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Kintsugi for IT Project Managers – 5 ideas to prevent repeating mistakes worth their weight in gold

Kintsugi

Recently, I had dinner in a well-known Asian restaurant chain.

On their placemats, they described the Japanese art form of Kintsugi which seeks to, not just fix pottery, but treat its breakage as part of the history of the object and not as something to disguise.

What a powerful metaphor for life in general but project management especially! Nothing is ever truly broken.

Kintsugi is said to originate in the 15th century when Japanese military commander Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke one a beloved Chinese bowl. He was disappointed with the repair job, probably used whatever the Japanese for ‘shoddy’ is, and he compelled the craftsmen to come up with a more eye-pleasing method of repair.

So, in the art of Kintsugi, broken pottery is repaired with a seam of lacquer and precious metal, usually, gold - Kintsugi translates, more or less, as ‘joining with gold’. Kintsugi emphasises damage rather than hide it and probably is a great illustration of the difference between eastern and western philosophy. A Kintsugi repair actually beautifies and accentuates the breakage, it becomes an important part of the object’s story, so a broken pot becomes something not to be discarded, but actually even more precious than it was before.

What power there is in finding beauty in the damaged or imperfect.

The reason I was at the restaurant that night was to console myself about a project that had not turned out the way I thought it should. I felt a bit broken, I won’t say I was riddled with self-doubt – but you know how it is when a project that you’ve put your heart and soul, blood, sweat and tears into goes belly up! You dwell on what you could have done better, you question your decisions, and overthink If you’re not careful.

This little placemat inspired me to ponder all the errors that I had made, not just on this project but over the years of working on projects! It also gave me a different perspective: every failure has taught me something that I now use to try and prevent similar issues happening again.

I decided that rather than beat myself up over past errors or missteps, I’d “repair myself with gold” and make myself more precious than I was before.

5 Gold Repairs – Your Steps to Kintsugi for Project Managers

1 – Acceptance - Own and Acknowledge Your Errors

Blaming other people or not accepting your responsibility isn’t helpful in the long term, to anyone, least of all yourself. A lot of repeated IT project fails come from this exact scenario, a failure to hold up your hands and say, “I messed up.”

It makes sense before you can learn from your mistakes, you have to accept your responsibility for them, your role in the outcome, the level at which you were at fault. This can be uncomfortable, but until you are at peace with saying, “Doh! Well, I made a mess of that,” you can’t be ready to change.

2 - Ask Yourself The Toughest Questions

Taking time to reflect on what went wrong is one of the most productive and therapeutic things you can do after a project fail or misstep. You don’t want to dwell on the negatives but when you ask great questions you emerge with a new clarity that you can take forward.

What went wrong?

What did I learn?

Was there a defining moment or action that caused this?

What single action could I have taken, and when, that could have prevented this?

What will I do better next time?

Make sure you journal your responses – remember no one else has to see this so BE HONEST. When you write down your answers to these questions you will be able to see things more objectively and react more logically in a measured, rational way.

And here’s the thing, I said that no one else has to see this but sharing your findings with your team can boost trust in you as a leader and help you to internalise the lessons you have learned.

3 - Create A Brilliant Action Plan

So, we’ve agreed not to dwell on the mistakes, but after that period of positive introspection we just discussed you’ll have the beginnings of an action plan.

The majority of your kintsugi for project managers repair should be focussed on how you can do better in the future.

Put simply, you now need to make a plan to prevent you making a similar mistake in the future. Be specific and detailed, and plan in some flexibility as your next project won’t be a copy/paste of the last one.

Most importantly, find a way to hold yourself accountable! A trusted colleague, a diary or calendar, a really nice new notebook, your Project Management software, sticky post-it notes, reminders on your phone … whatever works best for you!

4 - Make Success A Habit

Willpower alone won’t work. I don’t care how self-disciplined you are, your default setting is the path of least resistance. And that’s cool. It is easy though to take the unproductive shortcut or go for the option that delivers instant gratification rather than a benefit at the end of the project. Increase your chances of not fouling up again by making success a habit.

For instance, attaching the actions in the plan to other daily habits is working for one of my PM pals. His ‘ask the toughest questions’ exercise revealed that he wasn’t taking an overview or helicopter view of his projects often enough. So, he attached this to another routine action, vowing that every time he decided to put the kettle on, before heading to the kitchen, he’d take a quick fly over his projects. In no time it became second nature, just a thing he would do without thinking about.

Again, find a way of “habitualising” success that works for you. Perhaps a bag of chocolates in your drawer that acts as a reward … you fancy a chocolate, but first, you have to do “the thing” you promised you’d do to prevent messing up … or a star chart … or a bottle of wine in the fridge that you get to take home at the end of the week! 

5 – Be Clear Why You Don’t Want To Repeat The Mistake

Have you ever been on a diet and a colleague brings in doughnuts? How easy is it to give in? 

It only takes one moment of weakness to unravel all your good work. After weeks of exercise and healthy eating and drinking, your other half opens a bottle of Prosecco and you think ‘one glass won’t hurt’. Been there! But what if on the fridge there was a photo of you when you were slim? What if you had a sticky note with the calories in a glass of prosecco on the door? It may make you stop and think.

This happens in IT Projects too, so make it harder for you to repeat the mistake by compiling a list of the reasons WHY you don’t want to! Catalogue the pain you went through last time, write it out and read it daily.

One of my friend’s bad habits was that he’d pick up his phone in times of stress and scroll through his Facebook and Twitter timeline and twenty minutes later, the thing that was stressing him out was worse. He removed the social media apps from his phone and signed out on his PC, having to log back in gave him just enough time to catch himself.

Another colleague has a laminated list of reasons not to mess up taped to the keyboard drawer in her desk. Each day, she starts with a reminder that focusses her thinking and it’s there every time she looks at her keyboard. 

PMs can get quite bruised in the process of a project fail but, when we learn from it and change, we become stronger and more effective.

So, regard your many bruises as Kintsugi lines of gold that actually show your history and add to your value.

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