Project Management Is Like A Box Of Chocolates…

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The Biggest Obstacle To PMO Success Is Not What You Think

It probably won’t surprise GTIM Nation that I was torn between the above-written title and “Forrest Gump: The Ultimate Agilist” for this blog. Forrest Gump, of course, is the eponymous protagonist of the Academy Award-winning movie. Forrest is an idiot, defined as someone who has an intelligence quotient below 70. Despite being this intellectually backwards, Forrest experiences a long series of adventures, joys and sorrows, many of them having a profound impact on popular culture, or even on the history of the United States (Forrest is depicted at being the person who calls in the burglary of the offices at the Watergate Complex, thereby initiating the series of events that would lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, for example).

Forrest lives his life by responding to the events and people around him consistent with a set of axioms, mostly given to him by his mother as he was growing up. These are passed along to the people sitting at a bus stop with him, and almost always predicated with the phrase “Mama always said…”. Forrest’s limited set of axiomatic rules for responding to almost any situation leads him to play college-level football, graduate college (!?), volunteer (!) for service in the Vietnam War, receive the Medal of Honor, come home, begin a successful shrimping business, and finally marry his life-long true love. At the end of the movie, Forrest has a happy life, raising his young son and financially independent. So, if you’re beginning to ask “what does this have to do with…”

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” is a quote largely attributed to Dwight Eisenhower[i], and I believe it carries significant weight in the PM world. Of course, the Forrest Gump character doesn’t seem to have a plan for anything, save going into the shrimping business at the behest of his best friend Bubba, and even that wasn’t Forrest’s plan. So, what we have here is a dichotomy, with zero-plans but robust canned strategies for dealing with life on the one extreme, and the approach of spending an excessive amount of time and energy planning, but not having an effective response once events unfold that were not foreseen in those plans on the other. Of the two approaches, which do you think is more likely to produce a desired result?

Of course, none of us has to manage from one extreme end of this theoretical scale or the other, so let’s employ the Pareto Principal. Which manager do you think will be more successful over the long term, the one who is 20% up-front planning, 80% robust response to the unexpected, or vice versa? GTIM Nation veterans are familiar with my other oft-cited use of the Pareto Principal, where I assert that the 80th percentile best managers with access to 20% of the information needed to obviate a given decision will be consistently out-performed by the 20th percentile worst managers with 80% of the information so needed. Crucially, the information needed to obviate the vast majority of decisions has to do with the level of Project Team performance, and changing circumstances in the execution of the projects’ scope. In the PM world, such a distinction would manifest like so.

Imagine two Project Managers, A and B, working mid-sized projects. PM A has spent considerable resources creating a detailed Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), establishing the Performance Measurement Baseline (PMB), and has a detailed, resource-loaded Critical Path schedule network down to the Work Package. A’s project also has intense interactions with the risk managers, who have established a risk management plan, a risk analysis report, and have generated the recommended contingency budget reserve based on a Monte Carlo simulation of the guessed-at raw speculation professionally projected alternate task and activity scenarios. The up-front work has been extensive. However, once the project actually launches, PM A is okay with a lackluster effort from the Control Account Managers when it comes to providing monthly status to the performance measurement systems. Most of the Control Accounts are measured using the Level-of-Effort Earned Value method, and those that aren’t often give their “status” as being 8.33% more complete than last month.

PM B doesn’t have much complexity in the PMB. She has adequately captured the scope, both as a hedge against scope creep, and as a defense against ex post facto charges of non-performance. She has also set up the WBS to an appropriate granularity, and documented the time-phased budget at its reporting level. She also has a Critical Path network, but only down to the Control Account level. There is no contribution from the risk managers. However, PM B insists on an accurate status pull at the end of each reporting cycle. All LOE activities must verify that they truly have no tangible scope output, and the CAMs’ percent complete estimates are often challenged during the mandatory Project Management Review meetings, held monthly, without fail. Her Estimates at Completion are calculated, never re-estimated, at the reporting level of the WBS, and out-of-threshold variances are directly addressed at the project reviews.

Does any member of GTIM Nation doubt which PM will be more consistently successful?

In the case that there is doubt, let me put the dichotomy another way. When presented with an unmapped box of chocolates, would you adopt a strategy of analyzing the odds that a given confection contains (the dreaded) “coconut” filling, based on the cartesian coordinates of its place in the box, and cross-reference the manufacturer’s tendencies in coconut-filled chocolate placement and/or the nominal outward appearance of treats so filled?

Or would you just poke a fingernail into the top of it?


[i] Retrieved from on September 30, 2019, 08:46 MDT.

Posted on: September 30, 2019 09:22 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Very interesting article., thanks for sharing

Interesting perspective.
Thanks for sharing.
In certain circumstances it is better to plan in detail ... in others not so.
In others it is better to enable the team to respond sustainably to the situations they are facing

Interesting point of view, thanks Michael.

Good point of view. Adapt to change are very important in projects. We must use our experience and knowledge to respond all the situations that appear along the course. Planning is adequate, but be prepared to tailor the plan according to the circumstances, is an ability that ensure the advance of the project.

Sorry Michael, I have already devoured that box of chocolates, albeit,I left you the coconut one!

A wonderful blog, I do believe 'fail to plan, plan to fail', however, the degree to which we tailor is dependent on the project. Keep sharing, thank you.

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