The Project Is Life!

By Mike Aucoin

What happens when your project is interrupted unexpectedly... when it is changed dramatically right in the middle, before you've had a fair chance of completing it?

Today I attended the funeral of someone whose Project was sadly cut far too short.

Earlier this week, Linda DeSalvo died of cancer at the age of 37, leaving behind her husband and three children, the youngest of whom starts kindergarten this year.

Linda was a bright and talented architect who married and became a mother. She placed her successful career on hold to raise three children and home school. She volunteered her time for worthwhile efforts. She was known and liked by many.

Linda was an acquaintance from my church. While I did not know her well, her story had a profound impact on me and on many others in our community the last few weeks. It is a story of pain and suffering, and good people wrestling with cruel misfortune.

To take part in the ritual surrounding death makes one struggle to make sense of things that seem to make no sense. In the project management profession, we are perhaps in a unique position to draw insights from the cycle of birth, life and death.

As we work on our various projects (little-p), we each manage a Project (big-P) called Life. Each of us manages resources, communications, schedules and scope of work.

We go about life planning various outcomes for our Project. Perhaps in Linda's case, it was to see and be part of the maturation of her children, to look with pride upon the various local buildings she had designed, and to give to the community. In the past few months, her story became one of reaching some alternate outcome when the planned outcome was no longer possible... a story of grasping for contingencies when your worst project risks have come true... a story of re-writing one's Project Scope for the final time and trying to be sure to get it right.

It may sound strange, but one of the most touching parts of the experience was driving in the funeral procession from the church to the cemetery. Our line of perhaps a hundred cars stretched far down the freeway. As we drove, scores of cars and trucks on the other side of the freeway pulled over to the shoulder, stopped and turned on their lights in respect. None of those people knew her, but they recognized that a fellow Project Manager had completed a Project and deserved tribute.

I won't attempt to tell you how to run your Project. I'll only suggest that we all need to conduct a Project Review from time to time, to reflect upon our Scope of Work and where our Project is going. It is important to reflect upon the needs of our most important Stakeholders, about how we interact with family, friends, and co-workers. We need to reflect upon those Big Questions that describe our human condition, knowing that one day, any day, our Project will be brought to a close.

It is not my intent for you to feel guilty if you've neglected your Project lately. We all tend to get caught up in little-p projects, sometimes at the expense of our big-P Project. Actually that seems to be a major characteristic of a Project: to neglect it, then remember its importance, and therefore cherish it all the more.

Finally, while Projects deserve appropriate attention, they weigh down the spirit when taken too seriously. Projects need a hearty component of fun and adventure and perspective. Every Project Manager needs to playfully middle-finger the world, its demands and its problems from time to time.

It is the nature of this Project to learn as we go, to re-write the Scope over and over, and to ebb and flow in how well we manage our resources and our communications with Stakeholders. Hopefully, we learn to strike the right balance, to find the right Scope... and to have a blast with our Deliverables.

The Project is Life... manage it well!

(In Memory of Linda DeSalvo)

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