Just like anyone can write a story, anyone can manage a project. Whether it’s done well or not is a different matter. Just like writing a story, you can end up on the best seller list. But, to reduce stress and increase your bottom line, there are best practices you can learn and employ to improve your project’s chance of success.
Project Management is Storytelling
When I think of great authors in history, I think of big brained creatives, creatives who were more like hippies than like me (in my day-time form that I assume between 9-5 Monday to Friday). When you’re managing a project you’re the author ✍️. You’re the nexus of information that ties the multiple threads of information across dimensions of time, space and people together. The publisher may have solicited you to write a particular type of book, but when it comes to the implementation of that vision, it’s you as the project manager that has the power to make it successful or to let it crash and burn and fall out of the eyes of historians eager for an excuse to document your work. Again, you are the nexus of information, the only person on the entire project who has a sense of everything that’s going on in the past, present, future, and everything to do with the plot, the characters and the world you’re building. Remember, it is plot, characters and world building you’re dealing with even if you’re transacting in business jargon like “critical path,” “people management,” and “project plan.”
So how can I possibly make a project successful if I’m a first time project manager? The straight answer is that just like anyone can write a story, anyone can manage a project. Whether it’s done well or not is a different matter. Just like writing a story, you can get lucky and end up on the best seller list. But, to reduce your stress and increase your bottom line, there are best practices you can learn and employ to improve your project’s chance of success. And those things begin as soon as you’ve decided to write a story.
Where to Start
World Building (i.e. Project Planning)
As the author of this story you’re responsible for the outcome of the story in totality. Before you even start writing your story you plan. You create the scaffolding of the world you want to build. You establish the constraints of the world. You birth the characters and define their roles in the story. All this so that as soon as you sit down to write the story you’re setup for success. All you have to do is flesh out this world you have created, to pull it into this reality.
Clear as mud?
Okay, let’s break it down to the fundamental story elements.
The Premise (i.e. Vision)
Every good story starts with a vision. People don’t output books without knowing what they want to write about. Yes, they won’t know the particulars, but they will have a sense of where they want to go. That’s the vision and any project will have it. People don’t build houses because they really like working with dry wall and nails. They build houses because they have this vision in their mind that they want to pull into reality. Yes, you can surprise yourself with the exact implementation, but at the end of the day it’s going to be a house with the specific number of bathrooms you want (or worse, it’ll have no bathrooms and you’ll be…pissed).
A Matter of Expectations
With the vision comes the particulars of the implementation. If a publisher commissions Stephen King to write a book, that’s presumably because he’s a renowned horror writer. If he comes back with a romance novel, no matter how good it is, the publisher will likely be upset because it did not jive with their expectations. Yes, people can be won over, but people are a lot less privy to changing their mind when it’s their money being spent. However, if they could do it themselves, they would have done it already. Ultimately the publisher hired you to author this story because you have the skill set to take their vision and to make it a reality.
What starts out as a vague destination becomes more and more real as you map out the plan to get there. It’s expected that the plan starts out general and refines with time. Writing a novel and managing a project are results-oriented activities. No one cares how well you kept up with the timeline if the output at the end of the day is artful garbage.
The Plot (i.e. Critical Path)
What story are you trying to tell? What makes a good story? In the case of this story we’re trying to tell, a good ending is one that meets expectations, is on budget, on time and leaves the customer feeling satisfied. The path to getting there should be familiar to anyone who’s taken English 101 and knows the standard narrative arc, or even anyone who’s watched a Disney movie. Yes, not every successful story has a happy ending. That’s where story telling and project management diverge. On every project you’re trying to deliver a happy ending. In the realm of project management, all stories are Disney stories. If they don’t have happy endings, they are not good. (it’s no coincidence that Disney movies also follow a formula). At this point in the story you not sitting down at the keyboard to type. You’re just mapping out the outline and the logical steps to get from point A to point B.
Character Design (i.e. People Management)
In the story you are trying to tell, who are the key players? What are the roles that you’re looking to fill? In 101 Dalmatians the key players would be the 101 different Dalmatians, the two humans who care for them plus the villain who wants to make them all into jackets. In a software implementation it might be a technical resource, a business resource and a project manager. On this website the roles would look similar. I have a role for running the site from a technical perspective, a role to create the content and a role to determine what content to create (i.e. the manager). In the case of this site all three of those roles are fulfilled by me. Roles do not have to be one-to-one with people.
Writing The Story
After the preparation is done and your head (and your notebook) is filled to the brim with the rules of the world, the characters, their personalities and the dots are on the page, all that’s left to do is to connect the dots…artfully. To connect them in the way that gives us the highest chance of landing on the best sellers list (i.e. success).
Where to spend your time?
We established before that as the author of the story, you’re responsible for delivering a successful project (or being able to explain why the project was not successful). That means you have to be the nexus of information. You have to synthesize information relating to the past, the present, the future, all the characters involved and all the pieces on the board. The characters don’t care what happens in the future or what happened in the past. They only care about what their doing in the present. The publishers live in the future. They don’t care where you are in the writing, they only care when it’ll be delivered, how much it’ll cost them and how fat their royalty will be. It is only you, the project manager who lives separate from time, 20% in the past, 40% in the present, 40% in the future.
40% in The Present
When you’re managing the present moment you’re responsible for what’s going on in the story. Do the current events make sense? Is it clear what’s going on? Do the actions the characters are taking align with their motivations (i.e. their roles)? Speaking more technically, this time in the present moment can be thought of as people management and task management. Let’s assume that you’re purely a manager on the project. You’re not a character in the story and this isn’t LARPing.
Your job first and foremost is to make sure that the characters in the story (i.e. the Doers) have clear objectives, prioritized in a way that allows them to focus on what’s necessary to keep the critical path moving forward. There will be obstacles in the story the characters will have to overcome and notes from the publisher that you will have to fend off. Your job as the author of the story is to enable the characters to keep moving forward. Make sure they’re spending their energy on the right things. Help them remove roadblocks that you’ve already identified. Help them navigate unforeseen obstacles. Control the flow of information between the characters. Remove distractions (including yourself). Get what you need and get out of the way.
40% in The Future
Look ahead. You’re the only person tactically involved in the project that has the full picture of what’s coming next. Do what you can to avoid making a big mistake in the future or being surprised with an insurmountable obstacle. In the same way that authors don’t like to paint themselves into a corner and force themselves to surprise the audience with a deus ex machina, so to does everyone on a project have a disdain for surprises. Yes, there are limited things you can do when you run into the obstacle to maneuver around it, but the farther along you are in the story (i.e. the project), the less flexibility you have. Identify your risks early and save everyone headaches.
What are Risks?
Risks are anything that puts your outcome or constraints in jeopardy. Something that has a probability associated with it that, if realized, would cause the project to go over budget, over time or reduce in quality. No one is clairvoyant (unless you’re writing a particular kind of story), so you must do your best to define your estimates at completion with an reasonable confidence interval so that no one is surprised at the end of the story. We don’t want Cruella dying in a car crash at the end of 101 Dalmatians because that’s the only way we could think of to save the Dalmatians. Where’s the narrative richness in that? As a rule of thumb, the nearer the milestone is in the critical path, the more accurate the projection should be.
Balancing Time in The Present and The Future
Novice project managers, just like new authors, have a tendency to spend to much time in the present. It’s easy to see why. The present is noisy, it’s fun, it’s alluring, it’s tangible. The future is vague, ill-defined and laden with uncertainty. (Yuck). Trust me, you want to spend at least as much time living the future as you do in the present because you want to avoid the big mistake that ruins the trajectory of the whole story. You want to avoid what happened to George R.R. Martin with Game of Thrones where the scope of the story expanded so much that he couldn’t reign it in to a satisfying conclusion (though fortunately for most of us, our failings won’t be highlighted by the zeitgeist by huge multimillion dollar failures). In the case of Game of Thrones the first 6 seasons are excellent and despite the last two being… lacking, they can still be enjoyed. That’s not the case in project management. Remember, in the game of project management it’s all about the final result. A bad final result invalidates an entire project.
20% in The Past
Looking backwards, the big question is did we play by the rules of the world? Is the logic throughout the story consistent with the story we wanted to tell? This is important for projects and stories when things go wrong. They can go the wrong in the sense of big surprises at the wrong time as I mentioned above, or they can be questions from the publishers such as “what do you mean we’re 50% over budget and the novel’s not done yet?” It’s important to be able to justifiably and reasonably answer these questions so your project outcomes are not in jeopardy. These scenarios can be managed well or poorly. The best way to handle them is to manage expectations along the way. “We went off track here because of reason x.” Admit to and reconcile the small mistakes before they becomes big mistakes. Bad news does not get better with time. This is why we must visit the past. The scrutiny of reflection cannot be managed unless you can answer “Why?” “Why did you do this?” “Why didn’t you do it this way?” “Why are we off track?”
Fast forward months later. You’re at the finish line of your project (or your on the sag wagon). You’re either falling over from exhaustion and relief because you made it. Or, you’re knocked down, another book dropped by the publisher, self published on Amazon and peddled to your friends like a door-to-door knife salesman. As the author of the story you have the power. You have the power to achieve either outcome. All you need is the tools and the gumption to get you to that finish line. If you’re a new project manager, the above is a good start. If you’re a seasoned project manager, perhaps you learned some of the above as I did, the hard way. Drop me a line. Does your experience relate? What are some of your proudest moments as a project manager? Do you feel better able to manage a project after reading this?