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Project Management Lessons from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation | LiquidPlanner

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Project Management Lessons from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday, my family and I have a few traditions. One of them is to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Hidden amongst the classic scenes that only John Hughes could write, there are a few project management lessons worth your consideration. Here are five of them:

Lesson #1: Every project needs quality assurance.

The lighting ceremony is a classic scene that anyone who has ever hung a string of lights can relate to. There is always one strand that fails to light. Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, has his entire family gathered outside for the big lighting ceremony only to have the big moment fail again and again. Clark’s dad tells him, “If I were you, I’d go up and personally check each one.” Even though Clark’s wife Ellen saves the day when she debugs the electrical problem, the scene is a lesson in quality assurance.

Quality assurance is needed on every project to make sure that requirements are understood and the project is delivering according to the organization’s standards. Large organizations will have auditors and quality assurance team members whose only job is to ensure that the project team is following the “right” project management process. Quality assurance might be tempting to overlook, but it plays an essential part of every project.

Lesson #2: Understand how each team member contributes to the project.

Clark walks into the office of his boss, Mr. Shirley, to deliver a Christmas gift and asks if Mr. Shirley found his report helpful. Mr. Shirley has no idea what the report was about or if it was even completed. He’s oblivious to his employee’s contribution to the project. It’s a clear reminder that both senior management and team members need to understand their roles and contributions.

During project startup, it can be difficult to determine specific roles and responsibilities as people have different perspectives on how to deliver the project. The RASIC chart (Responsible, Approving, Supporting, Informed, and Consulted) is a useful tool to define the each person’s relationship to the project. I’ve used this tool when transferring projects to our IT Support team, or to clarify roles between organizations.

Lessons #3: Don’t forget the lessons learned.

project management lessons

When Clark gets trapped in the attic, he finds old home movies that evoke nostalgic memories. You may not reflect on your past projects nostalgically, but this scene is a helpful reminder to identify the lessons learned in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes or anticipating pitfalls.

There are times when I look at my current project and realize I missed a document or a template that I had used in a previous project. Lessons learned don’t always have to be a list of things gone right and things gone wrong; they can be simple tweaks.

Sometimes you just need to look back at what worked on the past project and repeat the framework. I do this all the time with project status reports, project kick-off presentations, work breakdown structures and scope definition. I’m sure you can find a few useful lessons or templates that can be used again and again—and you don’t need to be trapped in an attic to find them.

Lesson #4: Watch out for cousin Eddie.

Have you ever been on a project where a team member has good intentions but just doesn’t seem to get it? Not all projects have a Cousin Eddie, however I’ve been on a few where team members are technically proficient but lack a cohesive view of how they fit into the project.

As a project manager, you don’t always get to pick your team members. Sometimes you inherit a few Cousin Eddies who are so focused on either being so technically correct that they miss the point of the project. A developer can get lost in rewriting code to the point of risking a task due date. I’ve worked a few other Cousin Eddie project managers who lack fundamental project management concepts but still find a way to deliver.

When a Cousin Eddie joins the team, it can add more stress and require more one-on-one handling with the project manager. If the team member really isn’t contributing, then you remove them from the project. However, if they have the potential but need a little help, then you’ll find even Cousin Eddie will be successful.

Lesson #5: Understand stakeholder expectations to avoid disappointment.

When Clark gets the Jelly of the Month Club gift instead of his Christmas bonus, it’s a lesson in risk management and understanding stakeholder expectations. Clark invests money in a swimming pool when he doesn’t have the money. He expects his Christmas bonus check will cover the costs with enough money left over to fly the entire family back for the pool opening.

He’s definitely taking a risk and his only risk response is Cousin Eddie. Sending Cousin Eddie to kidnap your boss to resolve a project or personnel issues isn’t a prudent course of action. Of course, if Clark reasonably budgeted the pool construction costs, we wouldn’t have had such a memorable movie.

The other lesson here is about understanding stakeholder expectations. Mr. Shirley could have let company employees know that Christmas bonuses were out that year. However, most company bonus programs are dependent upon company performance and are not guaranteed. If your project stakeholders expect specific deliverables by a given date and you don’t anticipate those needs, you may not even receive a Jelly-of-the-Month Club membership.

If you’ve seen “Christmas Vacation” then you can probably relate to these scenes. If you haven’t seen this holiday classic, you’re in for a treat.

Happy holidays—and successful planning in the New Year.


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