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The Story of Project Management

Many people describe the delivery of change as “a journey”. It is a common reference that resonates with anybody who invested time and emotions in the delivery of programmes and projects.

Some of the greatest journeys we know come from fiction; the heroes quest is typically all about dealing with change. How is the journey of a literary character different to the journey of a Project Manager? Not as different as you might think…

Writers of popular fiction follow the seven-point story arc much in the same way that experts in Programme and Project Management follow delivery methodologies. While the details change from story to story, the basic structure is one that remains relatively consistent in the best works of fiction. The same principle can be applied to project management.

Step 1 – The Stasis

In fiction, there is always a place to start in terms of the world of the story. Every journey needs a beginning and the way of the world before change happens needs to be established. That is how a reader becomes engrossed in the story, establishing an emotional attachment. Would we care about the life of Jean Valjean if we did not appreciate that he began his journey as Prisoner 24601?

In project management, the essence of change delivery is understanding the current world. That is why we undertake Feasibility/Discovery analysis early in the process. The stasis gives you a baseline to identify benefits, establish expectations and understand the impacts of the proposal. Before a new change can be justified, we need to set the scene by defining the world that exists today.

Where to focus – spend appropriate effort on Business Analysis in order to pull together elements like metrics, data and customer experience. Define the world before you try to change it.

Step 2 – The Trigger

So with a world established, an event will occur that introduces a change or potential for change. Sometimes that might be a small trigger (like an individual change in circumstance) or a significant trigger (like a war or a tragedy) but the impact can have a fundamental influence on the hero or other characters in the story.

Similarly in projects, the triggers for change can come from a variety of sources. Our hero (the Project Manager) can only start his journey if he has a justifiable cause. The Sponsor or Senior Responsible Owner [SRO] will be the guiding force in this endeavour. Where the Project Manager might be our brave Hobbit, without the wise wizard he can not hope to see his journey through.

Agile organisations can find their triggers in more sources such as customer feedback, strategic imperatives and the flow of Continuous Improvement. At some point, we find the fire of justification that can be poured into a Business Case, moulded into the shape of a quantifiable investment decision and there we have our trigger.

Where to focus – impact assessments such as PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal and Economic) and SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) can help you identify and understand the sources of triggers for change.

Step 3 – The Quest

The journey really gets going when we know what the problem is; we either want to return to the original stasis or find a new stasis that makes the world better. For example, the rabbits searching for Watership Down knew they had to find a safer place to live and they knew the journey would be perilous.

For the Project Manager, the journey is the day-to-day management of every step along the lifecycle of change. Without a clear plan, the right controls and the appropriate resources, the quest becomes more challenging. There are best practice standards, corporate processes and specialist resources at hand along the way to guide and help.

Where to focus – the quest will usually be defined in the Project Initiation Document so be clear about the vision, goals and objectives for the project (essentially defining the destination and mapping out the path to get there).

Step 4 – The Surprise

Every journey will have a few bumps along the way and in literature, some bumps make the story come alive. How would Harry Potter’s journey have panned out if he just sat his exams and qualified from Hogwarts without incident? Every reader of every story must expect that their hero will not have an easy time.

Project Managers have many tools to help them identify, analyse and mitigate these surprises. Risk Registers will help them to see potential surprises coming (and maybe avoid them). Issues Logs will help them control any surprises that become reality. Contingency Plans will help them be ready for when the surprise has such an impact that plans need to change. All of these controls (and more) make the Project Manager well equipped to deal with anything the journey throws at the project.

Where to focus – Risk Management is probably the most important skill set to prepare for the surprises ahead so invest time and effort up front to forecast what could possibly go wrong (or even too right).

Step 5 – The Choice

Critical choices are the dramatically pivotal moments in any story. William Styron (Sophie’s Choice) made the key element of his story a single, heart-breaking decision but often there are many important decisions throughout the journey of the many characters in the novel. True drama comes from the process the character must follow to make that decision.

Fortunately the Project Manager is not alone in making these decisions. The important choices are made by the Project Board representing the business, users and suppliers (informed by the Project Manager and his team). These choices could change the course of the project (they could even stop the project altogether) so it is important that they follow the right governance throughout the life of the project.

Where to focus – Having a clear organisation structure supported by empowered individuals with defined roles and responsibilities will make the decision-making process so much smoother (and do not be afraid of delegating some decision-making to make life easier).

Step 6 – The Climax

There is an end to every story, even stories that promise a future. Pick your favourite book and think about the end first; that is exactly what the story has been building towards, the final denouement, the result of your investment in the journey laid out for you by the author.

Project Managers are no different. The release process is your final chapter, the end of months of effort in delivering an end outcome that benefits interested parties. This is where the moment of truth allows the Project Manager to shine.

Where to focus – You need to go back to the beginning and ensure that you start the project with a clear expectation of the end result. This includes the Benefits Profiles that will start to be realised once the project has delivered its final solution.

Step 7 – The New Stasis

So a brave new world begins once the journey is over. Harry settles down, Frodo returns home, Valjean passes away in peace, Christian and Anastasia live happily ever after. Things either change or they return to the original state. Life goes on…

With the outputs successfully delivered, the Project Manager will have delivered a change into the business, who can start realising the benefits. Lessons have been learnt, actions may be outstanding, rewards and recognition (hopefully) will be issued. So take time for a formal Project Closure and pass on your experiences to the next project.

Where to focus – Before we go on with our lives (a new project, new career, maybe a continuation of the programme of changes following on from the first), it is important to reflect on how it went. Who knows, you might even get to be part of the sequel…

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