One evening at the station – a project management fable
It had been an eventful day but Jack was still not done. He needed to update the schedule to reflect the bad news from the vendor and his development team. Then there was the status report. He was not looking forward to the meeting tomorrow. The sponsor would go ballistic when he heard about the delay. “I’d better do the status report before I go home,” he thought to himself. “Damned project is more trouble than it’s worth. I should never have volunteered for it …”
The phone rang flashing his home number. He ignored it recalling the morning’s conversation with his wife – she was expecting him to be home an hour ago. “S**t, talk about conflicting priorities,” he muttered to himself as he shut down his notebook and stuffed it in to his satchel, “I’ll have to do the status report at home.”
He dashed off to catch the 8:05 train; with luck he might be home in an hour.
But luck was not on his side that evening. He heard the rumble of the departing 8:05 as he bounded down the escalator to the platform. “Oh no, that’s another half hour gone, I should’ve stayed at the office and finished the status report,” he said to himself, shaking his head in annoyance.
He must have said that out loud because a gentle voice from behind him asked, “Tough day at the office, huh?”
He turned around, annoyed at the intrusion, “Excuse me…” he stopped himself mid-sentence when he saw the voice belonged to a wizened old man with twinkling eyes. Yoda was the word that came to mind. Jack continued in a friendlier tone: “Yeah, you could say it’s been a hard day.”
“What do you do for a living?” asked the old man.
Jack didn’t want the conversation but didn’t want to offend the old man either, “I manage projects,” he replied.
“Forgive my ignorance,” said the old man, “but what is a project and what does it mean to manage one?”
Jack rolled eyes (well, he didn’t really, but he felt like). “A project is an initiative to create something…like a new product or service within a specified time and budget. And managing it involves doing what’s necessary to make sure the product or service is created on time and within the specified budget.”
“So how do you do that?”
Jack was starting to get a little annoyed at the intrusion and he certainly did not want to get into all that PM 101 stuff, so he simply said, “There are a bunch of standard processes and techniques to run projects efficiently. They work well when done right.”
“How are they working for you right now?” asked the old man.
“Not so well. Why? Do you have some advice to offer?” he enquired pointedly.
“Why aren’t they working well?” persisted the old man, oblivious to Jack’s irritation.
“Oh, all kinds of reasons: politics people etc. – it’s complicated.”
“And you didn’t see these complications before they occurred,” stated the old man, more as a fact than question.
“Obviously I didn’t,” retorted Jack.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to annoy with these questions but I can’t help but wonder if …”
Jack had had enough. “Please mind your own business,” he said shortly. “And if you’ll excuse me, I have a half hour before my train arrives and a stack of work to catch up with.” So saying, he strode to a nearby bench and sat down. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out his notebook and turned his attention to his unfinished status report.
The old man shrugged and wandered off towards the other end of the platform.
Jack, totally engrossed in his reports and plans, paid little attention to the announcements and the hubbub of the platform. He was used to working at the station, and knew that the rumble of his train would alert him that he needed to board.
And so he continued working.
About half an hour later, he noticed that the noise around him had subsided somewhat. That didn’t feel right. He surfaced from his reports and looked around. There were very few people about. “What’s going on?” he muttered to himself.
“Ah, I see you missed the announcements.” He hadn’t noticed the old man approach.
“What announcements?” asked Jack, a tad bewildered.
“Trains have been cancelled because of an accident further down the line,” replied the old man, ‘you’ll need to find some other way to get home…”
“S**t, that’s all I need, doesn’t anything work in this damned place.”
“There were at least a couple of announcements but it appears you missed them,” said the old man.
It was going to be an expensive cab ride home or another half hour wait for a bus followed by a 45 minute commute. Jack, sighing resignedly, stuffed his computer back into his bag and got up to go.
“It is good to pay attention to what is actually happening rather than what you think will happen,” said Yoda.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Jack as he turned and walked away.
“Perhaps there’s a lesson here for your work too: timetables and plans are not reality” said the old man.
Jack was taken aback. He stopped in his tracks, turned towards the old man and asked, “What do you mean?”
“I think I’ve said enough,” came the reply. “Make of it what you will.”
The old man shuffled away, leaving Jack to contemplate the long ride home.