Project Management & Mister Rogers

When projects crash and burn one of the key factors is usually very simple: a failure to communicate. I’ve witnessed many situations where vendors tried to shove their own particular solution down a client’s throat without taking the basic step of trying to understand what the customer really needed. If only they had listened to—Mister Rogers.

Several years ago at a Seattle area Project Management Institute dinner I heard Carl Pritchard tell a story about a personal encounter with the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the long running PBS kiddie show. Before he became a project management guru, Carl hosted a local radio show. Part of his job was to interview writers hawking their books. Frankly, authors can be egotistical individuals with a desire to be pampered. Carl’s normal pre-interview routine was to cater to them to make sure  they had their drink, a comfy seat, and whatever other “strokes” they needed to be happy.

One day his guest was none other than Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers to most of us—who was on a book tour. Carl was prepared to be unimpressed. I mean, how uncool is it to be a twenty something radio show host interviewing the host of a show aimed at preschoolers? When Fred Rogers came into the studio to get set up for their forty five minute interview, Carl started going through his normal process of making sure he was taken care of: “Here’s your seat, Mister Rogers. Can I get you something to drink, Mister Rogers?”

At this point Fred Rogers stopped him. “Carl, I’m fine. My concern is what you need. My question is where would you like to be in forty five minutes?”

His inquiry cut to the core of the matter and showed his empathy: What is it that you need out of this interview? Carl was taken aback by this attitude from the celebrity. For the next few minutes they discussed what Carl wanted, rather than pampering the guest. The interview that he had been unexcited about went very well. At the end he was genuinely sad to see his new friend, Mister Rogers, leave. You can bet that Carl’s tone about the book during the interview was much more positive than if his guest had just been another uppity author.

Imagine that in the world of providing services we applied the Mister Rogers principle:

  • A kickoff meeting where the project manager asks stakeholders: “Where would you like to be at the end of this project?”
  • An early sales call where the account representative asks the prospect, “Where would you like to be at the end of this process?”
  • A contentious call with a customer over a problem where the tech support representative lowers the temperature of the conversation by asking, “Where would you like to be at the end of this call?”

We may not be able to take the customer exactly where they want to be, but hearing it in their own words gives us a much better idea of their target and how we can reach it. Not to mention just asking the question lets the other party know that you do have their interests in mind and aren’t just flogging whatever stock solutions you happen to have in your bag of tricks. If you don’t ask, you’re guessing at their true needs and they’re justified in wondering if you really care about their goals.

This tactic is also great at defusing conflict. If I stop a “spirited” discussion, and ask, “Where would you like to be…” I get closer to the core of the matter and can work out a solution that meets both the needs of the project and the needs of that individual. At the very least, I give them a chance to air their concern.

As Carl Pritchard illustrated in his story about interviewing Fred Rogers, if you want to have a beautiful day in your own project, or neighborhood, stop and ask the question, “Where do you want to be?”

By Dennis Brooke, PMP, MBA

Dennis Brooke is a certified project manager who has worked on engagements from Sydney to Sault St. Marie. He has been a keynote speaker at the Puget Sound Project Management Institute Chapter and taught project management in locations ranging from Seattle to Sao Paulo. He is the Vice President for Enterprise Solutions at cloudPWR, a consulting firm focused on finding their customers the most affordable, effortless, and adaptive content and cloud solutions available in the market.


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