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The Christmas Day project: Practicality and humour abound

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Christmas Day: a transient endeavour with fixed start and end dates, clearly defined objectives and deliverables, perhaps no business case as such, but very real costs (tangible) and expected benefits (mostly intangible) and a stakeholder community with risks to be managed and issues to be addressed.

So, for our project that is Christmas Day, the core team comprises you as Project Manager (PM) with your Most Significant Other (MSO) as Sponsor and the immediate family as key stakeholders (let’s keep it simple – say 2 teenage children, your parents and your parents in-law). 

Your MSO (a gender neutral role by the way) has established a budget and you, as PM and the MSO have agreed that at a time of austerity, the budget is fixed. As part of the early concept phase, you set about defining user requirements.

Your stakeholder analysis has identified children Janet (15) and John (17) as key users who both have very high interest and very high impact (and not all of it positive). As such your communications plan begins to take shape with a focus on early face-to-face meetings to understand their respective requirements and manage their expectations.

However, initial discussions with Janet and John don’t go very well. Your professional efforts to engage constructively and seek compromise fail dismally. You now know you will face very challenging user requirements involving the procurement of newly emerging and rather expensive mobile technology gadgets.

Meanwhile, time is passing and your schedule is already under pressure. On the up side, critical long lead items have now been identified by the MSO with help from relatives and a Facebook community – a resource which you rather like to think of as a ‘virtual team’ albeit one that you’d prefer not have to deal with directly. On the back of the clarified key user requirements, you set in motion a set of supply chain related actions, essentially involving the online purchasing channel – Amazon.

Some time ago, as part of the Christmas ‘concept’ phase, the MSO made clear to you that both sets of parents are expected to be part of the celebrations. As such, the MSO is looking to you, the PM, to make all the necessary arrangements. You re-visit memories of previous encounters in the spirit of learning from experience, and you remind yourself that this high-interest, high-impact stakeholder group comprises a vegetarian, a non-drinker, a pipe-smoker (though that may have changed since last year) and one family member who really doesn’t ‘do’ public transport, choosing instead to be driven, even though not able to drive themselves. You quickly realise that collectively, this group represents a challenging set of needs that will require careful and considered management.

With just two days left to prepare for implementation, you say goodbye to the day job and set about finalising travel arrangements for your visitors. This will involve return journeys to a neighbouring county to collect your parents together with a roundtrip to the local airport to collect your in-laws. Thankfully, your estimated timings work out well and all arrive safely and in good time for the start of celebrations on the evening of the 24th and the traditional midnight church service. Implementation is imminent and you retire to bed safe in the knowledge that you have prepared well.

As project manager you rise early. Gone are the days of the children running downstairs at the crack of dawn. But at around 10, the family begins to stir and a procession to the kitchen for a welcome cup of tea or glass of bubbles begins. Dressing gowns, hugs, mugs, kisses and cuddles. The best bit of the day. And then your Most Significant Other (MSO, our project sponsor) calls you upstairs. It’s the flu.

That was never on your risk register and so with no contingency, you begin to take on board the magnitude of the task ahead. Responsibility for the delivery of Christmas dinner – a key milestone just 6 or so hours away – has just landed on your plate - literally. Your first thought? You need a risk management strategy:

  • Avoid – an alternative approach – order a take away. A Chinese, or Indian perhaps? No, wouldn’t work - nowhere will be open and just think of the sunk cost not to mention stakeholder expectations around traditional fare;
  • Reduce – buy-in the complete Christmas meal from the pub. Not an option. With a lead time to bookings of 6 weeks, 6 hours would appear desperate – and think of the risk to your reputation, not to mention the cost;
  • Transfer – get the in-laws to take ownership? It’ll never happen.
  • Accept - there’s no alternative but to pull together your scheduling skills and begin the task of building that mental network which will deliver the Christmas meal on time, to cost and – your biggest concern – with an acceptable quality.

You begin the job of identifying the key tasks: prepare the veg (mental note: sprouts mandatory, parsnips optional), set the table (mental note: cooking for eight, check with MSO if we use the silverware), wrap the turkey (mental note: take out the giblets), make up the stock and stuffing, light the fire, locate the candles, make up the ‘pigs in blankets’ (mental note: search, make the gravy (mental note: find the cranberry), dig out the crystal, iron the table cloth (mental note: ask MSO for location of crackers), locate matching napkins. The list is a long one, but that should just about do it – a team brainstorm would have helped but doesn’t work without a team. And no flip chart! Perhaps every home should have one?

With the scope of the dinner defined you begin to map out the sequence of events over the next four hours. You’re actually beginning to enjoy the challenge of identifying sequence, dependence and concurrence, with estimates of durations being bellowed from the MSO who by now has made it down the stairs and is sitting with feet up in front of ‘Carols from Kings’. The notion of a critical path comes into view, which makes you laugh to yourself, or perhaps that’s the effect of the third glass of bubbles beginning to kick in (‘I enjoy cooking with wine, and sometimes I even put some in the food’ springs to mind).

The previous and the future generation family members have just returned from their walk to be greeted by an enticing concoction of aromas – a mix of roasting turkey, simmering vegetables and flickering candles. Everyone agrees it’s time for the first present. No one is disappointed. The work done to satisfy the requirements of the younger ones was repaid with looks of joy and genuine surprise. As for the elders, traditional jumpers, cardigans, pyjamas and dressing gowns are met with the by-now equally traditional feigned look of surprise. More satisfied stakeholders.

Dinner is served and what a result. The sprouts a little soggy, the carrots a little crunchy but in the circumstances, MSO is delighted. By all accounts, very demanding acceptance criteria have been fully satisfied.  So, glasses are filled, raised and a toast to the chef presented. Janet and John are equally impressed when the decision is made to allow them a small glass of something.

At the kitchen sink 2 hours later, with the task of clearing up and washing now well under way, you begin to reflect on the project that was Christmas Day.  A smile comes to your face as you realise that even for the most trivial of projects, basic project disciplines and fit-for-purpose processes have something to offer. Clearly defined PM and Sponsor roles and responsibilities; good (and complete) scope definition, robust estimates, effective scheduling, an understanding of risk (threat and opportunity) management and appropriate mitigation measures, but perhaps more than anything else, good stakeholder analysis, early engagement and superlative communications. So, lots of lessons learned. The most important lesson? The biggest lesson of all?
Next year, eat out.


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  1. Tim Podesta
    Tim Podesta 25 November 2020, 06:30 PM

    Thank you Bill for the Christmas Dinner story with the project management theme. Have you given this story as a speech at a seminar or training event? Stories are a great way of getting the message across as well as entertaining and engaging an audience. I would encourage project managers to find the stories that can help in their career development. I have a great story from my own personal experience which covers the iron triangle of project management and my daughters wedding which we celebrated this year.