I just finished reading Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days, which I had never read before. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it to children and adults alike. But half-way through the book I realized there’s more to this book than a nice tale of adventure.
This book is a complete manual about managing a fixed-time, fixed-price project.
The story starts off with a bet that Phileas Fogg makes with the members of his club, namely, that it is possible to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days or less. Once the bet is placed he takes off immediately, with 20,000 pounds of cash for his travel expenses.
Travelling around the world in 80 days with a limited (albeit sizeable) budget fills, of course, anyone’s definition of a fixed-time, fixed-time project. What lessons can be learned from this adventure for today’s project managers?
Start your project immediately
Mr Fogg and his valet, Passepartout, waste no time in preparing for their trip. Once the project approved they head immediately to the train station. No feasibility study, no pre-study, no preliminary analysis, no analysis paralysis. Mr Fogg is convinced that the project is feasible and starts immediately. The lesson here is that there is value in speed. The earlier you can start on your project, the quicker you will gain feedback and learn.
Expect the unexpected
When his friends object that an 80-day schedule makes no allowance for unexpected delays or accidents, Mr Fogg calmly replies that it is “all included.” He knows very well that the 80-day schedule includes some buffer time which, it is hoped, will not be exceeded. Indeed—though I will not give away the surprise ending—the whole trip, in spite of all the delays and adventures, ends up taking less than the stated 80 days.
Whenever Mr Fogg’s party is met with surprises (such as the railway across India being not even finished), he never, ever betrays any surprise or emotion. It is as if he knew from the outset which delays his project should meet. Of course he didn’t, but he knows that his schedule accounts for them.
Don’t get emotionally involved
Mr Fogg is a very mysterious character in this book. Nothing is told about his origin, his past, or his relatives. He is described as the quintessential englishman: utterly imperturbable yet fiercely resolute in his decisions.
Even assuming that Mr Fogg included some extra buffer time in his estimate, it is hard to believe that he could possibly take into account all the mishaps his party encountered: Aouda’s rescue; Passepartout’s disappearance; Passepartout’s capture by indians and subsequent rescue; Mr Fogg arrest by Mr Fix. Yet at no time does he show the slightest sign of annoyance, hesitation or worry that he might miss his schedule. Is it because he genuinely had factored even such accidents in his estimates? Or is it because he doesn’t allow himself to become too emotionally attached to his project? I’d rather believe the latter.
Track your progress carefully
Mr Fogg keeps a kind of diary throughout his trip where he carefully records exactly how much ahead or behind he is on time. He knows exactly when he is supposed to be where on his trip. In fact, if he had a whiteboard he would probably have plotted what is known as a velocity chart, showing exactly how well he is sticking to his schedule.
He presumably does something similar with his finances, since he starts out for his journey with a fixed amount of cash and seems always to know how much he can afford to spend.
Open up communication
Mr Fogg’s party narrowly miss the steamer from Hong Kong to Yokohama, which would have spelled disaster for the journey. But Mr Fogg wastes not an instant and scours the docks of Hong Kong, looking for a boat which could take him to Japan.
However, salvation comes not from a boat that can do the Hong Kong-Yokohama trip, but from a tugboat which takes his party to Shanghai. Why Shaghai? Because Mr Fogg, instead of insisting on going to Yokohama, always explained the reasons for his going there: that he needs to catch the transpacific steamer that will take him to the USA. And the crew of the tugboat knew that this steamer does not depart originally from Yokohama, but from Shanghai. Therefore, instead to travelling to Yokohama, Mr Fogg is better served by heading to Shanghai and boarding the steamer there.
Mr Fogg scored points here by clearly explaining his needs and his situation, instead of insisting on a solution of his own making. We too, when faced with customer demands, have the responsibility to understand exactly the context in which such requests are made.
Accept mistakes and take advantage from them
I’m not going to spoil the ending for you; I’ll simply say that Mr Fogg miscalculates the total time taken on his trip, something which he has a very hard time accepting. But once the reality dawns on him, he wastes not an instant and seizes the opportunity given him, and turns disaster into victory. And Jules Verne gives the best explanation I’ve ever read for the need of an international date line, which was established 7 years after the publication of his book.
Forget now everything I just wrote. Even if you are not involved in project management, Around The World In 80 Days is a great book, a true classic, which I heartily recommend. You won’t regret reading it, but you will regret never having read it.