Everybody Knows “The Maltese Falcon” Wasn’t About A Maltese Falcon, Right?

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According to Merriam-Webster, a “macguffin” is

an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.[i]

An example which is probably readily recognized by a majority of GTIM Nation would be the blue diamond in the necklace given to Kate Winslet’s character in the movie Titanic, named The Heart of the Ocean, but a better example (in my opinion) would be the Maltese Falcon figurine in the movie of the same name. In that 1941 film, while all of the characters appear to be obsessed with the location and ownership of the jewel-encrusted statue, murders actually take place, with the protagonist (the original Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart) often taken to be the murderer. In fact, when the Maltese Falcon statue finally shows up, it proves to be a fake. One final example would be the Ark of the Covenant in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the actual Ark, after being intensely pursued by virtually all of the characters in the movie, ends up portrayed as being unceremoniously boxed in a wooden crate, to be relegated to near-oblivion in a massive government warehouse (which we learn later is located in Area 51, Nevada, of all places). So, just to be clear: the macguffin, by definition, lacks in “intrinsic importance.”

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

I would like to reference my three criteria for usable management information. It has to be:

  • Timely (old management information has a value similar to old sushi),
  • Accurate (inaccurate information is worse than useless, it’s actually misleading), and
  • Relevant!

So, what we have in a macguffin is a plot device widely considered to be irrelevant, but used anyway in order to move the story forward. While macguffins can lead to wildly successful movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark earned $384M USD against a budget of $18M[ii], while Titanic earned over $2.1B USD[iii]), it would be good to remember that this is a device used in fiction.

With the use of a macguffin in fiction as a backdrop, let’s revisit some of the nostrums associated with “doing” PM “right.” Keep in mind that we’re not talking about inserting energy or conflict into a story – we’re looking at which techniques or strategies commonly associated with Project Management actually improve the odds of bringing projects in on-time, on-budget, with all of the scope particulars satisfied. I’ll score the techniques so:



Score Category



Not a macguffin, technique is legit and should be pursued.

Heart of the Ocean

Mild macguffin – it’s okay to pursue, as long as you don’t spend too much time or energy on it (you never know when a sentimental centenarian will simply throw it into the ocean in an act of whimsy).

Maltese Falcon

Definitely a macguffin, and should be avoided.

Raiders’ Ark

A monstrous macguffin. Not only will you waste vast resources chasing it, even if you attain it, it will be of no use to you.

  • We’ll start with the Critical Path Methodology. Easily one of the earliest management techniques associated with PM, a properly-done CPM network will alert you to problem activities within your project and, just as importantly, inform you which tasks are doing fine and do not need extra attention. Score: Notamac.
  • Next let’s look at communications management. Much of the theory here involves “engaging all stakeholders,” which I contend is not only to be avoided, but positively counter-productive. A far more relevant application would be to develop a “zipper plan,” so named because it identifies whom within your Project Team should serve as the voice for specific stakeholders on the outside based on their areas of expertise. Since zipper plans are fairly easy to establish and execute, they provide a nifty technique for ensuring consistency in project communications. Score: Heart of the Ocean.
  • What kind of a management blogger would criticize Quality Management? Well, my kind, for one. In those instances where scope delivery with even the mildest of variances from requirements or parameters could have a devastating effect on customers, sure, use all of the fishbone diagrams and “Five Why’s” analyses that you want. I am of the opinion, however, that such projects represent a distinct minority in the PM community, whereas the push for enhanced Quality Management implementation is becoming a majority opinion. Again, if you need it, use it, by all means. But if you don’t, well, don’t. Score (assuming you don’t really need it): Maltese Falcon.
  • GTIM Nation veterans probably know what’s next: our friends, the risk managers. Risk analysis techniques require significant investments in time, energy, and expertise, and not just from the analysts loading the decision-tree or Monte Carlo analysis software. These analysts invariably need considerable access to the Project Teams’ subject matter experts, in order to assemble the various alternate scenarios, along with these scenarios’ cost and schedule impacts and odds of occurrence. Even if the data collected is reliable (highly unlikely, given the amount of pure speculation involved) and the analysis techniques sound, the ultimate product is simply a series of things the PM should worry about, tripped out in Gaussian curve jargon. If the risk analysis highlights a possible negative-impact scenario that leads the PM to develop a Plan B that didn’t exist prior, fine. In all other instances, my opinion is that risk analysis is a waste of time. Score: Raiders’ Ark.

Now, if, upon opening the Ark in the movie, the Nazis discover both the Maltese Falcon and the Heart of the Ocean inside of it immediately prior to having their faces melted, then that would make me rethink this whole irrelevance business.


[i] Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/MacGuffin on August 17, 2019, 19:42 MDT.

[ii] Wikipedia contributors. (2019, August 15). Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:43, August 18, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Raiders_of_the_Lost_Ark&oldid=910923959

[iii] Wikipedia contributors. (2019, August 17). Titanic (1997 film). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:45, August 18, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Titanic_(1997_film)&oldid=911224908

Posted on: August 19, 2019 10:08 PM | Permalink

Comments (3)

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Amazing read, thanks for sharing

This is great. Thank you.

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