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Project Management Is Like a Box of Chocolates

~ By Brad Egeland

An assortment of chocolate truffles and pralines in a box

In the movie Forrest Gump, the main character played by Tom Hanks tells a lady who is sitting on the busy stop bench with him that his momma always said that life was like a box of chocolates…you never know what you're going to get.

This came to mind to me today while dealing with a surprise issue on a project…how a project is also like a box of chocolates. We head into each project engagement with certain expectations. We have the statement of work, we've created a project schedule and we think we know what is going to happen next at every turn. In truth though, reality is often much different than that…isn't it? A project is more like a box of chocolates. We don't often know what we're going to get.

So when we are slammed with these unknowns - as we are on nearly every project we ever manage - how do we deal with them? How do we effectively react, respond, resolve, and move forward?

Plan First

Well, what we are really talking about here are issues and risks, aren't we? At least if we had planned for risks at the beginning of the project, we would be calling them risks. They are only really 'surprises' if we didn't effectively perform proper risk identification and risk management from the outset of the engagement.

Lets just consider it a lesson learned for our next project. Plan for risk - and our project won't end up being so much like a box of chocolates.

React and Resolve

We have these issues and surprises and unknowns that have come up in our project that should have otherwise been potential risks that we were already watching for in a more perfect project world. But we didn't. Now what do we do?

We react and respond and try to resolve. And how do we do that? We involve our team first - unless it is absolutely critical that the project customer be involved right away to speed up the decision and response process. I'm a proponent of being very open and honest with the project client. It is, after all, their project and their money. But I also believe that it is much better for the project and the client if you can bring one or two suggested resolution scenarios to the customer when you bring the problem to them…assuming you have the luxury of some team planning time to spend on this effort. Then, let the customer help you decide on the best course of action to implement.

Move On

Finally, implement and move on. And by move on I seriously mean acknowledge the fact that being hit with the unknowns doesn't feel good, can kill your project, and just ends up being a time and budget waster. It's better to identify these potential issues as risks and plan for them….so stop for a few hours or a day or two and perform risk identification no matter where you are right now on that project. And then start tracking these potential problems and be ready to respond more efficiently next time.


We will almost always get slammed by the unexpected somewhere along the way toward successful completion of a project engagement. Why? Because project management is like a box of chocolates. There will always be these unknowns and we can't avoid them. But by performing proper risk management from the outset, we can certainly minimise our surprise and we can also greatly minimise - and in some instances - completely eliminate - their impact.


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