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Project Management is a lot Like Baking

I love to bake.

Nothing puts a smile on my face faster than the smell of a fresh batch of goodies or the instant, positive feedback I receive from family and friends when they sample the outcomes.

So let’s discover what project management lessons might be learned by stepping into the kitchen.

Related Article: Project Management is All About Trust

Quality in, quality out

You can clearly taste the difference when you bake with higher quality ingredients. Yes, you could bake a cake with cheaper inputs but isn’t the effort you are putting into the exercise worth the greater investment? Arguably, the extra amount spent will provide a taste which far exceeds the incremental costs.

The same holds true when staffing our projects. We shouldn’t settle for lower performers just because they have the capacity. As I’ve written previously, we need our team members to bring capacity, commitment, AND capability – all three attributes are required for project success.

You need to be strategic about resourcing. It sounds great to get a team of all Grade A performers, but a short-lived team of “all stars” is likely to be too costly, unavailable, or would generate more headaches due to ego clashes than the incremental value they would provide.

As with baking, you should identify the one or two key ingredients which will result in a substantial uplift and focus your efforts on securing those.

When baking a chocolate cake, I don’t worry about getting the best quality flour, eggs or butter. But I will favour Dutch cocoa over regular, and real vanilla extract over the cheaper artificial variety. The result of using those is evident with every bite!

Context counts

One size does not fit all when baking. The cake which turns out great when our oven is set at 400 degrees for 50 minutes might still be uncooked when we try the recipe at a friend’s place. Doubling the size of a recipe doesn’t mean you can get away with doubling the baking time – you might end up with charcoal. And finally, the quantities you use of specific ingredients might not scale linearly.

The same holds true with project management.

The complexity of a project does not scale linearly. The reason that Fibonacci sequences are well suited for relative size estimation as the effort involved to complete a work item at higher levels of uncertainty could be exponentially greater than for simple work items.

Practices also need to be tailored to the specific context of a project, the culture of the team, and the delivery maturity of the organization and stakeholder ecosystem. Applying rigorous practices which worked well on a large, complex project to a much smaller initiative is a needless waste and trying to manage a large project with the practices which worked well at lower levels of complexity is professional negligence.

Companies should embrace frameworks, not methodologies. When implemented well, the former provide sufficient guidance to ensure that the right process tailoring decisions get made whereas deploying the more prescriptive latter can often result in the Goldilocks tale of either too big or too small for most of the projects in the portfolio.

Follow recipes until you are safely able to experiment

When I bake something for the first time, I will follow the instructions exactly in terms of ingredients and process steps. But over time, as I get more familiar with it, I can safely begin to experiment by trying different ingredients or approaches. I know that I can get away with reducing the quantity of sugar in my cake recipes or substituting a different liquor when making Amaretto cookies, but that confidence comes with experience.

When we first start to manage projects, it should be the same way. With the support of a seasoned project manager and sufficient process guidance, we should be able to manage a small, low complexity project successfully. On our second project, we will replicate those behaviors and practices which helped us on the first project. Over time, our competency with multiple hard and soft tools will improve so that we can pick the right approach for the specific context of a situation.

But this competency will only come through progressive increases in project size or complexity. Taking a project manager who has been successful managing small maintenance projects and handing them a highly complicated system replacement program would be as foolhardy as asking an amateur baker like me to bake a multi-layer wedding cake under time and cost constraints.

As Tom Douglas put it “If you don’t have the confidence in baking, commit to making the recipe three times. The first two, do it exactly the way I’ve told you to make it. Twice. The first time you’ll screw it up. The second time it will come out pretty good, and then the third time, make your adjustments.”

When we bake, we hope that the outcome will be tastier than just the sum of the ingredients – in that, it is exactly like managing projects.

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