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What Can Project Managers Learn from the Movies?
By Mel Bost

If you are reading this entry, chances are you are a project manager, a project team member, or someone who is interested in how projects are executed and how PMOs are implemented and maintained. If that is the case, I am certain that you are probably tired of reading the same old lists of “What Contributes to Project Success?” or “Why Projects Fail.”

That is why I want to offer you another perspective on developing and leading successful projects, and the role of the PMO in those efforts.

Before Valentine’s Day, I was browsing through the Movie/DVD section of my local Barnes & Noble looking for nothing in particular. A display of Valentine’s Day suggestions caught my eye. One DVD stuck out because it seemed particularly well-priced, and the theme was one we all welcome at Valentine’s Day–a great love story between two seemingly very different people, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

The DVD was “Pride and Prejudice”1, starring Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Donald Sutherland, and Dame Judi Dench. This 2005 film was nominated for four Academy Awards and was called by many “the Best Film Of The Year.” It is, of course, a love story based on the Jane Austen book “Pride and Prejudice.”

This particular DVD contained not only the movie but several additional features: A Bennet Family Portrait; Jane Austen: Ahead of Her Time; Behind the Scenes at the Ball; “Pride and Prejudice” HBO First Look; and Commentary from Director Joe Wright.

As I watched the movie and several of the other features over Valentine’s Day weekend with my wife, it struck me that the entire package created a tremendous value when viewed as a whole. As I began to think about the plot of the movie and the way it unfolded, I could not help but think of some similarities with the way projects are planned and executed.

In our experience as project managers, it is too often the case that the project manager wants to finish a project as quickly as possible and then get on with the next project. After all, that’s what project managers do, manage (and complete!) projects. Too often in the past, the project manager was focused on the sponsor as the principal stakeholder in the project and often–unless a very robust Organizational Change Management plan was included–the project manager did not focus so much on the end users as “real” stakeholders.

This DVD package, however, considered all the stakeholders (i.e., the various possible viewers of the DVD). The movie, when combined with the DVD “extras”, answered questions about how the love story unfolded, gave helpful background information, and additional information that showed viewers multiple ways that they could understand, or ”frame” the story. In doing so, the DVD anticipated and answered questions that the audience (the buyers of the DVD) probably had not considered until after having purchased and viewed the movie itself. How many projects do the same thing? Probably not many these days.

So, as you proceed with your next project, consider some of the following lessons in capturing all the value and satisfying all the stakeholders. Pretend that you are the “Director” and charged with telling the story as well as creating all the “behind the scenes” explanations that stakeholders want both explicitly and implicitly:

  1. “Frame” the plot and the interactions of the characters correctly. Look at the social or business context in which the action takes place and make that context real (i.e. come alive).
  2. Assemble the right cast. Obviously the cast members must complement the entire context of the project.

  3. Train the cast in the “context” of the specific project and its tasks. Each cast member brings some “raw talent” to the party but the Director’s task is to mold that talent in the context of the movie so that the value flows from the performances of each cast member as they interact, as they see and feel the action.

  4. Consider all the stakeholders, including the end-users, and focus on the “needs” of the end-users; not just the “expressed” needs but the underlying needs.

  5. Consider not only the sponsor’s vision for the project, but also the “process” by which the project will be executed. After all, a Director’s vision for a movie must not only follow the Screenwriter’s narrative but also the “process” for the movie production. This is also where the PMO comes into play. Having a defined process for all projects means all projects are initiated, justified, authorized, executed and closed by a process which can be repeatable and consistent. That said, it does not mean that every project must conform exactly to the process, especially if there are situations where the process doesn’t exactly apply. It means that there are “guidelines” for how to conduct the project (or to develop the movie) which have contributed to success over time. The PMO is a guiding standard for reference and for consultation.

  6. Identify and address any risks to carrying out the plan for the project as originally conceived, and have adequate plans in place to address those risks.

The next time you view a motion picture, ask yourself if the Director fully accounted for all the Stakeholders’ wishes in its production. And the next time you plan a project, think of the lessons we can learn from another art form such as a motion picture.

1 Note: The DVD is mentioned solely as an example. PM Hut does not endorse any product and/or individual in the body of its articles.

Mel Bost is experienced in developing Training for the Process and Treating Project Management Group in Goal Setting, “Crucial Conversations,” Project Risk Analysis, Negotiations, Achieving Potential using the Louis Tice Framework. He uses the Boston University Project Management Competency Model to focus on key competencies for improvement of project manager performance. For the past eight years, he has been actively involved in organizing and developing the processes, standards and procedures for Program Management Offices (PMO) for two major corporations, ConocoPhillips and Tosco Corporation. Mel runs the PMO Expert, a professional blog where he gives helpful advices on the Project Management Office.

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