Flying starts, flagging finishes

Do we focus on first impressions at the expense of memorable finishes?

Have you ever had a construction or renovation project that goes something like this: At first, things start off well and there is a good relationship with the contractor. Their approach inspires confidence. Regular progress is made. But then the project hits a snag or two: something takes longer than budgeted for, or there is a delay with supplies. The level of service tapers off, as does the quality of workmanship (although interestingly, the invoices *don’t*).

I get it: most projects are a lot more fun at the front end. That’s the creative bit, and it’s full of possibilities. By comparison, the finishing stages are often full of niggling details and pieces that don’t quite fit as the plans said they should. It’s the point when the bits you didn’t quite think through at the beginning become painfully apparent.

If, at this stage, the contractor’s strategy is one of avoidance; trying to do as little as they can get away with to get the project off their books, the whole job ends on a sour note. And who’s going to recommend a contractor who they’ve had to drag across the finish line?

A project doesn’t have to end this badly for you to be unhappy with the result. All it needs to do is fail to live up to your expectations.

Finishing badly is even more disastrous when you consider the way we remember experiences. According to the peak-end rule, how an experience finishes has a strong influence on the way we recall it overall. Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues demonstrated that when we recall a physically painful experience (such as a colonoscopy, or putting our hands in very cold water), we judge it as being less unpleasant if the final stage was less painful, even if we endured the pain for a longer duration.

If we apply the peak-end rule to how we treat customers (and visitors), it would suggest that finishing on a high note is particularly important. We should definitely deliver what we promise, and only promise what we know we can deliver. If an experience ends with a pleasant surprise, that will enhance memory of the event overall. On the other hand, if it ends with disappointment, it sours the whole experience – no matter how well you did in the early stages.


The 6Ds of Group Dynamics

What’s the right number of people to have working on a project? 

Based on my experience in exhibition development teams, planning groups and various committees, I’ve developed these rules of thumb for group dynamics:

  • To Do and Deliver: I believe small teams of 3-4 people are most suited for completing specific, focused tasks where the desired outcome is well-defined and understood. Groups of this size are large enough to have enough hands to bear the load, while being agile enough to make progress quickly. They make good working groups and subcommittees.
  • To Delegate and Decidethis is the main role of committees and boards, and 8-10 people is usually a good number to have around the table. There are enough people to ensure a variety of perspectives inform the overall strategic direction of a project or organisation, while still being small enough to make decisionmaking manageable. Such committees can include representatives of your “Do and Deliver” subgroups or working parties, who can report on progress and seek guidance on what to do next.
  • In my experience, things get a bit tricky once you try to get more than about 12 people around the table. Too often, the result is less action and more dalliance and deferralDiscussions tend to be unfocused and circular as the sense of “too many cooks” creeps in. It can be hard to reach a decision, meaning progress is slow if not completely sclerotic. Larger groups also quickly factionalise, leading to more conflict than consensus.

Do these tally with your teamwork experiences?

Festival Volunteering

Today the Adelaide Festival and Adelaide Fringe wrap up for another year, the city returns to normal, and our social calendars get a lot less frenetic.

Like many arts festivals around the world, both the Festival and Fringe depend heavily on volunteers to help things go smoothly. And volunteering is a great way to feel part of the festival vibe. This was my 4th year as a Festival volunteer, and this year I decided to be a volunteer for the Fringe as well.

My collection of volunteer passes


I’ve just added up the hours from the past few weeks and found that I have volunteered over 50 hours in total. Things I have done over this time include:

  • Live tweeting selected discussion sessions during Adelaide Writers’ Week
  • Operating and minding projectors as part of a multi-site outdoor video art installation
  • Keeping queues orderly and ensuring people were in the right queue for the show they wanted to see
  • Giving directions and handing out lots of maps, flyers and programmes

Festival volunteering is something I more or less fell into: back in 2012, the Festival decided to bring in a dedicated team of social media-savvy volunteers to live tweet selected sessions during Writers’ Week. I was one of the people who was tapped on the shoulder to help out in that first year, and I’ve been involved in every Writers’ Week since, adding additional volunteer duties as my other commitments allow.

I find volunteering in public-facing roles useful for reminding me some important lessons that I can apply to my own work, such as:

  • Signage and maps need to be carefully designed and worded to avoid ambiguity and confusion: what’s clear when you can take your time to find out what’s going on is much less so when you’re arriving at the last minute for a show that’s about to start.
  • People don’t tend to read instructions or the fine print when it comes to booking, purchasing and collecting tickets.
  • Planning can only take you so far: event staff need to be flexibile and ready to respond to unexpected scenarios. There are only so many things you can be specifically trained to handle, although the training you get as a volunteer for a large event gives some good pointers.
  • Being in customer-facing roles can be exhausting! Plus it can be easy to get jaded saying the same thing over and over again to a seemingly endless procession of patrons. Rotating staff across different duties over the course of a shift keeps everyone fresh and able to put their best foot forward.

Right, now I think I’ve earned a few quiet nights in  . . . .