In addition to being a project manager, I am also a patchwork quilter. Last week, a buddy of mine asked me if I thought there were any similarities between the skills required to manage projects and the skills required to make a patchwork quilt. Absolutely! Here is my list of the top ten skills shared by successful quilters and project managers.
Paying attention to detail. Quilting and project management both require you to pay attention to the details of what you are trying to accomplish, every step of the way. Quilting tends to be a project of one person where you plan, execute and manage yourself while my projects tend to be large, collaborative efforts in an organization that is trying to change the way they do something or to make something they are currently doing better. In either case, you need to be able to define and manage the little bits and pieces of your project as you perform the work required to get to the end of your project and be successful.
Defining the big picture. On the flip side, understanding the scope of your project is also very important to quilters and project managers alike. If you don’t know the totality of what you are trying to accomplish, you will find it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve that something. You can’t pay attention to the details and make adjustments along the way of you haven’t defined what the scope of your efforts will be. As a quilter, this impacts your schedule and your budget for purchasing all those lovely fabrics you plan to use. On a larger project in an organization, you have resource skills, availability and a host of concerns that could impact the scope of your efforts.
Targeting a desired end result. My mother always says that it is hard to get somewhere if you don’t know where you want to go. The same is true for both quilters and project managers. Without a destination in mind, typically defined as your final outcome or solution, getting to that end point is going to be challenging. While one key art of planning is defining the scope of your efforts, you also have to know the path you plan to take when doing the work to build that final outcome you are targeting. Once you know where you are going and where you want to be, there are often many paths that can successfully take you there.
Planning, planning, planning. Planning and re-planning are simply a way of life for project managers and quilters! If you don’t have good planning skills and a solid approach to doing that planning, it is easy to miss something or someone along the way. I tend to use top-down planning in my large projects and a combination of top-down and bottom-up planning for my quilting projects. My quilts often start out with a pleasing selection of fabrics I would like to use, and then get combined with a quilt pattern that I feel would present them to the best advantage. Sometimes I also choose patterns that force me to increase my piecing skill levels just for fun.
Using tools to get the job done. Where would we be without tools? Project management tools, word processing tools, communication tools, sewing machines, rotary cutters and web-based fabric shops with all the latest fabrics, oh my! The trick is knowing what tool you need and being able to use that tool effectively when you need it. This is true for quilters and project managers in equal measure. As a project manager, too much tool time and not enough people time can result in a less-than-successful project. As a quilter, too much sewing time and not enough “looking at your work and laying out the pieces” can result in a quilt that is perfectly sewn but not pleasing to the eye.
Communicating with stakeholders. Communication is an essential part of managing projects. There is a reason all those studies out there tell us that poor communication is the #1 cause of project failure. Funny enough, quilters need to communicate as well – with one another and with other folks they want to share their creations with or possibly sell their creations to. Many quilters (myself included) have quilt blogs where they discuss their latest project and share tutorials on a wide variety of topics. There are many, many project management and quilting conferences out there where you can meet your peers and learn new things.
Managing your supply chain. Supply chain management can be daunting to even the most experienced of project managers. Just ask folks who manage manufacturing operations what happens if there is a kink in their supply chain for essential raw materials. Quilters also manage their supply chain, although most of us end up with a serious stash of unused fabric and fabric scraps from our previous projects. Project managers don’t usually have the luxury of building a stash of the goods and materials required for their projects.
Building (and hopefully sticking to) a project budget. Most projects come with a budget and a timescale built-in. I call these numbers “constraints” since typically those numbers were chosen based upon a very high-level definition of what needs to be done. When you are managing within the context of the triple constraint – time, budget and scope – something has to give in order to bring your project to completion in the real world. This is also true for quilters. You can’t make every cool quilt pattern you see in a book or a magazine, you have to select, prioritize and do the things that matter most to you.
Capturing and applying lessons learned. Where would we be without lessons learned? If formal lessons from previous projects are available to you in your organization, you are a step ahead of most folks. Most of the time, we learn these lessons through the “word of mouth” method from our peers, team members and other stakeholders. As a quilter, I keep my own informal list of lessons learned, also known as “mistakes not to be repeated”. In either case, lessons learned are an essential part of doing our projects better over time. This principle holds true whether your project is a patchwork quilt with a team of one person or a new, mission-critical IT system.
Identifying issues and risks. In quilting, the issues and risks certainly spice up piecing and constructing a quilt. On a work project, issues and risks can sometimes get in the way of a successful project outcome. The sooner you identify and assess these issues and risks, the better off you are. Nothing hurts more than being surprised by the “one that got away” or the risk you missed until it showed up on your doorstep and said “hello”.
Well, there you have it. As always, these skills need to be balanced based upon your project situation to get the best fit. I am curious if you have anything to add to my list from a project manager’s or a quilter’s point of view. If you are looking to refine or validate your communication skills, take a look at Learning Tree’s 4-day course on fundamental project management skills. This course is certainly a great place to begin or revisit how well you are managing your projects and your project team members and to learn some new skills and techniques for managing them even better still. You can also check out my quilting blog at to see what I am up to these days on my personal quilting projects!