Adaptive Project Management lessons from a Saturday Night Live skit

Last night on Saturday Night Live there was a skit in which three engineers  demonstrated their invention, a machine that can translate a dog’s thoughts into words, to two investors. This is a project with complexity and uncertainty, and adaptive project management is appropriate. Did they use adaptive project management and if not, would it have improved their demonstration?

Things don’t start well. There’s clearly a huge separation between the investors and the engineers. There’s no sense they’re on the same team. The stakeholders are providing money and nothing else. In adaptive project management the stakeholders and engineers need to act as a single team with different roles.

The first thing said by one of the investors (because they aren’t stakeholders, just investors) is that the project is $18 million over budget. In a well managed adaptive project the stakeholders understand why the budget has been exceeded well before the overage reaches $18 million and they’ve accepted the reasons.

Next, one of the engineers thanks the investors for their patience and money, he also says they’re “near completion…of the prototype”. This implies that they’ve been waiting to this advanced stage to show their work. In an adaptive project they would have been showing more interim work to their stakeholders. There’s a temptation to wait until you have big results, and with investors like this that might be the right call, but it leads to high-pressure events and little room for error.

The second thing we hear from the investors is “What exactly are we going to see here?”. An engaged stakeholder would know what to expect when a prototype is demonstrated.

One of the engineers then explains they’re about to see her dog’s thoughts translated into English. Wow, that’s amazing! But the investors look bored. They’ve invested millions into this project, which would revolutionize our understanding of the rest of the animal kingdom, and they look bored. At this point, the stakeholders should be “I can’t wait to see this. I hope it works. This is what we’ve been waiting for!”, not “Then let’s see it” said in a tone that should be reserved for humoring your wife after she brings home paint swatches.

At first the demonstration doesn’t go well, as so often happens. You can practice your demonstration, but prototypes are not well-tested products and things don’t always go well. Nothing loses trust from your stakeholders faster than a big demonstration that goes badly. But in the skit, as is usually the case, the engineers work the problem, boost the signal, and get their translator working.

But something goes in an unexpected direction. The dog is a Trump supporter and everyone in the room hates him: “Your dog is a dick” and “I’m going to shoot him with the gun I carry”. What should have been seen as shattering success is sidetracked by an unimportant issue. “This project is on thin ice”. What? They’ve just successfully translated the thoughts of a dog into English! They should be popping champagne, but instead they say, “obviously we have some more work to do”. This happens in real life, when what success means is unclear, the team focuses on the one thing that didn’t come out as expected rather than the huge accomplishment that did.

The writers were just trying to be funny, but there was truth in their description of what a demonstration to stakeholders can be like in a non-adpative environment.

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