Guest bloggers

Aliki on the Road : What Do Zebras Have To Do With Project Management?

ByAliki Courmanopoulos,

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Landlocked due to wars with its neighbours, with less than 11 million people, and one of the largest indigenous populations in South America, Bolivia captivated me for the full 30 days of my tourist visa. What was originally a two week visit and a tour of the Uyuni salt flats found me counting the days and googling the consequences of overstaying my limit.

Luckily, being an agile traveler, I could do that.

My time in Bolivia was a game of communication dominoes.  One text message from a new PMI friend in Arequipa, Peru, to his PMI contact in Bolivia and a few days later I was dining with the La Paz PM community and discussing how they use current events to demonstrate project management techniques. This photo below posted to Facebook led to a message from Cristian Soto, PMP, member of the PMI Santa Cruz chapter. Before I knew it, I’m in Cochabamba giving a presentation to fifteen project managers about travelling in project mode. The close-knit project management community in South America provided me with endless opportunities to discover the real Bolivia.

 PMI La Paz community board members

Communication Zebras

One of the challenges they face in La Paz is justifying the need for project management processes and trained project managers. So the La Paz community use concrete examples of successful project practices to demonstrate the importance to a broader audience. One example they provided me are the zebras. I saw these as I arrived in the city; people dressed in zebra costumes parading on crosswalks, signaling to drivers that they need to give way to pedestrians. The project represents an effort to increase road safety and awareness by being highly visual and memorable. Everyone in La Paz knows the zebras, and this project allows the PM community to communicate through visual examples the successful implementation of stakeholder (drivers, pedestrians, city planners, taxi unions, bus unions, government planners) and communication (visual, physical) management processes to prospective members and students.


Next stop: Santa Cruz

Thanks to the enthusiasm and passion of project managers like Cristian Soto, who teach and share their experience with all levels of professionals, that initial facebook message turned into two fantastic public seminars in both Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, Bolivia.

In Santa Cruz, I met with a dozen project managers from different backgrounds and different levels of experience.  For some this was an initiation to the PMI community.

Many were passionate about project management education needing to start in primary schools; project management as a way to learn and live. Participants were all seeking better ways to communication the importance of project management both professionally but also as a means to educate others.

PMI Santa Cruz chapter members and community

Because of the diversity of the group, much of our conversation revolved around the role of a project manager. The consensus around the table was that communication is the most important skill for project success. Not only is it important for accomplishing project tasks but a strong communicator is a successful leader, a necessary skill for these young people as they encounter often difficult professional situations when trying to create change.


Puzzles in Cochabamba

For the Cochabamba workshop, Cristian led fifteen people in an exercise in project planning. Each group was given a 3D puzzle of a famous structure and had to present a plan for its completion. They were thrown for a few loops when Cristian would change up a team members or remove a piece of their puzzle, leading groups to require that important project skill: communication.

Bringing their new team members up to date on their role and the role of others, explaining to their “client” that an important piece was missing and it would cause a delay, presenting and selling their project and finally discussing the lessons learned, most of which revolved around time management and communication problems with onboarding new team members or allocating resources appropriately. The takeaway for participants was the importance of communication planning for the inevitable changes that come along in all projects. While some of the puzzle projects succeeded differently than others, the challenges of communication were the same:

  • Designate a communicator: the primary role of the Project Manager was to provide information and coordinate their project by checking in with team members.

  • Communicate according to needs: new team members need to be brought up to date with sufficient detail so they can start their role. Providing half the information slows down the team as a whole.

  • Plan to communicate: informing your client as to when and how they should expect to hear from you avoids costly and time consuming back and forth.


 Workshop in Cochabamba

Project managers need to be memorable mission communicators to keep their team on track and keep their client informed. Just like the La Paz zebras, they need to be visible and leading the way for improvement.

For the participants in events in both Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, clarifying the role of Project Manager was of utmost importance for both encouraging them to pursue careers in project management or to continue to strengthen their soft skills.  For me, I fulfilled my objective of giving a presentation in Spanish, and met with Bolivians who will help shape the future of their country. My only regret is that I didn’t get to volunteer to be a zebra myself, a reason to go back to La Paz someday.


About Aliki en route

Around the globe, everyday, project managers are making the world a better place by bringing complex projects to life. These individuals use their skills to promote change and improve the lives of countless people. I am backpacking around the world, exploring projects and people, whose passion for these methodologies is creating change through innovation. If you've ever wondered what Project Management is really about, or considered how your skills as a project manager could be used to make a difference, follow me on my trip around the world.