New Project Management Archetype: The Project Wizard

The “project wizard” is proposal for a new archetype to guide your outlook on project management; an approach that requires perception, personality, agility, and a longer term view. The archetype is based on a beloved character from literature (and movies) who managed: international projects with Stakeholders from all levels of organizations; enjoyed a good smoke in lieu of a stand-up; knew his project teams really well; and occasionally, got his hands dirty in battle.

The origin of this Archetype harken back to a Wired magazine article analyzing Bilbo’s contract with the Dwarves (https://www.wired.com/2013/01/hobbit-contract-legal-analysis/). In this article, the author’s review the contract as described in the book and provides an analysis based on the English common law, which is the closest parallel between the Shire and pastoral England. The analysis suggests that, “you have to look past the form to [understand] the substance.”

Thus began a discussion wondering whether there were Project Management parallels between the modern world and various fictional realms that might serve as a resource and inspiration for better project management. The obvious archetype – Gandalf the Gray (later, the White) – at first glance provided scant evidence of, “managing” or even pursuing anything that might be labeled a project. I mean, what kind of project is: “destroy the ring”? Oh, wait…temporary endeavor…unique result…limited duration. The Cambridge English Dictionary provided more formality: “a piece of planned work or an activity that is finished over a period of time and intended to achieve a particular purpose.” (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/project). A quick re-analysis of the literature shows that Gandalf had projects going all over the place: get the rightful king back on the throne in Gondor; find the ring; eliminate the Balrog; help the Dwarves retake their old home (and take out that Dragon); eliminate the Necromancer; and attend the annual Wizard’s conference at Isengard.

As the analysis continued, I noted a few key characteristics of his projects: first, they all started with parties – dinner with the Dwarves at Bilbo’s and Bilbo’s birthday. Interpretation: understanding people – specifically, your team – is a key criterion for success. Gandalf realized this and used his regular interactions with people (and hobbits) to guide many of his actions later. Second, the teams were self-organized – staffed – by volunteers who had a vested interest in the success of the project. Third, his projects faced no small amount of risk – the aforementioned dragons, balrogs, necromancers among them – yet he never seemed to use the standard risk management strategies of transference, avoidance, or mitigation. In fact, the main goal of his projects was often, “eliminate the risk.”

Digging past the characteristics of his projects, Gandalf employs a unique methodology that maximizes his expertise and focuses his energy on areas where he adds value to the project: Risk Management – which requires keen observation and experience both of which he possesses in droves; Stakeholder Management – as a well-travelled scholar he gathers connections, knows their strengths, and leverages those connections to facilitate project decisions; Communication Management – he judiciously disseminates information in a timely manner to his team (always face-to-face – because magic orbs are bad). This does not exclude other standard knowledge areas, but then, if you haven’t mastered scheduling and budget, then you may not yet be a wizard.

In addition to a unique skill-set, Gandalf also possesses a truly global view of his enterprise and the forces that oppose him. To that end, he conducts more detailed analysis of the environment to determine how his project will be constrained. Basically, he eschewed the standard, “time, cost, and quality” which works but is too inwardly-focused and does not account for environmental factors that impact a project. It seems to me that Gandalf favored a constraint model more like: “Enemy forces massing (Sauron was moving), Stakeholder dysfunction (elves and dwarves don’t really get along, and the Númenóreans were snobs), and limited communication channels (again, magic orbs are bad).”

The purpose of an archetype is to identify and highlight important characteristics which can be purposed to drive project success. The most effective archetypes contain a bit truth and a bit of myth to them which, as noted later does not always hold up to scrutiny. The patterns that we identified above (expanded project focus, unique approach to project knowledge area implementation, and a broad environmental approach to project constraints) are useful but flawed because they are, in fact, based on a work of fiction – a deep and relatable fiction, but a fiction nonetheless.

Discussions such as this are fun, often serve only that purpose – fun, enjoyment, a few laughs, etc. – and seldom are continued beyond that point; fewer deliver value of any sort, and the smallest percentage hold up to intense scrutiny. This discussion would fail at those very same milestones if the source material were just another work of fiction written by a good author with a vivid imagination. The books, and this character, were created by a highly-educated scholar and veteran of a successful and serene but rigid society that saw two world wars shatter it’s tightly held values into something un-recognizable. Further, his literary giant seems to want to convey a message and lessons that are well beyond a variant of the good vs. evil tropes that populate most literature.

Among the challenges that Gandalf, and JRR Tolkien, offer to the modern world, and the modern Project Manager, are these:

  • Are you managing your staff as if they were actual people and not, “resources”?
  • Is your methodology so rigid that you hyper-focus on specific aspects of project management and lose sight of processes that add value?
  • Are you conquering risks, or are you just listing them?
  • Are your project constraints based on lazy analysis or are you really studying your project environment?
  • Are you selecting projects based merely on financial return or on something more altruistic and, ultimately, more beneficial to your employees and their environment.