Project Management Kung Fu Theater
Growing up in New York during the 1980s, I enjoyed watching what was called “The Sunday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater” on television. This meant four hours straight of Kung Fu movies, dueling techniques, avenging deaths, dubbed voice-overs, and wonderful noises for punches and kicks. There was also the additional two hours after the movies ended when my brother and I would re-enact the movies on each other (and destroy our house in the process). This article ponders these similarities of these movies to project management to see if it can help Project Managers attain their “black belt” in managing projects.
For those people reading this article who are not familiar with this genre of movies, I will give a brief overview. Each movie was about two hours long and they all had very distinct characteristics:
Each had a similar story in that a martial arts student has some wrong done to them (e.g. the killing of a master/brother/father, ransacking of the town/temple by thugs, etc.), then they go away to the mountains to train in some particular technique and would come back and avenge the wrong done to them.
The techniques that each student practiced made them super-human by having the ability to fly, smash walls with their fists, take arrows without being hurt, climb trees without using their hands, etc. (Do you begin to see the similarities with Project Managers yet?).
The styles of Kung Fu practiced were unique in that they mirrored specific movements and strengths of different animals (e.g. Tiger, Dragon, and Snake) and elements (e.g. Water, Fire, and Earth).
They were all filmed in Chinese and then translated with English voice-overs. This resulted in the actors’ lips moving (in Chinese) but the words being said in English did not match.
The Different Styles
A common occurrence in the Kung Fu movies was when the combatants would yell out the next ‘style’ that they were going to use against one another during a fight sequence. These were usually based on animals (e.g. Tiger, Crane, Dragon, and Monkey) and had distinct movements to them. While (most) Project Managers don’t shout out their styles or techniques during action in the project, I have noticed that some of the Project Management styles mirror the styles used by the Kung Fu warriors. That is, there are several distinct ways that PMs manage their projects and resources:
The Dragon style is an aggressive style and is used by a PM who manages by shouting out orders (like breathing out fire). They often use the “just do it and don’t complain” approach. Fear may be used as a motivator for the Dragon because they believe that people should obey them because of their power or title. I rarely see the Dragon ‘on the floor’ interacting with the team members but rather in the tower looking down and ready to attack. My experience is that Dragons may get the work done in the short term, but they rarely have the motivation or dedication of their team members if this style is over-used. People start resenting the approach and see it as a lack of support and will not be as motivated or productive after some time.
The Crane style requires Project Managers to stick out their necks. Cranes are risk takers who say that anything is possible (often before considering any consequences). These people tend to be more academic and enjoy the challenge of doing something that has not been done before (even if that is not what the project is asking for). I get nervous around Cranes because their ability to deliver on time is often diminished by their unrealistic expectations of what they want to deliver. However, there is value in being a Crane on projects where new thinking is required.
The Snake style of Project Management involves being sneaky around the way in which the project is managed. These are the Project Managers who have major issues but always report their status upwards as green. They sneak their way around dates or deliverables by talking their way out of them. These people are very good talkers so they tend to look good in front of Senior Management. I have seen the Snakes have trouble because by the time they admit real problems the problems are usually enormous. They also lose credibility with their team members if the team does not feel that their problems are being heard or addressed.
The Monkey style entails being everyone’s friend. These are the social managers who make it a point to have a relationship which each team member. This results in great camaraderie on the team but it also has its faults. For one, the work may not get done because the PM doesn’t want to ruin any friendships by being too tough. There is another level to this style – the “Drunken monkey”, which speaks for itself and usually causes the water cooler talk the following day and results in what may be known as a CLM (Career Limiting Move). Monkeys are fun to be around but may not have the respect from the team when it comes to crunch time.
The Cat is cautious and reluctant to act quickly. They like knowing all the available (and sometimes unavailable) information before making a decision. They take their time in analyzing all of the information. This style can work well for PMs provided that they are careful to make decisions in a timely manner.
When to Use Each Style
There were always two types of Kung Fu Masters – those that were experts in one specific style or technique and those who had a fundamental understanding of several techniques. I think the Project Management master must be an expert in all techniques and know when to use them. All of these styles can work, if used in the appropriate way. Some techniques work better in certain situations than others. The PM must be nimble enough to change their style based on the project team and environment.
Like Kung Fu students, Project Managers must practice their skills in order to attain mastery. Understanding the technical aspects of project management (e.g., issues logs, project plans) will not alone make a good project manager. It is the experience that a PM attains over many years of working on projects that lets them know what works and what doesn’t work. None of the movies I watched on those Sunday afternoons ever showed a student just reading a book of Kung Fu and then becoming an expert. They all took a few punches before learning how to block. It is the taking of these punches and kicks that make a Project Manager experienced to know when to punch, when to block and when to duck! It is the difficult project that instructs the most. You can’t learn martial arts very well by sparring with a wooden dummy – you want it to strike back at you.
One of the most memorable movies was the one where the students had to perform several difficult activities within different chambers to attain mastery. They could only move on to the next chamber once the current one was completed. One of these activities required students to hold a scalding hot cauldron filled with boiling water between their forearms for a period of time to test their discipline and skill. Another activity required holding plates of water on their body as they stood in a particular position and not moving for hours. While I would hope that PMI doesn’t require any of these activities to get the PMP certification, the metaphor can be used here as well. Because projects usually involve a lot of moving and inter-related parts, Project Managers need a lot of discipline to be successful. There are several frameworks and methodologies for managing projects but it is the PM who must apply the appropriate rigor to using these. It is very easy to skip steps in a process or push things off until later. These are often shortsighted decisions that result in pain later (maybe not as much as the burning cauldron, but it does sometimes feels that way). For example, not having the discipline to plan for all activities on a project will result in rework or missed steps later.
In Kung Fu Theater, no matter how good the master was they always took a few beatings during the big fights before they would make the comeback and eventually win the battle. Having discipline and practice helps to refine the Project Manager’s skills, but there are always those unexpected punches and kicks that they must absorb along the way to success. This is where your training will come in handy. Hopefully, you have learned how to take the punches and keep standing. It doesn’t make any sense just to train to avoid punches since it is inevitable that a few will be landed on you. Therefore, you should train yourself to take them and keep moving. PMs call this technique risk management.
Another favorite episode of mine features a Kung Fu master who had the ability to punch through brick walls. Today’s Kung Fu students use wooden boards. The technique for breaking anything is to strike through it and not at it. A martial arts student myself, I was taught to look six inches beyond the target and aim for that point. This metaphor can be extended to project management. The PM must ‘look beyond’ the problems of the day to be alert of what is to come rather than just striking at each problem. Once they make the plan, they should execute it with all of their focus, striking through the little problems that may stand between them and a successful project outcome. I have found in my experience that a lot of Managers tend to spend their days “putting out the fires” and not looking beyond them at the end goal. This is short-sighted and usually results in more fires and the endless cycle of firefighting.
Project Management Voice-Overs
For anyone who watched these moves, they know that the most entertaining part of Kung Fu Theater was the voice-overs. Since all of these movies were made in Hong Kong or
Oftentimes, a team member will report a major problem on the team. When this gets ‘dubbed’ for Management, there is usually a voice-over that changes the meaning of what the team member said. Here are some examples:
The work is half done
The work is complete for all intents
We pray that we can meet the date
We have a plan
The project is going well
The project is going great
The project is having problems
The project is going great
The project is really having problems
The project is going great
The project is now in real trouble
The project has some risks, but will come in on time
The project will never succeed
We need more time than usual to complete it
The team is posting their resumes on Monster.com
We have some potential show stoppers
It is very important to state information accurately so that expectations can be managed. I have found that it is better to state problems early (with proposed solutions) than to try to put off the information until later. Usually what happens is that the problem then snowballs into something gigantic and then no one understands how it got to be so big and unmanageable.
Project Managers resemble the Kung Fu masters of those golden days of Sunday afternoon television. They are super-human warriors who need to understand the different styles of Project Management and when it is appropriate to use each one. They need to practice their skills and focus on proper discipline. Even so, there will always be a kick or two that gets through and they need to have the stamina to absorb it. They also need to make sure that when their lips move their words match them.
One of my martial arts instructors once told me “To be the best that one can be, one must always dream of being better.” This means that the journey to mastery will never end and that there will always be battles to fight, new styles to learn, and punches to take.
Don’t forget to keep the cauldrons hot!
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Kerry Wills has worked as a Consultant and a Project Manager for Fortune 500 companies on multi-million dollar technology projects since 1995. During that time, he has gained experience in several capacities; as a Program Manager, Project Manager, Architect, Developer, Business Analyst, and Tester. Having worked in each of these areas gives Kerry a deep understanding of all facets of an Information Technology project. Kerry has planned and executed several large projects as well as remediated several troubled projects.
Kerry is a member of Mensa and has a unique perspective on project work, resulting in ten patents, published work in project management journals and books, and speaking engagements at over twenty Project Management conferences and corporations around the world. Kerry is a passionate speaker who has a reputation for delivering entertaining presentations combined with vivid examples from his experiences. Kerry recently published a book called “Essential Project Management Skills” which can be found at all major on-line book retailers. Kerry runs a Project Management blog on http://kerrywills.wordpress.com