The Free Bagel Measure of Project Health

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.07 May 2004

for the Cutter E-Mail Advisor

As a project manager, I want to know about the health of the projects in my sphere of influence. I've recently observed what I call the "Free Bagel" measure of project health. Although seemingly unscientific, it has an excellent record of indicating project health.

A few years ago I worked in an organization that was struggling with many of its projects. A new manager came in and decided to try to improve morale. He discovered that we had over a thousand dollars in our coffee fund, so he instituted free bagels on Monday mornings.

Free bagels on Monday morning was a nice treat. Many of us would skip breakfast at home because we knew there would be bagels and toppings waiting for us at work. We would gather round the coffee area, drink coffee and tea, and eat bagels. While eating, we discussed our various projects that all seemed to be in trouble. We learned a lot from each other about projects and how to improve them. Those free bagels were quite instructional. In addition, morale improved, and so did the health of the overall program of projects.

Free bagels on Monday mornings lasted about six months. People got busy and didn't have time to eat and talk. The pressure of the work outweighed the pleasure of the company. By the way, morale dropped back to its previous state, and so did the health of the program.

I have worked in several organizations and on several projects where we had a regularly scheduled special event. On one project, the project manager scheduled a lunch outing every Friday. He didn't buy lunch for people, but sent out an e-mail telling people what restaurant and time the group could meet. About two-thirds of the people on the project showed up for these lunches. We enjoyed the time together away from the office.

Those lunches lasted a few months, but just like the free bagels they just sort of stopped happening. People didn't seem to have time for lunch together.

All the special events in my career suffered the same fate. They were fun and beneficial, but they took time away from "the real work." When the health of the project dropped, we all had to spend every available minute working (as well as a lot of unpaid overtime). Special events weren't essential to the work.

The end of the regularly scheduled special event is the free bagel measure of project health. Almost all of these special events began with the start of a new project or new initiative. All of them ceased to exist a year later.

The free bagel project health indicator measures how long the special event lasts. If the special event lasts the lifetime of the project, that is an exceptionally healthy project and one that I've never experienced. If the special event lasts through half of the project, that is also a project in good health. The free bagels on Monday only lasted three months. The Friday lunches only lasted six weeks. Those projects weren't healthy.

I think that having a regularly scheduled special event is good for a project. I have learned things at these special events that have helped me with my job performance. The best benefit is that I learned things about the people with whom I worked. The most important thing I learned was that I was working with people who had families, interests, hobbies, and areas of expertise. I became much more likely to speak to them during the day. Those conversations helped the projects we were working on together.

I encourage project managers to initiate regularly scheduled special events on projects. I also encourage project managers to do so with a heavy dose of honesty and realism. Sustaining these special events is difficult and not always desirable.

Start a special event by announcing, "Starting next week, I will use coffee-fund money to bring in bagels every Monday morning. Feel free to spend a half hour eating and chatting every Monday. We will do this for three months and then decide if we want to continue it."

At the end of the initial time period, discuss the benefits and costs of the special event with people. If you decide to end the special event, do so with an open, public announcement. Also announce that you will start another type of special event in a month. Take suggestions and start something else in a month.

Special events and their demise are good measures of project health. In my career, they have correctly indicated when a project's health dropped. When a special event withers away, the project is in trouble. Consider starting the event again in a realistic manner. You need to keep your team together in a healthy manner.