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How anecdotes from the hit Douglas Adams books can be applied to the field of Project Management.

Author: Emily Hawkings Project Manager at i3Works

5 important lessons Project Managers can learn from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books.

1. Using your Babel Fish

Surprisingly this term comes up a lot in the defence industry. In the books the Babel fish is a small yellow fish that once inserted into the ear enables you to understand anything said to you in any form of language. P3M, MOD and HMG are heavily acronymic industries, overlaid with a language specific to the sector or the profession. Without an understanding of this it becomes extremely difficult to converse with your peers or the client – so until our fish start evolving telepathic language powers, we need to invest effort in learning the terminology. We also need to concentrate on simpler ways to ensure all consultants are speaking the same language, aligned across the industry.

2. Surviving Vogon poetry

Vogon poetry is described by the guide as the third worst poetry in the universe and used as a form of torture. Presented with a choice of being thrown into the vacuum of space or telling the Vogon what they thought of his poem, one of the main characters took a completely new approach to this torturous situation by brightly saying ‘…Actually I quite liked it’.

Two lessons for the P3M community:

  1. It can sometimes be better to play the long game; but do so without selling your professional integrity.
  2. Identify the outcome you are aspiring to and view the problem, and the solutions, through the lens of others. Identify different approaches to a situation, think rationally and be able to deal with challenges in a positive way (…even if they throw you out anyway!)

3. Avoiding the Hitchhiker’s ‘Management Consultant’ stigma

Management consultants were grouped in the books alongside telephone sanitisers and other perceived ineffectual professions and when they crash land on-board the doomed Golgfrinchan Arc B in prehistoric times the first thing they do is create fiscal policy  – “Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich. But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.”

It’s important for us as project professionals to ensure we have the project fundamentals in place and grounded in the reality of the project and delivery environment. Scope, outcomes, key milestones; we need to get the basic building blocks in place before getting down to the detail-  and ultimately realign the perceptions of the value that a consultant project professional can deliver.

4. Project visibility and the visibility of plans.

 “But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

Has this ever sounded familiar?  I’ve heard of projects where there is a culture to leave the contract in the drawer because its only needed when things go wrong. But when this applies to the schedule it becomes a little disconcerting. Sometimes project managers can become ‘gatekeepers’ of the schedule leaving sponsors unaware that the project is no longer on track until it is too late to redirect effort (West, C.K ProjectInsight.net). Whether the schedule is a handrail or the foundation of EVM, it needs to be front and centre.

5. The dangers of the ‘total perspective vortex’

When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.”’

Whilst you may think that seeing the big picture is a good thing in a project (it certainly helps benefit realisation in programmes or portfolios), in some cases you lose focus if you consider aspects that are outside of the project scope. Yes, there are external influencers and dependencies that are important and need to be monitored but you will not manage effectively if you try and control everything – as the guide says “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

It turns out even the most unlikely sources can teach us something about ourselves and how we can progress in our industry. Inspiration and similarities to your work can be found anywhere… or maybe that’s just the infinite improbability drive at work…

References