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A project management ghost story of Christmas

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Pexels Pavel Danilyuk 6400308 Cropped

Waterfall was dead. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its demise was signed by the project management steering committee, the CEO, the CFO and the operations director. Scrooge, the director of the PMO, signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old waterfall was as dead as a door-nail.

Waterfall’s ghost

Scrooge had worked with waterfall these many years; and waterfall had been good to him, though Scrooge never admitted as much. It was waterfall that had shown all the project managers in the firm what they needed to do, waterfall that made sure deadlines were met, appropriate resources were secured and dependencies respected.

But Scrooge resented the methodology, with all its Gantt charts and materials requisitions and all the HR nonsense. His pettifogging teams wanted to know where they would be and when? The clients wanted predictable stage gates to assess progress? Bah! Humbug! Agile is the way! Keep them on their toes! If they’re needed in Amsterdam at the drop of a hat, it will do them good! A solid all-night brainstorm will get these projects done!

And that Babette Cratchit, with her young family. What did she know of hard work? Fiddling with her spreadsheets at 9pm when in the streets happy workers drank and made merry in Christmas week – and expecting a cheery reply when she asked Scrooge whether he had plans for the holidays. Humbug! He’d have that slacker on a plane to Bangalore to troubleshoot with the developers on Boxing Day!

Scrooge left the project office muttering… “pre-booked holidays, long-term planning, staffing requisitions to cover maternity… Humbug! Work hard and work smart is what I say.”

He trudged through the streets to the tall building on whose seventh floor his company apartment sat. Scrooge opened his laptop and the project dashboard lit the room as he monitored ticket resolutions and scrolled the many emails he’d been cc’ed on. Let’s see them try to get away with slacking at Christmas!

The warm glow of his power-brick lulled Scrooge into a state of drowsiness… only to be awoken with a start by a large and looming PowerPoint deck, as if rent from the very laptop screen itself. “What are you?” he stammered.

“Do you not recognise me?” said the deck, scrolling through its slides of colourful time-bounded charts and workflow forecasts. “It is I, Waterfall Methodology. I have been gone these seven years; captive, bound and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, rattling its transitions, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the projects of which it is susceptible are all developed!”

“But you were able to deliver on projects all the time, Waterfall,” said Scrooge. “That was your business.”

Mankind was my business,” replied Waterfall. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my deliverables were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my projects! You shall be visited by three phantoms to explain…” And with that Scrooge fell dead asleep.

The first of the three spirits

The next night, Scrooge felt uneasy. Would the dreams haunt him again? “Must avoid cheese,” he thought, to stop these hallucinations. But then, in the dead of night, he was awoken by the sound of an incoming email, the chime booming supernaturally. And there, in the shadows, was a new phantom: the Ghost of Christmas PMO past.

“Come Scrooge, I will show you something,” said the wraith, and with a gesture the scene dissolved to an office with dumb terminals, dot matrix printers and ashtrays on the desks – but all adorned with tinsel and baubles.

“Why, there is old Fezziwig, my APM mentor from my junior days!” cried Scrooge. “I had thought him dead. But look: no one is working!”

“Ah, you forget so easily,” said the ghost. “Fezziwig scheduled the project work carefully to keep Christmas week light. Look, they are playing Secret Santa! He padded the project resource requirements and soft-balled on schedules so there was lots of give in the deliverables, and redundancy in manpower. Look, there you are Scrooge, enjoying a beer from the company drinks trolley. And it’s still lunchtime! This happy project team won’t be back until 4 January, don’t you remember?”

“Well, now you mention it,” mused Scrooge, “all I recall is hitting the stage gates. I don’t recall the downtime. Today we’d be answering emails right through…”

“You seem wistful,” said the phantom. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” said Scrooge, “just thinking about Cratchit trying to meet that East Coast deadline for that US client yesterday evening…” And the dream faded.

Scrooge was shaken by his reveries and resolved to tweak his vitamin cocktail that very day at work. The team was pushing hard on a commit, and Scrooge was readying new tickets for the early finishers.

The second of the three spirits

But that night, another apparition entered to the clanging of the ‘new message’ chime. “Hello there, Scrooge,” this one intoned, “I am the Ghost of Ongoing Projects, and I am…”

“Yes, yes,” scowled Scrooge, “save your breath. My project dashboard shows what all the teams are doing, monitors the Slack channels and assigns tasks dynamically when resources become available. There’s nothing you can tell me about current projects! Might as well call yourself the Ghost of Just In Time!”

Resources,” boomed the ghost, “don’t you mean people?”

“Well, that’s to be expected,” harrumphed Scrooge. “You think projects get over the line by giving staff time off and letting them benefit from efficient task completion. Efficiency, for whom, is what I say? For them or for the PMO! Humbug!”

“I bring you not to the office, but to Babette Cratchit’s home,” said the apparition. “See she arrives late for Christmas lunch after taking a Zoom call with Bangalore.” It was indeed the Cratchits’ dining room, where Mr Cratchit was bringing out the warmed-up turkey.

“It’s nice to be able to heat the house on this happy day,” said Babette, charging her glass. “Here’s to the PMO and Scrooge for keeping us all busy with work so we can pay the newly enormous energy bills.”

“I’ll drink to the day, and the warmth and having work,” said Mr Cratchit. “But not to that old miser. Had you working Christmas Day, hunched over the Zoom call. It’s uncivilised!”

Scrooge started at the rebuke but was distracted by the sight of the family dog, Tony Tom, shivering in the corner. “Ah, the pet,” said the Ghost of Projects Present. “Babette used to walk him daily, but she’s been working so hard, he hasn’t been exercised and is sick as a result. The family can’t afford the vet’s fees, what with inflation. He might have to be put down.”

“Tell me Tony Tom will survive,” begged Scrooge, but the answer unsettled him: “I see a vacant doggy bed in the poor chimney-corner, and a dog-lead, without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the hound will die and all because you prioritised ‘resource utilisation’ over staff wellness...”

The last of the spirits

Darkness fell, and when he awoke, Scrooge was shaken. “Skip to the end,” he muttered, and the day whizzed past on fast-forward, leaving him abed again, asleep, then awakened by the ringtone of doom. “I am the Ghost of Scrum Yet to Come,” intoned the haggard old spectre. “The rhyme is contrived… but then so is your project methodology…”

“What horrors await in future projects?” murmured Scrooge, chastened by the two previous nights. But the ghost just pointed at a vacant office, outside of which two junior HR business partners were removing a nameplate. “But that’s my office!” squeaked Scrooge.

“Why did they fire him, then?” one was saying. “Well, they didn’t actually fire him,” said the other. “They just kept loading him up with impossible deliverables because he was constantly boasting about how hard-working his team was. Way I heard it, the new business director was chucking client work at him like there was no tomorrow. And when he cracked, they just replaced him. Sad really.”

“Is this my reward,” Scrooge begged the ghost, “delivering world-class productivity and working my people beyond the limit, and they do this?”

“Well, yes,” said the ghost. “Ironic, isn’t it. You helped build a workplace culture of grinding, of deliver-at-all-costs; your people worked 70-hour weeks; and in the end… well, you created expectations among project sponsors that even you couldn’t deliver.”

“Spirit!” Scrooge cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been, but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!”

“Well,” said the ghost, “it’s not too late to turn off access to the Slack channel and work email until New Year…”

The end of it

Christmas Eve and Scrooge woke with a start. Confused for a moment, he smiled as if a weight had lifted. “Wellness!” he cried. “Staff retention! Long-term planning and built-in redundancies to allow for downtime! More slack and less Slack!” To express his epiphany, he rushed to the office, where Babette was hunched over an integrated business planning template.

“Come Babette,” he trilled, “we have work!”

“I just need to finish this…” Cratchit started, but Scrooge slammed the laptop shut and pushed it into the bin. “Follow me!” Scrooge took Babette to the retail park and bought presents for everyone. Back at the Cratchit house, he shook Mr Cratchit warmly by the hand. “Babette is home until 4 January,” he said. “And here are gifts from the PMO for all the children.”

Even Tony Tom the dog got a gift – a doggy treadmill to make sure he could exercise even when Babette was tired. Scrooge Zoom-broadcast the happy scene to the whole PMO so they could see how committed he was to staff wellbeing now. The culture would change!

Scrooge had no further comms with Spirits, but lived upon the ‘look after your team and your team will look after your clients’ principle ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

May that be truly said of APM, and all of us! And so, as Tony Tom barked, “God bless Us, Every One!” (We really do need to lay off the cheese…)

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