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Race Across the World or just another project?

John Bolton John Bolton

Published: 12th May 2023

The latest challenge to face the band of intrepid would-be travellers is to get across Canada from west to east by train, boat, bus, car, boke, foot or any other form of transportation that doesn’t involve air travel. And all for the price of an airline ticket for the same journey. The pairs are chosen carefully for their life stories and general apparent ineptitude or ability for at least one of the pairs to annoy just about everyone. In our house, there are barely suppressed screams of frustration at the approach and demeanour of the travellers. We are, of course, too polite to make these feelings known too loudly, it is after all just a TV programme… OR IS IT?

Analogies to the world of a project

Let’s have a think about the way this is set up, because I think it has very real analogies to the world of a project. Let me explain.

1.      Time

There is a clearly marked timeline to the journey. This is set merely as a race to get somewhere first. Each intervening step on the way has its own set of targets, in terms of when buses leave, when boats arrive, etc. These are the milestones, the major ones are the arrival at the next ‘checkpoint’. Each group contrives a plan to reach the next checkpoint, but by and large, because there is no fixed idea of when this should be, it is very much left to the evolution of the journey. This has little real relevance to the classical project, although of course a critical path requires the calculation of the shortest duration overall. A bit like a race. Our colleagues of an agile or critical chain persuasion would be far more comfortable with the concept of allowing a plan to evolve and adjust expectations accordingly.

2.      Cost

Each pair has a budget. This is manifestly inadequate, which is why they are allowed to go back for re-funding by getting a job. Of course, the jobs are fabricated, no one will pay you hard currency to muck out a stables for just one day at random. The jobs of course are just a way of introducing an element of game play, they are the disruptive force that allows some modicum of flexibility and ensures that each pair is not disqualified before the final objective and the film crew has to go home with an unsigned last page of the book. Project managers never run out of money – yeah right. They do though need to return for supplementary funding and re-approval.

3.      Quality

We are encouraged to believe that ‘this is not about winning’. Really? They really want to go to Lake Louise more than win £20,000? With that sort of money, you can win, go home and then go back. That bit does not make much sense. Are the pairs encouraged to seek out ways to deliberately confuse their best attempts at winning, by taking a little diversion for a bit of white-water rafting? Really?  Of course not, they are actively encouraged to do this to make my analogy with a project more compelling. PMs struggle to deliver quality; it is after all a very subjective term and open to any amount of interpretation and valuation. What does a ‘quality’ hotel room look like?  

4.      Risk

They have no concept of the entire journey or what could go wrong. Each pair has their own view on what specific route they want to take with its commensurate risks. Will the boat leave on time, will we get a lift, etc.? There is no evidence of risk logs or mitigation plans, or any of the other PM-esque trappings, but there are analogies.

The crux of the matter is not any or all of these in isolation, but more importantly that there are decisions to be made. Do we sacrifice time for money (hire a car, get there quicker), do we accentuate a qualitative aspect (seeing a bear) all the time knowing it will impact on our arrival time? These are not unknown conundrums facing most project managers. The famous ‘iron triangle’ has been pre-eminent in all project management training programmes since the black stump. It holds true though, the balancing of each of those phenomena is the all-pervasive challenge.

I wonder if the producers considered this when putting the programme together, or did they go out of their way to make the decisions the same as those made by PMs and Sponsors, or is it just a co-incidence? I don’t know, but I doubt it somehow. Their brief was to make a TV programme that would keep the punters engaged over several weeks, to be pored over and analysed, to bring out the worst (and best) in people, revel in overcoming challenges and be hotly debated by all concerned down the pub. Just like a project then 😊. Can’t wait for the next episode.

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