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A Charlie Brown Project

How to ruin a perfectly good holiday classic

Spoiler alert: if you haven't seen A Charlie Brown Christmas yet, you should watch it first.

Points of View
Most of you are familiar with A Charlie Brown Christmas (ACBC). It's a tale of the ups and downs of Christmas, and underscores how people can experience the same event differently and reach similar or disparate conclusions.

Today I am going to use this holiday classic as a metaphor for project management (and try not to ruin it for you). Wish me luck. Throughout this post I'll be referring to the Christmas tree selection project as "the project". When I'm done deconstructing ACBC we're going to have two possible conclusions:

  • Charlie Brown satisfied his own requirements and therefore "the project" was a success.
  • Charlie Brown failed to meet the organization's requirements and expectations, and therefore "the project" was a failure.

Choose A Character
One of the most important lessons of this exercise is to illustrate that people can and will perceive the same situation differently. This applies to both the results of "the project", and how people can observe (and experience) an event such as Christmas. Everybody is unique and will use their views and opinions to form their own conclusion. Unlike a spelling bee, there is more than one right answer.

In order to play along I'm going to ask you to pick a Peanuts character. You can be:

  • Charlie Brown
    • Tasked with directing the play, for which he was unqualified.
    • Tasked with selecting a Christmas tree, for which he may or may not have been qualified (depending on your view of "the project" and your current level of Christmas spirit).
    • Can represent a well-intentioned employee, or an owner, who wants to complete "the project" even if it means "the project" does not meet all of its goals.
  • Lucy van Pelt
    • Tasked with selecting a director for the play, for which she was unqualified (or perhaps insincerely scheming).
    • Tried to direct the play "project" through a proxy (or a patsy, depending on your point of view).
    • Can represent a manager or principal who wants to influence a project but not be responsible or accountable for a project's results.
  • Linus van Pelt
    • Tasked with accompanying Charlie Brown while selecting a Christmas tree.
    • Tried to cheer up Charlie Brown at the beginning of the show, and after the Christmas tree selection.
    • Can represent a coworker who is trying to be helpful while also being supportive.

As you continue reading, try to see "the project" from the point of view of the Peanuts character you chose.

Fade In
Linus sets the stage for us when he says, "Of all the Charlie Browns of the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest." This defines our expectations of Charlie Brown, an integral member of our project team. As small business owners we need to be able to identify the talents and limitations of our team so our projects can start with the right expectations.

When Lucy counsels Charlie Brown on phobias, she speaks in psychology jargon. This isn't helpful at all as it clearly frustrates Charlie Brown. Substitute "technology" for "psychology" and this can sound all too familiar to most small business owners.

Did you notice: When Sally dictates her letter to Santa it sounds like her project's wish list.

When Charlie Brown arrives at rehearsal it is reminiscent of an initial project planning meeting. Charlie Brown feels out of his element (much like a small business owner not comfortable being in a position of managing a software project). Lucy is her quintessential self (attempting to exert undue influence over the play "project"). And Linus feels like he cannot memorize his lines (e.g., do his part or contribute anything meaningful). We also have Frida, who insists she can't go on, and Sally, who is thrilled with her assignment. Ring any bells?

Obstacle or Opportunity?
Charlie Brown experiences severe frustration when he realizes that the play "project" is never going to get done (let alone get done right). "If we're ever to get this play off the ground we've got to have some cooperation!" This is an early indication of project burnout — something we need to pay attention to as small business owners and as project managers.

Then Charlie Brown has an epiphany: they need a Christmas tree. In Charlie Brown's mind a Christmas tree will set the proper mood and save the play "project". Lucy pounces on this opportunity and encourages Charlie Brown go pick out a Christmas tree while she "handles this crowd".

When Charlie Brown and Linus set off, they have been charged by Lucy to find "a great big shiny aluminum Christmas tree" (this is "the project" Charlie Brown will be judged by). This assignment is analogous to deciding on a large, off-the-shelf commercial software package. But Charlie Brown picks something that he feels meets his requirements: a small wooden tree with Christmas spirit. Upon his return Charlie Brown is lambasted for his decision — a fear all owners and project manager have regarding software projects.

Eventually everything works out for the best. The project team embraces and supports Charlie Brown's decision. They all work together to overcome what they view is lacking in the Christmas tree. This is not how things work in the real world, where effort, payroll and disruptions can have a negative effect on morale and productivity.

Fade Out
Some may view Charlie Brown's selection of the sparse tree as a compromise solution. But the Christmas tree Charlie Brown chose was not the result of lack of planning, nor poor execution. I suggest to you that it was a self-reflective moment. It represented how he saw himself as an outlier surrounded by the overwhelming influence of Christmas. Choosing a Christmas tree relieved the burden he felt after his unsuccessful attempt at directing the play's rehearsal.

Though the Christmas tree met Charlie Brown's requirements for (and definition of) Christmas spirit, it did not meet the organization's expectations. Charlie Brown went with his emotions. Though this can feel satisfactory if you own the business, it may not be the best way to approach a business decision that will affect your business for years to come.

Technology projects often feel overwhelming. Making a decision that makes you feel better now may not serve your business well in the long-term.

This situation is not uncommon for small business owners. Technology seems to encroach into more aspects of their businesses every day. Making good decisions becomes even harder as more and more options become available. These days Decision Fatigue and Decision Paralysis are a fact of life for small business owners. This can result in decisions that are not always good long-term solutions for our businesses.

Here at ElixWare, we focus on the right custom solution for your business so you can focus on what you do best — running your business. We make things easier by narrowing down all of the choices, so you don't have to.

Boxing Day
Looking back at A Charlie Brown Christmas, it's not unreasonable to think that Charlie Brown could have done better when choosing his Christmas tree. Nor is it unreasonable to think that Charlie Brown met his own requirements, as well as (eventually) succeeded in bringing the group together in the end. As for me, I think all of the theatrics and discord land squarely at Lucy's feet.

Lucy knew Charlie Brown was lacking Christmas spirit when she sent him to choose a Christmas tree. Assigning responsibilities and accountability to individuals who are not likely to succeed is a failure on the part of management, not the team member. Good decisions start at the top. If you're a small business owner you need to build a project team that can be successful, even if that means seeking help from experts like us.

No matter which side you come down on, I think we all can agree that A Charlie Brown Christmas is a holiday classic. After reading this post, hopefully it still is.

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