The project management kung fu theatre
Growing up in New York during the 1970s and 1980s, I enjoyed watching what was called “The Sunday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater” on television. This meant four hours straight of Kung Fu movies, dueling techniques, avenging deaths, dubbed voice-overs, and wonderful noises for punches and kicks. There was also the additional two hours after the movies ended when my brother and I would re-enact the movies on each other (and destroy our house in the process).
This genre of movies led to such memorable classics as “The Five Deadly Venoms”, “Dance of The Drunken Mantis” and the “Invincible Obsessed Fighter.”
One day while cooking dinner, I had the epiphany that Project Management resembles these movies. The more I thought about this, the more similarities I discovered. This article ponders these similarities to see if it can help Project Managers attain their “black belt” in managing projects.
Kung Fu Movies
For those people reading this article who are not familiar with this genre of movies, I will give a brief overview. Each movie was about two hours long and they all had very distinct characteristics. I have outlined some of these features below:
- Each had a similar story in that a martial arts student has some wrong done to them (e.g. the killing of a master/brother/father, ransacking of the town/temple by thugs, etc.), then they go away to the mountains to train in some particular technique and would come back and avenge the wrong done to them. Some movies had several protagonists; each mastering a specific skill but the main storyline was still the same.
- The techniques that each student practiced made them super-human by having the ability to fly, smash walls with their fists, take arrows without being hurt, climb trees without using their hands, etc. (Do you begin to see the similarities with Project Managers yet?). I even remember a movie with one fighter who had no legs and another who had no arms but they could both fly through the air to fight.
- The styles of kung fu practiced were unique in that they mirrored specific movements and strengths of different animals (e.g. Tiger, Dragon, and Snake) and elements (e.g. Water, Fire, and Earth).
- They were all filmed in Chinese and then translated with English voice-overs. This resulted in the actors’ lips moving (in Chinese) but the words being said in English did not match.
The Different Styles
A common occurrence in the Kung Fu movies was when the combatants would yell out the next ‘style’ that they were going to use against one another during a fight sequence. These were usually based on animals (e.g. Tiger, Crane, Dragon, and Monkey) and had distinct movements to them. For example, the “Monkey” style would resemble a monkey dancing around and throwing punches.
While (most) Project Managers don't shout out their styles or techniques during action in the project, I have noticed that some of the Project Management styles mirror the styles used by the Kung Fu warriors. That is, there are several distinct ways that PMs manage their projects and resources. Here are a few observations.
The Dragon style is an aggressive style and is used by a PM who manages by shouting out orders (like breathing out fire). They often use the “just do it and don't complain” approach. Fear may be used as a motivator for the Dragon because they believe that people should obey them because of their power or title. I rarely see the Dragon ‘on the floor’ interacting with the team members but rather in the tower looking down and ready to attack.
My experience is that Dragons may get the work done in the short term, but they rarely have the motivation or dedication of their team members if this style is over-used. People start resenting the approach and see it as a lack of support and will not be as motivated or productive after some time. W. Edwards Deming stated in his groundbreaking 14 points for Management to “Drive out fear. No one can put in his best performance unless he feels secure” (Deming, 1982, p. 59)
The Crane style requires Project Managers to stick out their necks. Cranes are risk takers who say that anything is possible (often before considering any consequences). These people tend to be more academic and enjoy the challenge of doing something that has not been done before (even if that is not what the project is asking for).
I get nervous around Cranes because their ability to deliver on time is often diminished by their unrealistic expectations of what they want to deliver. However, there is value in being a Crane on projects where new thinking is required.
The Snake style of Project Management involves being sneaky around the way in which the project is managed. These are the Project Managers who have major issues but always report their status upwards as green. They sneak their way around dates or deliverables by talking their way out of them. These people are very good talkers so they tend to look good in front of Senior Management.
I have seen the Snakes have trouble because by the time they admit real problems the problems are usually enormous. They also lose credibility with their team members if the team does not feel that their problems are being heard or addressed.
The Monkey style entails being everyone's friend. These are the social managers who make it a point to have a relationship which each team member. This results in great camaraderie on the team but it also has its faults. For one, the work may not get done because the PM doesn't want to ruin any friendships by being too tough. There is another level to this style - the “Drunken monkey”, which speaks for itself and usually causes the water cooler talk the following day and results in what may be known as a CLM (Career Limiting Move).
Monkeys are fun to be around but may not have the respect from the team when it comes to crunch time.
The Cat is cautious and reluctant to act quickly. They like knowing all the available (and sometimes unavailable) information before making a decision. They take their time in analyzing all of the information.
This style can work well for PMs provided that they are careful to make decisions in a timely manner.
There were always two types of Kung Fu Masters - those that were experts in one specific style or technique and those who had a fundamental understanding of several techniques. I think the Project Management master must be an expert in all techniques and know when to use them. All of these styles can work, if used in the appropriate way. Some techniques work better in certain situations than others. The PM must be nimble enough to change their style based on the project team and environment.
Here are my suggestions for when to use each style.
|Style||Description||When to Use||When Not to Use|
- Quick to wield power
- Work is not being done properly and sloppiness is becoming a trend
- Expectations have been clearly set and are still not being met
- Inexperienced team members who need more direction
- Work is going well
- Early in a project and trust has not been formed on the team
- Experienced team members who require little direction
- When a project is failing due to circumstances outside the control of the team members
- Takes risks
- Jumps in quickly - “Ready, Fire, Aim”
- Says that anything is possible
- May not understand implications
- May meet dates but ‘miss the mark’
- When deadlines don't matter
- On projects where creativity outweighs constraints (process redesign)
- Projects that have strict constraints
- Projects that have a lot of interdependencies
- Good communicators
- Sometimes misdirecting
- Talks away problems
- Minor problems that do not need to be raised
- Projects where audience does not want to know all problems
- When there are problems which have major implications
- Early in project where trust is forming
- Everyone's friend
- Early in project when building trust
- When project stresses are prevalent and an outlet is needed
- When there are problems that require being direct
- Requires a lot of information
- Slow to make decisions
- Considering major implications
- Minor decisions
- Not a lot of information is available
Like Kung Fu students, Project Managers must practice their skills in order to attain mastery. Understanding the technical aspects of project management (e.g., issues logs, project plans) will not alone make a good project manager. It is the experience that a PM attains over many years of working on projects that lets them know what works and what doesn't work.
None of the movies I watched on those Sunday afternoons ever showed a student just reading a book of Kung Fu and then becoming an expert. They all took a few punches before learning how to block. It is the taking of these punches and kicks that make a Project Manager experienced to know when to punch, when to block and when to duck! It is the difficult project that instructs the most. You can't learn martial arts very well by sparring with a wooden dummy - you want it to strike back at you.
Therefore, Project Managers should always look for opportunities on projects that can keep their skills ‘sharp’ as well as challenge them with new situations. Being on a difficult project is not always a bad thing because a lot of lessons learned can be obtained from them. As Vernon Law eloquently states; “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” (1960)
One of the most memorable movies was the one where the students had to perform several difficult activities within different chambers to attain mastery. They could only move on to the next chamber once the current one was completed. Each of these activities was supposed to focus on a particular skill required to become a master. One of these activities required students to hold a scalding hot cauldron filled with boiling water between their forearms for a period of time to test their discipline and skill. Another activity required holding plates of water on their body as they stood in a particular position and not moving for hours.
While I would hope that PMI doesn't require any of these activities to get the PMP certification, the metaphor can be used here as well. Because projects usually involve a lot of moving and inter-related parts, Project Managers need a lot of discipline to be successful. There are several frameworks and methodologies for managing projects but it is the PM who must apply the appropriate rigor to using these. It is very easy to skip steps in a process or push things off until later. These are often shortsighted decisions that result in pain later (maybe not as much as the burning cauldron, but it does sometimes feels that way). For example, not having the discipline to plan for all activities on a project will result in rework or missed steps later.
It is also the Project Manager who is accountable for making sure that all project activities get performed accurately and on time. Discipline is critical here so that activities do not fall behind schedule or get overlooked altogether. The managing of the WBS or Project Plan has traditionally been a large percentage of the Project Manager's time. Discipline of these plans is significant to gauge the ability to meet dates as well as see the implications of missing dates or changing schedules.
The Thirteen Chambers
As mentioned in the examples above, performing the activities within each chamber for the martial arts student is critical for attaining mastery. The activity in each chamber must be successfully completed before moving on to the next one. This concept seems to have evolved into the stage-gate process of project management. Most frameworks propose that a project cannot move to the next phase (chamber) until the previous one has been completed
successfully and approved by a review board. The PMBOK states that “the conclusion of a project phase is generally marked by a review of both key deliverables and project performance to date to a) determine if the project should continue into its next phase, and b) detect and correct errors cost effectively”(PMI, 2000, p. 11).
This is a great way to focus on a particular area, such as Requirements, and make sure that everything has been completed before moving on to the next area. By containing the work within one phase, you are minimizing the probability of making changes that affect other areas of work currently in progress
In my experience, though, sometimes these phase end reviews are as painful as holding the plates of water for hours when the details get scrutinized at a low level of granularity.
In Kung Fu Theater, no matter how good the master was they always took a few beatings during the big fights before they would make the comeback and eventually win the battle. Having discipline and practice helps to refine the Project Manager's skills, but there are always those unexpected punches and kicks that they must absorb along the way to success.
This is where your training will come in handy. Hopefully, you have learned how to take the punches and keep standing. It doesn't make any sense just to train to avoid punches since it is inevitable that a few will be landed on you. Therefore, you should train yourself to take them and keep moving. PMs call this technique risk management.
PMI defines Risk Management as “the systematic process of identifying, analyzing, and responding to project risk. It includes maximizing the probability and consequences of positive events and minimizing the probability and consequences of adverse events to project objectives” (PMI, 2000, 127). Within the metaphor of this article, it can be considered the ability to be conscious that you may take some unexpected ‘hits’ and to plan ways to avoid them (avoidance), take them (acceptance) or reduce the pain of them (mitigation).
Another favorite episode of mine features a Kung Fu master who had the ability to punch through brick walls. Today's kung fu students use wooden boards. The technique for breaking anything is to strike through it and not at it. A martial arts student myself, I was taught to look six inches beyond the target and aim for that point. I was also trained not to hesitate as it may result in the board not breaking, which hurts tenfold more than going through the board.
This metaphor can be extended to project management. The PM must ‘look beyond’ the problems of the day to be planful of what is to come rather than just striking at each problem. Once they make the plan, they should execute it with all of their focus, striking through the little problems that may stand between them and a successful project outcome.
I have found in my experience that a lot of Managers tend to spend their days “putting out the fires” and not looking beyond them at the end goal. This is short-sighted and usually results in more fires and the endless cycle of firefighting. In his revolutionary book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1990), Stephen Covey discusses several paradigm shifts. One of these is “beginning with the end in mind” (Covey, 1990, p. 95). This means beginning with an image of the end result and using that as the reference to gauge everything else. “Begin with the end in mind is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There's a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things“ (Covey, 1990, p. 99) Using this technique will focus the PM beyond the issue of the day and more towards the end goal, thus looking ‘beyond the target.’
The Five Deadly Venoms
My favorite movie was “The Five Deadly Venoms” where five fighters from “the poison clan” took on the behavior of a venomous animal – the centipede, toad, snake, lizard and scorpion. Each of the venoms had a different way to kill their opponent. I have observed five deadly venoms on projects that, if not controlled, can lead to disaster (and the introduction of a new technique called the “Praying Mantis” because you will be praying for the problems go away).
1. Not Having Proper Sponsorship
Projects need proper internal and customer sponsorship to be successful. Sponsors help make decisions and take away roadblocks quickly. Their support on a project leads to support from other people in the organization as well. Not having support can result in taking very long to get decisions or information, thus putting the project at risk of failing.
2. No Process Rigor
As described in the “Discipline” section, most companies have a framework or methodology that they follow to run projects. Rigor needs to be in place to follow these processes to ensure that the proper work gets done. Otherwise, work starts piling up and then the project is in a constant reactive mode in an attempt to catch up usually resulting in work not getting completed. This also prevents the ability to think ahead and can jeopardize the project.
3. Not Taking Ownership
Project team members need to take ownership of their work and of the success of the project. This means focusing on “quality at the source” and ensuring that their work is appropriate before passing it on (e.g. unit testing of code, spell checking of documents, etc.). Team members cannot assume that ‘someone else will find the problem’ as this rarely happens (unless that someone else is the customer of the project). Taking ownership also includes maintaining documentation as it changes and working to meet deadlines.
4. Wrong Match of People
In my opinion, having the right people on the project is one of the biggest contributors to the probability of a project's success. This does not just mean having talented people on the project. This also includes having people's skillsets match the roles that they are in. Not having the right fit will result in work taking longer than expected and motivation (and thus productivity) being compromised.
5. Not Being a Leader
All people need to feel valued and empowered. Project managers need to realize this and incorporate it into their leadership styles. Team members who do not feel empowered will not be motivated to take ownership of their work or focus on quality. Being a leader means realizing that it is the team members who make the project successful and it is the leader's responsibility to support them in doing so.
Project Management Voice-Overs
For anyone who watched these moves, they know that the most entertaining part of Kung Fu Theater was the voice-overs. Since all of these movies were made in Hong Kong or China, they were in native Chinese. When shown in the U.S., English was dubbed over the dialogue. The result was lips moving in Chinese but words being played in English.
Oftentimes, a team member will report a major problem on the team. When this gets ‘dubbed’ for Management, there is usually a voice-over that changes the meaning of what the team member said. Here are some examples.
|Native Statement||Voice-Over Statement|
|The work is half done||The work is complete for all intents|
|We pray that we can meet the date||We have a plan|
|The project is going well||The project is going great|
|The project is having problems||The project is going great|
|The project is really having problems||The project is going great|
|The project is now in real trouble||The project has some risks, but will come in on time|
|The project will never succeed||We need more time than usual to complete it|
|The team is posting their resumes on Monster.com||We have some potential show stoppers|
It is very important to state information accurately so that expectations can be managed. “Promising someone you'll deliver something in a week and getting it there a month later is worse that not having promised in the first place” (McCormack, 1986, p. 37)
I have found that it is better to state problems early (with proposed solutions) than to try to put off the information until later. Usually what happens is that the problem then snowballs into something gigantic and then no one understands how it got to be so big and unmanageable.
Project Managers resemble the Kung Fu masters of those golden days of Sunday afternoon television. They are super-human warriors (just like the invincible obsessed fighter) who need to understand the different styles of Project Management and when it is appropriate to use each one. They need to practice their skills and focus on proper discipline. Even so, there will always be a kick or two that gets through and they need to have the stamina to absorb it. They also need to make sure that when their lips move their words match them.
One of my martial arts instructors once told me “To be the best that one can be, one must always dream of being better.” This means that the journey to mastery will never end and that there will always be battles to fight, new styles to learn, and punches to take.
Keep the cauldrons hot!
Covey, S. (1990) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster
Deming, W. E. (1982) Out of the Crisis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
McCormack, M. (1986) What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School: Notes from a Street-Smart Executive. New York, NY: Bantam Books
Project Management Institute. (2000) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) - 2000 Edition. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Law, V. (1960, August 14) How to be a winner. This Week. Retreived from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/v/vernon_law.html
© 2004, Kerry R. Wills
Originally published as part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings - Prague