Project Management

Avatar: The Last Project Bender

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Avatar: The Last Project Bender

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The Great Earned Value Versus risk management(i) Showdown

Avatar: The Last Airbender was an American animated television show that first aired in 2005. In the show’s world, the map is divided among four nations, each associated with a basic element – earth, air, fire, and water. Certain rare individuals within these nations can “bend” those elements, which most closely resembles telekinetic manipulation. The protagonist, an airbender named Aang, is a boy who also happens to be the Avatar, or the once-in-a-generation person capable of bending all four elements. His world is in a state of conflict, as the Fire Nation has taken advantage of the Avatar’s apparent absence to launch a campaign to rule all of the other nations. Aang must quickly master all of the other elements and confront Fire Lord Ozai before he realizes those goals. My then-teenaged son got me interested, and then hooked on this series, and I’m glad he did. It’s well-written, beautifully drawn, and the voice actors are exceptional (fun fact: Fire Lord Ozai was voiced by Mark Hamill). The opening sequence of each episode synopsized the benders’ world in a monologue voiced by the Katara character, so:

Water. Earth. Fire. Air.
Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished.

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

In the Project Management world of long ago, there were eight nations – four primary, four secondary. The four primary nations were … well, let me put it this way:

Scope. Cost. Schedule. Risk.

Long ago, the four nations lived together in academic harmony. Then, everything changed when the risk managers (no initial caps) asserted supremacy, as evidenced by the following definition of Project Risk Management by

Project risk management is the process that project managers use to manage potential risks that may affect a project in any way, both positively and negatively.[i]

(Note: isn’t the only place where risk management[ii] is so defined.) Only a PM Avatar, master of all four management aspects, could stop them, and return an overarching structure with proper proportion and perspective to the management world.

The keen observer (the entire population of GTIM Nation) will note that the definition excludes absolutely nothing in the management realm – hence the analogy that the risk managers were attempting (I think they’re still at it) to assert that all management fell under their purview, similar to the obviously flawed notion that the point of all management is to “maximize shareholder wealth,” the banner under which our friends, the Asset Managers previously attempted to take over the management world.

So, what is it that makes the one who has mastered the PM basics almost magically powerful in comparison to the other management-style benders? I think it has to do with the ossified codex of business rules with which the non-PM-types have been burdened by their business school professors. The rules that these carry around with them, like Jacob Marley’s ghost’s chains, include:

  • The aforementioned “the point of all management is to maximize shareholder wealth,”
  • …as well as the notion that risk management[iii] pertains to all project events, positive or negative,
  • That good communications management involves informing all “stakeholders” of every aspect of project execution,
  • the notion that a Return on Investment analysis, and its resulting numerical value, is an effective (or even optimal) parameter for evaluating which projects belong in a planned portfolio,
  • Or even that the best way of generating an Estimate at Completion (EAC) is to re-estimate a project’s remaining scope, and add the cumulative actual costs.

Conversely, Project Benders are fully aware that:

  • Asset Managers seek to maximize shareholder wealth. PMs and Strategic Managers have different agendas, and attendant management information streams,
  • “What is nonmeasurable and nonpredictable will remain nonmeasurable and nonpredictable … no matter how much hate mail I get.”  --Nassim Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, 2012, pp.138.
  • Among “stakeholders” are those who seek to slow or even stop your project, and sharing your insights with these people is dopey,
  • ROI is irrelevant when it comes to Strategic or Project Management, and
  • Only Asset Managers use this technique. Project Benders know how to calculate EAC.

Unlike their Last Airbender counterparts, Project Benders don’t employ the flowing, martial arts-inspired gestures when they perform their magic (at least not the ones I’ve seen). But make no mistake: as PM-centric techniques and theories continue to gain ground in the realm of Management Science, much of what passes for legitimate practices will be challenged, proven to be sub-optimal, and eventually overcome.

I’m just hoping that, when the animated version of this story comes out, my character will be voiced by Mark Hamill.


[i] Retrieved from on May 2, 2021, 15:40 MDT.

[ii] No initial caps.

[iii] Ibid.










Posted on: May 03, 2021 10:48 PM | Permalink

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