I was recently asked to introduce a team of recent college graduates to project management. When you are explaining project management and how things work in practice to young people with no working experience, the main issue is to keep the audience interested and focused.
Explaining project management is most effective when a real project is used to show the interaction in a real situation. Going through methodology, templates or project phases may not be as compelling.
Of course, the golden rule to abide by in these situations is never to speak of customers, colleagues, and real cases. Part of your professional reputation lies in your ability to protect people’s and organisations’ privacy.
This can be quite limiting, but then came the idea – instead of going through some made up project, I decided to pick something that may be much more appealing to my audience. I based my presentation on Lord of the Ring!
It is less crazy and nerdy than it seems at first. Just think about it, books and movies are full of moments when the protagonist has to take a major decision by themselves or wait for someone else to act. Just like in a real project, personal skills and initiative are mostly valuable if used at the right moment and with the common goal in mind, while single, senseless actions usually generate problems for the whole team.
If you analyse Gandalf, you’ll realise he is, in fact, managing a team: he is present when difficulties occur, gives tasks and arranges the resources the team needs.
The weakness of this kind of out of the box approach is that everyone in the audience must be familiar with the story for it to work. But you have to admit, Elves and Wizards are much more fun than Software Developers and Clerks.
In this article, I will shortly describe the main phases of the project “Delivering the One Ring to the Mount Doom”.
The Board Meeting
The project starts with a Board Meeting (in our case that would be The Council of Elrond) where stakeholders are gathered to decide if the project will be authorised and what will be the scope and the expected benefits from the project.
In this meeting, the project team is created, and Team Leaders are assigned. Frodo and Aragorn were appointed leaders of the Fellowship of the Ring. Team Members are chosen for their skills and their contribution in terms of teamwork. And like in any real project, there are those who are involved in the project for the reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension.
Just after the kick-off, you should discuss the Project Plan. Members of the Fellowship had to decide and agree upon the best way to reach Mordor. Gandalf made a major mistake here from the project management point of view: his project plan was not clearly defined which left it open for continuous alterations. He will pay the price for this by facing a major crisis in the Mines of Moria endangering the whole project.
Changing the project approach will undermine the confidence of your team, and it may also generate conflicts inside the team since everybody will try to promote their approach. Also, decisions taken on the fly and in stress situations are usually less reliable than those made with a clear mind.
On the upside, we can see that all the decisions are made after consulting the team and in agreement with the Team Leaders. It is also clear that he is taking the final decisions and bearing the responsibility.
The team faces several crisis situations. Day-to-day situations are managed independently by the Team Leaders. In Gandalf’s absence, Frodo decides to develop main tasks of the project with a small, more agile team, while the other team leader, Aragorn, proceeds to ensure completion of other tasks. Both team leaders are entirely autonomous in handling their duties and taking decisions.
While other decisions require a higher level of skills and accountability, like providing external support (since the available resources were not sufficient at Helm’s Deep, Gandalf provided assistance from an external contractor: The Ents), Board decisions (Gandalf meets King Theoden to remind him of previous agreement that bound Rohan to intervene in the times of need) or Negotiations (The Balrog of Moria), are directly handled by the Project Manager.
Since there is a high level of teamwork, the Project Manager does not always need to be present; it is perfectly acceptable if they are absent during some phases of the project. But when both Team Leaders are busy, they will take on themself a part of the team management workload (this parallels Gandalf bringing Pippin to Gondor).
In other circumstances, the Project Manager just takes one step back and lets the team work independently, make decisions and enjoy their success.
The Project Report
Creating the Project Report is the part where Gandalf fails as a Project Manager. It is Frodo who is writing all Project Documentation (Red Book of Westmarch), even though it should have been the appointed Project Manager. By the way, Gandalf did the same thing in The Hobbit, proving it to be a (very bad) habit.
Project reports and documentation should always fall under the tasks of Project Manager. This is important not only because it’s one of the basic tasks a Project Manager must perform, but mainly due to the fact that since they have the global view of the project, they will focus on its main aspects (for example avoiding long introductions about the pipe-weed).
End of Project
At the end of the story, we can see Gandalf having what could be considered an “end of the project” meeting with the Stakeholders, and former Team Leader Aragorn being promoted in the meantime. This is a kind of situation that is quite common when handling important or long lasting projects.
Like any real life Project Manager, Gandalf made mistakes and had his doubts. But he always tried to push forward, never allowing the project to fall off its tracks or get delayed. He always planned before acting and never hesitated to just make the decision when unexpected events occurred.
Just remember: as good of a Project Manager you may become, you will never be able to summon the eagles or hit a representative to resolve a frustrating situation. Just rely on your work and competencies, that is how you do magic in the real world.