Ten Things Walt Disney Taught Me About Project Management

Often times, the study of project management concepts and practice concentrates primarily on the academic, filled with complex charts, graphs, formulas, and page after page of bibliographic reference.  What if, instead, the focus was on the most simplistic definition of a project?  Better yet, what if that definition was one a dreamer like Walt Disney could wrap his creative mind around?  At its heart, a project is a new or unique undertaking, which meets a business need, is temporary in nature, and is structured in such a way as to ensure delivery of the goal within the targeted time, budget and quality constraints.  Put even more simply by Walt Disney himself, “If we can dream it, we can do it.”

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“When we consider a project, we really study it…not just the surface idea, but everything about it.  And when we go into that new project, we believe in it all the way.  We have confidence in our ability to do it right…and we work hard to do the best possible job.” – Walt Disney

Lesson One: Pay fantastic attention to detail. 

Any project, as defined above, can not and should not be managed as a whole.  It is the sum of many small details across many distinct process groups.  Keeping track of these details makes the difference between a well managed project and a project managed by reactionary efforts.  Tracking the details, anticipating issues, responding to risk, and keeping watch over a myriad of other seemingly non-connective tasks are what keeps your project moving forward.  Don’t get too bogged down in the weeds with your team however, as your main role is to keep one eye on the end goal and keep the project moving in that direction.  Always know where your project is today, where its going tomorrow and what challenges your team is facing so you can effortlessly communicate these facts to key stakeholders.

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“I happen to be an inquisitive guy and when I see things I don’t like, I start thinking, ‘Why do they have to be like this and how can I improve them?’” – Walt Disney

Lesson Two: Challenge the status quo.

How a project manager responds to issues and risk can make the difference between an “out of control” project and a project “within control limits.”  One of the major steps of the project management maturity model is recognizing and avoiding past mistakes.  When we ignore our project success/failure history, we are sadly doomed to repeat it.  Leading change within a project is occasionally necessary to correct inconsistencies, errors, omissions, and/or responses to new issues.  Project management methodology isn’t a “one size fits all” approach and existing business processes may not exactly mesh with what your project is expected to deliver.  Based on this, you’ll need to determine exceptions to both project management protocol and normal business operations.  Challenging the status quo and pushing the boundaries of accepted norms are occasionally required of a Project Manager to get the job done.

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“I want a guest to walk into a five million dollar restaurant to buy a five cent hamburger.” – Walt Disney

Lesson Three: Don’t forget about the quality.

Project quality is tantamount to a successful deliverable.  Now, I will admit that the quote referenced above seems a little extreme.  Walt Disney was trying to set the scene for a quality and enjoyable experience within his Disneyland theme park.  You likely wouldn’t want to set this lofty of a quality goal, but you must, as a Project Manager, ensure that every single deliverable of the project meets quality goals and expectations.  The Project Manager walks a very narrow tightrope here.  Exceeding expectations can bring claims of gold-plating, while cutting quality to meet budget, schedule or scope constraints can lead to very unhappy stakeholders.

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“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” – Walt Disney

Lesson Four: People expect you to fail…prove them wrong. 

Based on the oft-quoted Standish CHAOS report of project success rates (or lack thereof), it is easy to see how some people, including your own project team members and stakeholders, can be skeptical of your ability to successfully deliver a project within budget, time and scope parameters.  Fair or not, the Project Manager is expected to re-direct accolades of project success back toward the team, while on the flip side, accept full accountability when the project fails to deliver on its promises.  How you manage the effort, including the team you are given, the communications you provide, the expectations you set and/or manage and the direct guidance you provide as you lead through issues, risks, milestone checkpoints and delivery acceptance are under your control.  Make informed decisions and direct rather react.

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“You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality.” – Walt Disney

Lesson Five: Team members make the project a success, not the project manager. 

Putting together a top-notch project team is an essential ingredient to the success of a project.  Over time, project managers have put together teams of technical or subject matter genius, only to discover that these geniuses don’t always play well together.  Ensuring a proper blend of subject matter expertise and a good team dynamic can turn a sluggish project into a streamlined project.  By planning the team structure carefully, before the project is launched, future risk is reduced.  Publicizing reward and recognition programs to promote “above and beyond” effort before the project even begins promotes positive attitudes and fair leadership right from the start.  Equally important, having a plan already in place for correcting and/or negating the impact on the project of poor work or a discouraged and stressed out team saves valuable risk response time for other issues that may arise later during the project.

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“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” – Walt Disney

Lesson Six: Make meetings more productive.

Project planning meetings, project status meetings, informal project discussions, and the dreaded elevator meeting.  For all of these forms of project communication, preparation and planning are key.  When project team members are sitting in a status meeting, they are not working on tasks needed to reach the next milestone.  Keep this in mind when you prepare your meeting agendas and participant lists.  Does the project team really need to sit through a recap of the tasks closed in the last thirty days?  Probably not, since they are the one’s who closed them!  An effective use of project resource time however, is a half-day workshop early in the project to define key project milestones, streams of work, tasks and time estimates.  Always ask yourself why a meeting is better than other forms of communication.

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“Disneyland will never be completed.  It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” – Walt Disney

           Lesson Seven: Promote and champion change. 

As a project manager, you are, by default, an instrument of change.  Projects do not occur in a vacuum.  Projects are usually created to fix or improve something in the organization and they have stakeholders who are always either positively or negatively affected by the result of the project you are managing.  Simply starting a project can shake up the status quo and make people uncomfortable.  This can bring out the “corporate antibodies” who seek to destroy your project and the changes it may bring.  Change requires clear and effective communication about why the project improves the organization.  Change also requires a strategy for dealing with challenges to the project.

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“I have been up against tough competition all my life.  I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.” – Walt Disney

Lesson Eight: Plan to defend your project.

One of the main responsibilities of a project manager is to defend the integrity of the key project control parameters…scope, schedule and budget.  That isn’t to say that the three tenets of the “project iron triangle” can never be changed.  With proper change management protocol in place, project leadership decisions andor the necessities of  project execution can dictate changes to the original plan.  However, one must always remain vigilant to the negative effects of scope creep, gold plating and risk, regardless of the source.  How many times have you been approached by a project sponsor or stakeholder who demands that you change the project without going through the bother of running the request through the integrated change control system.  If you’ve succumbed to this peer pressure and the project gets derailed, you’ll be the one left without a chair when the music stops!

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“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we are curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney

Lesson Nine: Innovation can come from inside the project team, not just from the stakeholders. 

Allow your team members to be an integral part of creative problem solving for the project.  By soliciting creative thought from your team members, you foster and atmosphere of innovation, stream-lined solutions, and increased team morale.  Early on in the project life cycle, challenge your team to think creatively about developing solutions to the problem being addressed by the project.  Be accepting to changing plans, approaches and solution ideas.  Run some “proof-of-concept” sessions or trial runs to validate the ideas.  Once the project team has landed on a particular approach however, that is the time to start bringing more control and managed change to the initiative.  Locking in on the tasks needed to deliver a specific approach ensures execution on the idea.  Allowing blue-sky thinking to continue without end causes uncontrollable work effort or worse, “analysis paralysis.”

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 “You know, one day when a little boy asked, ‘Do you draw Mickey Mouse?’ And I had to admit I do not draw anymore.  ‘Well, then you think up all the jokes and ideas,’ he said.  ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t do that anymore either.’  Finally he looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Disney, just what do you do?’  ‘Well,’ I said, ‘sometimes I think of myself as a little bee.  I go from one area of the studio to another, and gather pollen, and sort of stimulate everybody.’  I guess that’s the job I do.” – Walt Disney

Lesson Ten: Know when to manage, and when to lead.

An effective project manager must know when in the project life cycle to manage, and when to lead.  Typically, management activities occur during the initiating and planning phases of the project.  The project manager must, by proper protocol, maintain a more “hands-on” approach to guiding the project through the initiating and planning processes.  Defining the project scope, building a charter, developing cost estimates to include with funding requests, preparing stage gate presentations and generating a work breakdown structure with the project team are all direct management activities for the Project Manager.  On the other hand, during the executing and controlling phases, the Project Manager should take a step away from the day-to-day operations of the project and transition into more of a leadership role.  By using a “management by walking around” approach, the Project Manager can allow the team to focus on executing the plan (completing the work) while he/she communicates updates on progress, provides steering/coaching where needed and deals with issues and/or risks that may be experienced.

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So in a nutshell, what are the ten things Walt Disney has taught me about project management?  First, believe in the project one hundred percent.  Second, balance the constraints of time, quality and budget very carefully.  Third, set a positive environment for the project from the very beginning.  Fourth, pay extraordinary attention to detail.  Fifth, walk the project path before ever taking a step.  Sixth, assemble the best possible project team and plan for both achievement and challenge.  Seventh, maintain clear and consistent communications throughout the project and be aggressively proactive in communications with the team and the stakeholders.  Eighth, listen to and understand the unasked question.  Ninth, be certain of project completion criteria.  Tenth, learn from both successes and failures.

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