Lessons from Literature

Project Practitioners > Lessons from Literature
By Randy Englund

As I was putting together materials about creating the project office, I was reminded of some powerful lessons that are universally applicable to most all work.  An effective technique during implementation of any change initiative is to use metaphors or literary references that help people understand concepts.  Metaphors also help in reframing attitudes.  At the same time they help to tame the chaos that may be surrounding the project.

A first step is to name it-to name the chaos or name the problem or name the person.  This lesson comes Little prince across from the fox in Antoine de Saint Exupery's infamous book about The Little Prince:

“If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life.  I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others.  Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground.  Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow…One only understand the things that one tames….”

“What must I do to tame you?” asked the little prince.

The lessons that the little prince learned are:

  • Patience
  • Dependability and predictability
  • The need to spend time together
  • The need to take care of what you tame; protect and nurture it
  • The need to choose the very few to tame that you will commit to

It is hard to find any better words to express attitudes and actions that aid in the implementation of a project office.

Likewise, as you make contact within an organization to introduce new concepts, you may feel a bit like the Miguel Cervantes character Don Quixote who set out on a massive change management project.  He studied all the literature and then began his quest as a knight-errant to bring on a new era of chivalry.  The Code of Chivalry is much like the current PMBOK ® and PMI’s Code of Ethics--a framework in which to exercise, channel, and control an entire range of behaviors. Don Quixote had a vision which in retrospect was more of an impossible dream.  He sought empowerment to get knighted.  He went into battle against giants—actually windmills—and wound up flat on his back in defeat.  To his credit, he picked himself up and moved on.

Don Quixote never achieved his mission.  Each adventure can be thought of as a project within an overall program dedicated to his sponsor.  He started with an initial sortie—a feasibility study—followed by a longer set of adventures with a larger team.  He also had no budget, believing knights never need to pay for their food and lodging.  He benefited through nursing care by an informal steering committee—a barber, priest, niece and housekeeper.  But Don Quixote overruled the committee and began his next exploration. He had a dubious sponsor—the peasant girl Dulcinea—and a sidekick Sancho Panza.  His status reports were love letters to Dulcinea.

Finally his project was terminated.  We admire the Don’s willingness to commit himself totally to a good cause but are amused by his lack of ability to separate fact from fantasy.

Several conclusions may be drawn from this comparison with Don Quixote:

  • Separately, behaviors and competencies do not indicate effectiveness—what matters is a balanced blend across an entire spectrum of skills and activities.
  • You do not become a knight-errant—or a project manager—just by wishful thinking.
  • Do not confuse theory with practice.
  • You need an adaptive framework of behaviors, competencies, codes of conduct, and beliefs in order to achieve a change objective.
  • The goal is to achieve results, not just accumulate interesting experiences.

These lessons remain vigorously in mind, aided by graphic metaphors or references to literary masterpieces.

Randy Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy



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