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Advice from the Fiddler on the Project

I listened to Rich Maltzman talking about his forthcoming book Fiddler on the Project (co-authored with Ranjit Biswas) on Controlling Chaos, way back in July. We’ve been corresponding since, trying to find time to talk about project management and authoring. I finally got round to asking him some questions last week, and from the sounds of it, the Fiddler book is going to be a really interesting read for two reasons:

  • it’s based on the story of Fiddler on the Roof, so it certainly won’t be a dry read
  • it’s being written using a wiki, and the value of wikis in general is a part of Web 2.0 that I haven’t got my head around yet.

I asked Rich what prompted him to write a book based on the film/musical? “I’ve had a long career in telecom project management followed by developing and delivering courseware on the subject,” he said. “I kept running into situations which were so well described by the metaphor of balance. One day it occurred to me that the Fiddler on the Roof story would express this in a colorful way, one which many of the project management textbooks couldn’t because they simply are too dry.”

I’ve never seen the film, or the musical (although there are posters for it in the tube, so it must be on in London somewhere). Even without having the knowledge of the original story, Rich believes I could still appreciate his book. “We will provide the appropriate backdrop,” he said. “Still, your experience would be greatly enhanced if you knew the larger context and could visualize the characters and hear some of the music (which is excellent) playing in your head.”

So maybe I’ll be renting the soundtrack from the library then!

“The ‘wiki thing’ is still unfolding,” Rich said, when I asked him about how it was working out. “We are heading towards 100 responses and have had people debating the concept and mostly just cheering on the idea and contributing illustrative examples.” He gave me some ideas of other sites that might help change my Luddite view of why wikis are useful.

“I would recommend is that you listen to the HBR Podcast episode on Wikinomics, to learn about examples of how knowledege sharing has helped in industry so far,” he said. “You also may want to check out We are Smarter than Me.”

Rich and Ranjit describe the Fiddler from the film on their website:

He balances on the peak of the roof, perched atop the house, effortlessly keeping his balance with one foot on either side of the peak while producing beautiful, enchanting music – a melody that is an inspiration for the story’s main character, Tevya. The fiddler never fails – and he never falls.

I can definitely see the parallels with project managers: being caught in the middle, in a careful balancing act between various stakeholders. But ‘never falls’? I know of plenty of projects that fall, so I asked Rich for some advice for people working on projects that are failing.

“The Fiddler never falls, because he is an imaginary character!” Rich said. Unfortunately, in the real world things aren’t always that smooth. “Real projects often do fail, and real project managers often “fall” or fail. Advice for those who fail: get back up. It probably wasn’t your fault. Get back up there and fiddle.”

And for those who are struggling with projects that are teetering on the verge of collapse? “Go back to your scope statement, your objectives, and your assumptions,” Rich advises. “Recheck your assumptions, reassert your objectives, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from A Higher Authority. I don’t mean praying here, although that may fit, too. I mean your line of management, your sponsors, your key stakeholders. If you catch your fall early enough, you can regain your balance. But as you are falling – this is the tricky part – record what you are experiencing. It is this catching of “lessons learned” as you are correcting your fall, that will help you in future projects.”

Changing the mindset of project teams from ‘failure’ to ‘learning opportunity’ is a hard one, but perhaps if you catch it early enough and start to turn people around so they learn as the project winds up then the actual close down wouldn’t be so painful.

Hope I don’t have to practise that any time soon though!

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.


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