Project Management lessons from Alice and Wonderland

During my career I’ve been involved with hundreds of project teams, some quite gifted, others whose collective intellect was rivaled only by simple garden tools.  I’ve been asked often if I can define what distinguishes the two types of teams.  For me it always comes down to leadership.  It doesn’t matter how hard the people work, it matters how well they are lead.  Does the leader know what to do tomorrow?

That got me to thinking.  Are there some leadership secrets, some project management gems that may have been overlooked?  Rather than offering traditional mish-mash consulting jargon, I thought it would be helpful to find a common ground by which we can form a basis for this discussion.  Hence the following narrative: Everything I learned about project management I learned from Alice in Wonderland.

So, you have spent tens of millions on an electronic health records system.  Some did so without even defining their requirements.  The project is chugging along, new regulations and penalties are appearing through the diaphanous mist like the Cheshire Cat’s toothy grin.

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice.  “But a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”

How fast must you run so as not to lose ground?  How many milestones do you have to meet, how many due dates do you have to check?  What can be learned from the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland?  She told Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast.”

For the EHR project to progress it requires extraordinary effort.  This begs a question of the project leader, where does the project need to go?  In a conversation with the Cheshire Cat Alice asks,

Would you tell me, please which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where,” she said.
“Then, it doesn’t matter which way you go.” “So long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

If you only walk long enough.  What is enough for a three year project?  When are you done?  When the money runs out; when there are no more tasks in the work plan.  It seems many EHR projects are much bigger than allowed for by the plan.  They get big, impossibly big.  A lot of that size comes from underestimating the effort to support workflow improvement, change management, and user acceptance.

“Sorry, you’re much too big.  Simply impassible,” said the Doorknob to Alice.   “You mean impossible?” “No, impassible.  Nothing’s impossible.”

We don’t have the benefit of getting advice from talking doorknobs which is why we get so stymied when confronted with having to do the impossible. What is impassible or impossible for your project?  It might be deciding or knowing when to stop.

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Believing it does not make it so.  Never has, never will.  Belief does not beget success.  Planning does.  Defining your requirements may.  There is no shortage of ex-CIOs who believed their EHR vendor.

Then there’s the skill of managing your EHR vendor.  Perhaps Eaglet said it best, “Speak English! I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and I don’t believe you do either!”

There will always be those select members of every project team who are so dense that light bends around them; those who have not learned that it is better to keep their mouth shut and appear unintelligent than to open it and remove any doubt; those who have the right to remain silent, who just don’t have the ability.

“You couldn’t deny that, even if you tried with both hands.”

“I don’t deny things with my hands,” Alice objected.

“Nobody said you did,” said the Red Queen. “I said you couldn’t if you tried.”

Do you find yourself sitting through a status meeting unable to tell if the project is moving backwards or forwards, unable to tell what is hiding around the bend?  You think so hard your head feels like your ears are trying to switch places with your eyes.  When all else fails, try this bit if advice.

“Fan her head!” the Red Queen anxiously interrupted. “She’ll be feverish after so much thinking.”  A little thinking won’t hurt, who knows; in small doses it might even be beneficial.

Now, let’s assume you’ve got yourself all worked up.  You and your team are pouring over your work plan, trying to decide what’s left to accomplish, or what can’t be accomplished.  How do you know what’s what and which is which?

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely.  “And go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

I’ll take the King’s advice and do the same.


4 thoughts on “Project Management lessons from Alice and Wonderland

  1. Pingback: Project Management lessons from Alice and Wonderland « Healthcare IT: How good is your strategy? « Healthcare IT: How good is your strategy?

  2. Paul … now that is a fun post, full of pity truth! I hope you enjoyed writing it half as much as I enjoyed the reading of it! I’ve taken the liberty of putting it as a link on our own Blogsite under the topic of “HITECH Fun”. Please let me know this is acceptable to you.


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