Skip to content

Sound and fury? Five project lessons from Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Added to your CPD log

View or edit this activity in your CPD log.

Go to My CPD
Only APM members have access to CPD features Become a member Already added to CPD log

View or edit this activity in your CPD log.

Go to My CPD
Added to your Saved Content Go to my Saved Content
Gettyimages 1323851976

Before becoming a programme manager, I was a secondary school English teacher. People sometimes remark on how different these roles are and how becoming a project professional must have been a total shift for me.

However, my previous career gave me a wealth of relevant transferrable skills. English literature and teaching are all about engaging with and understanding people’s motivations, which is key to success in project management.

I recently saw an excellent production of Macbeth, which got me thinking a bit more about these similarities. No one understands people better than Shakespeare did, and so here are my top five project learnings from Macbeth.

1. ‘We’ve come this far, so we’ll finish’ isn’t a valid decision

Macbeth tells his wife that he’s committed so many crimes already that to go back on them would be “as tedious as go’oer” – i.e., he might as well keep going now he’s started. This definitely isn’t the right choice for Macbeth or for a project.

This attitude is often typical of stakeholders who have committed to a project. If they have already spent money/time/resource, it can be viewed as counterproductive to stop. To halt a project mid-flight could also be seen as a loss of face for the person who championed it, and therefore getting a sponsor on board with stopping can be tricky.

Good project governance means that you should constantly review projects against organisational goals, as well as their original scope and boundaries. If the project is no longer proving good value for money, or the sands have shifted since it began, then that project may no longer be fit for purpose.

The question ‘should we keep going as is or does anything need to change?’ should be baked into your review life cycle. This will then become a matter of good practice and therefore it will be less jarring if a decision needs to be taken.

2. Red doesn’t equal bad

Macbeth and his wife are afraid bloodstains will betray their actions.

There is some debate over the merits of RAG (red, amber, green) status reporting, but it is often a useful visual indicator of project health. We often come across sponsors who don’t want to be associated with the ‘stain’ of reporting a project as red. It is sometimes seen as a failure that they don’t want to share.

However, good governance requires an honest appraisal of a project’s status. It is much better that a red be shouted about, and a discussion had on how to mitigate it, rather than hiding the true nature of a project to avoid losing face.

Good sponsors want open discussion around issues and risks, and good cultures encourage it. Portfolios do not need to be all green to be healthy and well managed.

3. Good sleep is key

After committing murder, Macbeth can no longer sleep. His lack of sleep is a contributing factor to his subsequent irrational decisions, something everyone can relate to.

Exhausted teams don’t make good decisions. This is crucial to remember when you’re looking at your resourcing needs.

Most ‘doers’ in a project have a day job too. That day job often takes priority for the individuals involved in a project, however committed they may feel to a project’s outcomes.

Make sure you accurately estimate the time needed to be spent by key SMEs and ensure the sponsor advocates for that time to be protected for them. You can’t run on empty. Expecting teams to do so is a huge risk to project success.

The second part of this learning is that you need to allow decision-makers time to consider their decision. We’re always in a rush to move to the next milestone and not hold up the timetable, but there’s an art to good decision-making.

Don’t shoehorn decisions you know need time to consider into the tail end of a conversation. Build reading time and time to come back with questions into your sign-off procedures.

4. Be careful with your language

Macbeth is tricked by the witches because he takes what they say at face value. The witches use convoluted language designed to confuse him, and he falls for it. We have all seen beautifully worded reports worthy of Shakespeare that, when you examine them, don’t appear to be saying anything at all – or, worse, mask the true issues.

The best way to talk about a project is plainly. Don’t try to baffle with too much technical language and don’t be opaque about what you are saying. If you want your stakeholders to come on board with the project and what it is trying to achieve, be open and honest about what it’s doing and relate it in a way they can understand.

There’s a place for technical language, but it’s usually in a textbook. Work with your change and communications team to ensure that you’re talking about the project in the right way to bring people on the journey. This goes for reporting too (see point 2 above).

5. Time goes quicker than you imagine

When confronted with the news of his wife’s death, Macbeth makes a famous speech about life being a ‘brief candle’ that is out before you know it. This is true of project timetables. You may start a multi-year project and feel that you have acres of time stretching ahead of you. However, before you know it, the final phase will be upon you.

It’s important to bear this in mind for your planning. Don’t leave planning how a project’s outcomes will be adopted by the business until the later stages. Don’t leave detailed planning of the next stage until you’ve finished the preceding one.


You may also be interested in:


Join the conversation!

Log in to post a comment, or create an account if you don't have one already.