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The top four Christmas movie project managers

Blog posted by: Richard Young, 22 Dec 2021.

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‘Tis the season to be coming up with festive lists, and here at Project journal we’re getting into the spirit too. So, whether you’re tired of monitoring cost ho-ho-overruns, your Santa-prise resource planning system is down or you’re just feeling less agile than Father Christmas after his billionth mince pie of the night, we hope you’ll find a little Christmas cheer in our pick of the top four Christmas movie project managers.

4th – Clarence the Angel, It’s a Wonderful Life

The project management challenge
Small-town mortgage broker George Bailey is ready to end it all on Christmas Eve, convinced he’s a failure who’s wasted his life. Guardian angel Clarence Odbody takes on the project of proving that he’s changed the world for the better in so many ways.

Can you imagine how useful an alternative reality machine would be in project management? Clarence shows George what the world would have been like without his interventions, and it’s a darker, more miserable place. We long to show sceptical project sponsors and whining business users what life would be like without our projects…

Does it work?
George begs for his life back – and Clarence gets his angel’s wings as a reward. If you’re not crying by this point, there’s a job waiting for you in internal audit.

Project rating
8/10 – seriously, we want alternative reality, not augmented reality to be the hot ‘AR’ project tech in 2022.

3rd – Louis and Billy Ray, Trading Places

The project management challenge
Dastardly commodity barons the Duke brothers cook up a nasty Christmas plot to swap the lives of high-society employee Louis Winthorpe and street hustler Billy Ray Valentine. The erstwhile victims hatch a revenge project to hit them where it hurts: the bank.

A great example of the value of project purpose. A toff, a scammer, a butler and a hooker look an unlikely fit for a project team, but they unite brilliantly in pursuit of revenge (and obscene wealth). They plan meticulously; ensure they have robust project data (a stolen report enabling them to corner the market); and the diversity of their skill sets is on point.

Does it work?
In the end. They must show agile project management skills when their deception is rumbled by dodgy private eye Clarence Beeks. But swift thinking by a friendly gorilla (it’s complicated… but shouldn’t every project team have one of those?) puts them firmly back on schedule.

Project rating
9/10. Louis chewing Christmas smoked salmon through a grubby Santa beard is the perfect image of the hard-pressed project professional despairing of ever hitting their stage gate. A reminder that Christmas miracles do come for even the most worn-down in the project world.

2nd – Kevin McCallister, Home Alone

The project management challenge
You know that feeling when your PMO and executive team have just dropped off the radar and you’re really not sure what to do when things start to go off the rails? Kevin McCallister does. Christmas burglars want in. His project is keeping them out.

Jingle all the way? Agile all the way, more like. Kevin is a master of adapting his environment to the needs of his project. He knows his executive team want their assets protected while they’re away (himself included). So even without adequate budgetary resources, detailed scoping, measurable deliverables or even personnel, he manages to get on with the job.

Does it work?
Too well. Home Alone is 31 years old (some of you will wince at that…) and it’s hard to imagine audiences guffawing quite so hard at Kevin’s incessant, violent assaults of the ‘Wet Bandit’ burglars in 2021. But as a project? The kid aced it.

Project rating
7/10. Kevin loses marks for flagrantly ignoring workplace health and safety regs. Just because it’s Christmas, that doesn’t mean we forget the rules…

1st – Hans Gruber, Die Hard

The project management challenge
Who said they were terrorists? Hans Gruber, his steroid-enhanced eurotrash henchmen and his nerdy hacker Theo make an awesome project team determined to liberate $600m in bearer bonds from the Nakatomi Corporation.

Old school waterfall. Anyone who tries to tell you Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie doesn’t know movies. Anyone who tells you Gruber didn’t Gantt chart the heck out of the Nakatomi Plaza heist doesn’t know project management. They literally talk about the stage gates they need to progress through to open the vault. And he has a plan for every single one. It’s all on a timetable, Gruber has predicted every response from the authorities and he’s got exactly the right resources to deliver. Classic German, er, project management efficiency.

Does it work?
Yes. Well, almost. The project as conceived works perfectly – and even with the maverick interventions of John McClane, they get the loot and almost escape. The lesson? There is such a thing as over-preparedness in project management. Every methodology needs room to adapt, even when it’s not strictly agile…

Project rating
9/10. It’s time we acknowledged that the project doesn’t need to be a success for the project management to have been brilliant. Try telling us this isn’t an exchange straight out of a hard-driving corporate PMO:

Gruber: “We may have some problems. How’s our schedule?”

Theo: “Three [stage gates] down, four to go.”

Gruber: “Then don’t waste time talking to me.”

And then, when his team member thinks they’ve hit an unsurmountable problem? This exchange shows what a real project leader can do to support their team:

Gruber: “Theo, are we on schedule?”

Theo: “One more [stage gate] to go then it’s up to you. And you better be right, because it looks like this last one is going to take a miracle.”

Gruber: “It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s the time of miracles. So be of good cheer… You asked for miracles? I give you – the FBI.”

The man is a project messiah. And if that isn’t appropriately Christmassy, we don’t know what is.

Richard writes regularly for Project journal, where you’ll find his ‘Offline’ series of articles taking a humorous look at project management lessons from film and TV. Find more here.

About the Author

Richard Young

Richard Young is the consulting editor of Project

Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).


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