Monday, April 27, 2009

Getting the Point Across. Why Project Managers Love the Power of Analogies

It has often been said that effective Project Managers are like ducks on water. Imagine a graceful animal smoothly gliding across a lake, calmly traveling from one place to another. In reality, the beast is wildly fluttering its feet under the water line, working hard to get to its destination. You’d never know how much effort was involved to make it look so painless. Project managers also need good tools that make it look easy to get the job done, and one of the best is the power of analogy.

Communication is the essence of Project Management

Project managers are challenged every day with ensuring that everyone on the project team has the information they need to do their job. To make it happen, we use phone calls, emails, websites, memos, meetings and even the old-fashioned water cooler. At each one of these opportunities there is a short time window to make our point. Most importantly, we must make the point effectively. As the focal point of the project team, the PM must ensure that the ultimate result of these communications is successful. As a rule, the measure of our ability to communicate effectively is defined by a smoothly running project. If sponsors, stakeholders, and team members know what they need to know, then effective results tend to be a self-fufilling prophecy.

Analogies simplify complex communications

Project managers have to work quickly. Timelines are always shorter than you need, issues more complex than you thought. Meanwhile, project teams are composed of varying skills, training levels, and personalities. Agility is vital when you have to constantly assimilate with each new project team, technology, and set of taboos.

An analogy is a form of logical inference based on the assumption that if two things are known to be alike in some respects, then they must be alike in others. In other words, this usually allows a comparison between a complex concept and something much more simple. By making the comparison, we provide a clear window into the essence of the subject at hand. Project-based environments will present many situations where it is crucial to get a point across quickly and effectively. Done correctly, analogies hold the key to success.

Execution is key

You can’t get it right every time. The use of a good analogy can be entirely spontaneous, or very well planned. In either situation, there are several things that can improve your chances of getting the point across. There must be a very legitimate point of comparison between the two subjects, and the relationship must be obvious. Be sure you are not comparing apples and oranges. The analogy must not be so simple that you come across as condescending. There is nothing worse than risking personal insult by underlining a simple point, with an even more simple analogy. Proper execution requires reading the audience, being knowledgeable about the subject, and a very deep ‘trick bag’ of real world experiences from which to draw your examples. It takes practice, but when you’ve got it right, you know it.

How do you know when you’ve got it right?

Ownership. When you float a really great analogy that truly resonates with your intended audience, you will see immediate ownership. This means instant feedback, as different people grow and expand the concept. This shows that people fully understand the comparison, and see greater unexplored value in the strength of the association.

Classic PM Analogies

Here are several classic Project Management analogies that you can use to clearly make your point:

1. ‘Under the Hood’ – Like many good PM analogies, this one focuses on the importance of getting people to understand the importance of scope. The explanation may go something like this – “On this project, we were given the task of completing X, and we are well on track to accomplishing our goal. However, there has been pressure to complete several additional tasks, and we are proposing that this work should be pushed to Phase Two. As an analogy, imagine taking your car for service at the garage, where you have requested an oil change - no more or no less. Once the mechanic has the hood open, there may be a temptation to see other things that need to be fixed. All you expect from your mechanic is a list of things that are wrong, and perhaps the cost to fix them. At this point, it is best to close the hood, take the car for a test drive around the block, and then maybe think about that list.’
2. ‘Stranded on a Desert Island’ – This is another great scope analogy focused on project planning– “Why do we need a clearly defined scope and solid plan for this project? Imagine we are stranded on a desert island with all our worldly possessions strewn around us on the beach. In the process of trying to figure out how to get off the island, we see a ship off in the distance. As we only have one life raft, and it can only carry so much weight, we have to think very carefully about what items we will take. We don’t want to get half way out and have to turn back because we brought the wrong stuff, or have to throw things overboard because we carried too much. Rembember, it is always possible to come back in another raft for more stuff, but we have to get the initial delivery to the ship first.”
3. ‘Beware of the Nunchucks” – This is a favourite that highlights the importance of training when implementing new systems. Although not for every audience, this often works well with the technically minded. “We must consider the importance of thoroughly training our users prior to implementing this ‘user friendly’ system. Imagine a fourteen-year-old boy that receives a set of nunchucks as a gift. These are the peculiar ancient weapons, composed of two sticks held together with a small piece of chain, used in old martial arts films. Because the boy has seen many of these films, and the apparent ease with which they are used, his first inclination will be to pick up the nunchucks and start swinging! As he has seen hundreds of martial arts films, it will not take less than five minutes of some wild, but fun, uncontrolled swinging before the child has smacked himself square in the centre of his forehead – (for effect, tell this part complete with a loud smack to your head!)

A well-crafted analogy always helps a PM get a tough point across quickly and effectively.

Originally published in 2003 in Project Times.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. I like the term "bitter AND twisted" to describe a team member who is disgruntled and disruptive.