Monday, June 23, 2008

In Which I Describe the Similarities Between a Harbor Master and a Project Manager

Last month, when Tom and I took the day off to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we had lunch at a restaurant on the Seattle waterfront. As we enjoyed our meal and chatted about everything and nothing, we noticed that a large ship was being led into the harbor by a small, yet incredibly strong tugboat. The ship was no longer being commanded by its own captain, Tom (who grew up in the California harbor town of San Pedro) told me; instead, a "pilot" was bringing the ship into the Seattle harbor and, once safely in the harbor, the harbor master would determine when and how the ship's cargo would be off-loaded, and would manage the process of sending the cargo on its way to its final destination.

Although I didn't grow up in a harbor town and know little about the workings of a major world port like Seattle's, something about the whole process seemed very familiar to me. Someone has to know what ships are coming in to the harbor from where, when they're arriving, what's on board, where the cargo needs to go -- and somehow time everything so that the whole process runs smoothly and efficiently and everyone gets what they need when they need it.

Now why did this all seem so familiar to me? I'm obviously not a harbor master, but as I watched ships come into the harbor and leave from the harbor, and as I watched the huge orange cranes unload the cargo from ships, I felt an odd affinity with the whole process. I knew that directing that "dance" took massive amounts of organization, that someone was keeping many balls in the air (or ships in the water) at once, knowing exactly how and when to bring ships into the harbor, how and when to off-load them, where to send every single piece of cargo from every single ship, and how to keep the whole process running smoothly.

I knew that as smooth at it all looked, collisions were always just a heartbeat away and that, while one snap decision might keep the whole process running smoothly, another might cause calamity on the high seas, with shipload upon shipload of destruction.

And as I sat there, watching the whole process, I realized that I do exactly with my projects (technical, educational, marketing, etc.) what the Port of Seattle harbor master does with ships and cargo: I greet each "ship" (project) as it arrives under my jurisdiction, guide it into gently, but quickly into the harbor, on its own path, careful to avoid a collision course with other "ships." Then I "off-load" it, careful to manage each piece of cargo (project component) individually, and then I determine where each item needs to go, when it needs to be there, and how to best get it there.

If one part of the intricate process is ignored or if I fail to take the correct action at the right time, the whole delicate system can get wildly screwed up, with a ripple effect that could lead to massive back-ups and destruction of "precious cargo." That would not be a pretty picture, so I am forever maneuvering and re-arranging and forestalling and hurrying so the pieces fit and the whole "harbor of my professional life" (oh, baaaad!) runs smoothly.

Does that fact that THIS is what I thought about as I looked onto the Seattle harbor on my day off mean that maybe I need to visit a small, serene mountain lake?

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Anonymous said...

Yes Carol, you need to take a vacation! LOL

Although reading this totally reminded me of my dad who was a tug boat captain for his last few years in the Navy. Not quite a Harbor Master, but still...

Call me if you ever have time to take a quick walk around the neighborhood!

Shriyansi said...

I couldnt agree more... and you know that I really know what you're talking about! :)

I realised something pretty cool from your post... Dad's a navyman... and he's had heaps and heaps of port and dock experience (he was actually the Officer in Charge for the ISO standards implementation in the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai)... I get this PMing bug from him!! :) When I think about it, he's the guy who (through lots of interaction on *everything*) taught me how to think in a structured manner; to logically reason when reason is invisible; and to plan and delegate. WOW... :) :) :)

To be fair - I get my communication skills from my mum! ;)

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