting stressed and discouraged only makes a situation harder to handle. Remember your project’s critical path. Focus on what needs to be done now to ensure success later, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
There were countless situations in Vietnam where, without the help of my students (who saved me when I got a million bug bites), the NGO coordinators (who came to the rescue time and time again), and my fellow volunteers (Dean, Jo, Jacqueline, Isabelle, etc.) I would have given up and jumped on a plane straight back to Canada.
Project management is tough but anything can be accomplished if you just go with the flow, keep positive and work with your team.