Part 2 Chapter 7

Part 2 Chapter 7

Boxes and Clouds


I said earlier that project management is simple. Nowhere is that truer than in the idea of boxes and clouds.

Here we have an idea which is almost child-like in its simplicity. Despite this it’s a constant cause of project failure.

Pretty much all projects start out with a general idea of something that needs to be done. We have a goal – we know we want to do something – but what exactly that is or how it might be achieved is vague. I like to call / imagine this type of goal as a ‘cloud’ – picture a thought bubble over a cartoon character’s head.

But as project managers we can’t deal in clouds – we can’t deliver vague things.  The thing we’re trying to do – our goal – must be bounded and well-defined and, in particular, we must know when we’ve achieved it. I like to think of / imagine this kind of goal as a box.  Something is either inside the box i.e. is part of our goal or is outside the box – is not part of the goal.

When the goal of a project is a box, it’s almost like we have a checklist. When all the things inside the box are done, then the project is done.

When the goal of a project is a cloud we can’t say that. What will happen then is that the team will work like crazy to deliver some box and say, “Didn’t we do well”. The boss will look at that box and say, “Hmm, I though this [indicating some other, different box] is what we were doing”. The customer will say [indicating some other box again], “I thought that’s what I was getting”. Other people will have other views – and the resulting gap in expectations will cause lots of unhappiness to lots of people.

You don’t want to fall into this trap. You want to make sure that all of your projects have goals which are boxes. The next chapter tells you how to do exactly that.