Flying the friendly skies of project management

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Although I work in the software industry now, I cut my project management teeth coordinating logistics for a research outpost in the Canadian Arctic. This included managing MC-130 Hercules flights flown by the US Air National Guard to and from Resolute Bay, Nunavut. It was an incredible experience, particularly because it was so fascinating learning from the flight crews and mission planners about the unique challenges posed by working in such an extreme environment.

Project manager Nick W posing beside sign in the arctic

I came to see these flights as projects—complete with constraints, clients, expectations, stress, deliverables, frequent changes, negotiation, risk—and this analogy has been really valuable for me in the years since my experiences in the north. It helps remind me of the critical role good project management plays in the delivery of successful projects, and how, as a project manager, I can best serve project teams and deliver value for clients.

I’d like to share that analogy with you to break down what you should expect while working through a project.

Setting the stage

The flight crew

This is the project team, comprised of designers, developers, QA engineers, and the project manager. They are a high-performing group of specialized professionals who come together to deliver the overall objective of the project. Above all else, the flight crew is responsible for the well-being of the passengers.

flight crew member sitting in the flight deck of MC-130 Hercules aircraft

The passengers

They are the clients, and they need to get from Point A to Point B. Sometimes they have requirements about how they want to get there (via waypoints C, D, and E), a timetable for when they need to be there by, limited tolerance for how much turbulence their cargo can withstand, and constraints on how much they’re able to spend to get to their destination.

The destination

This is the overall goal of the project. There are always several different routes for getting to the destination, each with their own trade-offs. The scenic route will be more costly but might be higher-value for passengers. The fastest route might involve more turbulence. The most comfortable flight might take more time than the passengers have.

The Arctic

This is the overall environment that the flight (i.e. the project) is operating in. Weather can be extreme, dangerous, and unpredictable. The flight crew needs to know how to adapt to conditions by implementing smart course corrections at the right moment. The terrain is mostly barren and unpopulated, and you’re often flying over the frozen Arctic ocean. The flight crew and passengers are pretty much on their own out there, with the nearest help generally stationed over one thousand kilometers away. There’s no safety net. The Arctic’s gonna do what it’s gonna do, and it doesn’t care about your detailed spreadsheets, Gantt charts, or Trello boards.

Barren arctic landscape

So how do these elements all interact in a project? Let’s take a quick tour of the phases of our flight: pre-flight, takeoff, cruising, descent, landing, and post-flight.

Project initiation and planning

With the safety of the passengers in your hands, it would be inappropriate to hop into the flight deck without any forethought. The initiation and planning stages in project management spell out the goals and requirements of your client and a detailed project timeline that will guide your team through the process.   

Pre-flight

Once the contract is signed and the passengers are ready to go, we need to finalize the project’s flight crew. The challenge in assembling a star-studded project team is that not all potential flight crew members will be available all the time. This is because no project ever happens in isolation. As we work through the pre-flight phase for this project, several other flights are already in progress. Some are in the air, some are going through post-flight routines, and others still are taxiing to the runway. The project manager needs to schedule flights within the context of the overall operations happening at our airport. 

Project manager Nick W standing beside MC-130 Hercules plane

Once the team has been assembled, the project manager briefs the flight crew to make sure that everyone is aligned with the overall goals of the project. The flight crew should be aware of where the passengers want to go, constraints on how to get there, how much time we have before we need to be there, and the foreseeable risks that might jump out at us. No matter how detailed a contract is, there are always ambiguities about the intent and constraints communicated on paper, so this is a good opportunity to start listing out all the questions the flight crew needs to discuss with the passengers before we take off.

Although adjustments to the plan are absolutely going to happen once we’re in the air, it’s far easier and less costly to sort out the big picture details while everyone is still on the ground.

Takeoff

As we taxi to the runway, the flight crew and passengers run over a last-minute checklist. Final alignment on high-level goals? Progress reporting? How will approvals and changes be handled? Do we have a solid communications plan and schedule? Have we discussed how risks will be managed? In the unlikely event of a water landing…you get the idea. In the end, everyone has the tools they need, a list of next steps, and they know what to expect on the flight. 

There’s no turning back now. Wheels up, we’re on our way.

Project execution 

This is where you put your plan into action. Prepare deliverables, assign appropriate tasks to your team members, monitor the project’s progress, and make adjustments as needed. 

Cruising

We’re at altitude now, and we’ve established a smooth rhythm of system checks that happen on a regular basis.

  1. Team check-ins: Making sure that no one on the crew is stuck on anything
  2. Passenger check-ins: Clarifying requirements, gathering and discussing feedback
  3. Status reporting: Using metrics such as airspeed, fuel remaining, ETA to next waypoint, and actual vs. planned progress to quantitatively assess project status
  4. Quality assurance: Implementing small course corrections to make sure the flight is still aligned with overall goals
  5. Workload management: Coordinating with ground stations and other flights in the area to make sure your flight isn’t interfering with other operations in the area
  6. Risk management: Keeping an eye on the external environment to make sure we’re not headed into an unexpected storm

What the project manager is not doing is micromanaging. Good project management involves trusting the flight crew as the experts they are.

Picture of the arctic from a MC-130 Hercules plane in the air

In most cases, the flight plan is going to change. There will be unexpected storms prompting course corrections, strong headwinds slowing down progress, and faulty engines sending waves of panic down the aisle. When the plane runs into roadblocks, it’s the job of the flight crew to spot potential problems as soon as possible, assess the risk to the passengers’ well-being and overall goals, and present alternative solutions for handling the situation. Conversations about failure can be challenging because it sometimes requires the team to reevaluate their expectations. However, a solid compromise that satisfies the overall objective is generally never too far away.

Projects, much like flights in the Arctic, are almost never straightforward. That’s why it’s always a good idea to fly with experienced specialists.

Project closure

These experienced specialists know when it’s time to wrap projects up, ensuring that resources aren’t wasted. As the final deadline approaches, efforts are put toward making final adjustments so that the end product can be delivered on time, within budget, and within the scope of the client’s requirements. 

Descent

A good pilot should know when to prepare for landing. Even though there’s still so much to see, managing expectations is important because time is tight and our fuel tanks are running low. 

As the plane begins its descent, we shift our focus to the end result. The PA system crackles to life as the flight crew reminds passengers to push tray tables to their upright position, fasten seat belts, and stow away carry-on luggage. Everyone on board is aware of their role in the final sprint as the plane prepares to land. During this stage, the flight crew works hard to tie up loose ends while making sure that all the remaining project requirements have been addressed.  

Landing

As the plane approaches the runway, we transition from big-picture next steps to fine-grained adjustments that keep us on track to meet project goals and requirements. We frequently engage in discussions with the client to ensure everyone is in alignment with the micro-details. If all goes well, then we touch down with everyone safe and where they expect to be. 

MC-130 Hercules plane parked on a runway at a research outpost in Nunavut

Of course, that’s wishful thinking. A few of us are still a little on edge from that turbulence a few hours ago. My buddy to the left is having trouble feeling his toes—it gets cold at altitude! And me? Maybe a few bumps and bruises, and in need of some Netflix binging and sleep, but I’m otherwise okay. This is normal! No project is ever perfect, which is why we always take some time out to reflect and debrief once we land. 

Post-flight

Once safely back at the airport, the post-flight process involves working through the three golden rules of project management.

  1. Continuous improvement: The flight crew and passengers sit down for a post-flight chat to identify what went well, what needs improvement, and what actionable steps we can take to improve for next time.  
  2. Continuous improvement: As a group, the flight crew reviews the internal processes, procedures, and tooling used throughout the project life cycle. We identify the strengths and shortcomings of each to determine how we can optimize our time, budget, and other resources for the next project.   
  3. Continuous improvement: The PM shares their experience on the project with other PM team members. This process of learning and sharing fosters internal growth that allows everyone to improve. To aid this learning process, the PM ensures that all project documentation is complete and available for future reference. 

The journey doesn’t end with the post-flight checks. Equipped with the power of hindsight from this project, the flight crew is made available for assignment to the next flight. That’s the beauty of project management: you never truly perfect your craft. Instead, you become a lifelong student, constantly augmenting and refining your project management toolkit, identifying areas for personal growth, and picking up technical expertise that will help you better communicate with your flight crew.

After more than 15 years of managing projects (in a wide range of weather conditions), I feel privileged to work with the professional and world-class flight crew here at TTT Studios. In the end, I feel that the success of a project often comes down to trust. In that regard, I can’t think of a team I’d rather be on, and I’m looking forward to welcoming you aboard.

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