Project Management Lessons from an Amateur Magician

“I’m a project manager, not a magician!” Ah, famous last words. Doing simple magic tricks was one of the many things that interested me episodically as a pre-teen. As an adult, I was re-bit by the bug, to the point where I now do magic shows. These are primarily for kids, mostly at science fiction conventions, local schools, and libraries… or wherever I happen to be, depending on what I’ve got in my pockets.

Doing these magic shows and mini-shows over the past two decades has taught me a number of important project management lessons, from planning ahead to just-in-time dependencies tracking, as well as conducting deliverable post-mortems. While you may not plan projects that involve pulling a rabbit out of a hat, cutting a volunteer in half, or keeping a dozen sub-ten-year-olds under control, you may find these points helpful in your own projects.

Know what you intend to deliver – and what you don’t.

Daniel DernDon’t agree to a project that isn’t what you do.

There’s bazillions of magic tricks. Some are suitable for my venues; some aren’t. Some are easy to do, some not. My repertoire includes a mix of card tricks (“Split Deck,” “Rising Card,” “Zig Zag Card,” and some using regular decks), rope tricks (“Patriotic Ropes,” “Square Knot”), rabbit/hat permutations (yes, I can pull a rabbit out of a rabbit—and a hat from a rabbit), “silks” (“handkerchiefs,” like “Color Changing Silks” and “Chameleon Bag”) and sundry goofy stuff using geegaws I’ve found at yard sales and the like, as much for humor (like my “politically correct assistant’s slinky outfit” – I use real Slinkys) as astonishment. I have learned not to include live animals, water, flame, or sharp objects.

Yes, over time, you’re bound to expand your repertoire (I try to master a few new tricks, and have been working on some, like the Banana Trick). But knowing when to say, “Thanks, but I’m not a match” is an important lesson for each of us to learn in accepting or declining projects to manage, especially when the project is important.

Pay attention to schedules.

When your deliverables are based on time-of-day – here, “doing a show” – not all times are equal. Don’t let a customer or client choose a time that you know won’t work out well.

As a magician, I learned that when the audience includes young kids (7 years and younger), some times are too early (before 10:00am) or too late (after 7:00pm); the children are likely to be sleepy, cranky, or both. And I’ve learned to avoid time slots late in the afternoon. After 5:00pm, parents are usually carting kids off to dinner.

Similarly, you should schedule presentations for adults with an eye to the schedule. Consider when they’re available, as well as not cranky, or eying the door so they can get to lunch.

The same applies to project deliverables’ scheduling. It’s important to check the calendar for holidays and key events – and plan how to work around them, and incorporate that information into timetables.

Reconfirm deliverables in advance.

Clients often rewrite and revise the deliverable details without sharing these changes with you. Not just the time and location, but often also the description, such as promising something you never agreed to.

For example, I’ve had my magic-show session descriptions morph into, “Come be astounded… and learn how to do your own magic tricks.” While I often do kid-oriented “how to do magic tricks” workshops at science fiction conventions, that’s best done as a separate session. Yet someone comes up with a bright idea and, somehow, never thinks to get my buy-in first.

The same applies to all projects and deliverables: It’s important to make sure there hasn’t been any “agreement drift.” Otherwise you’ll find you’ve been committed to sawing a dragon – or a deadline – in half.

Stay on top of your supplies and tools.

Whether it’s special decks of cards, storage capacity, software licenses, or the right rabbit (I use only stuffed ones), this is something you need to check in between engagements. Some of my tricks have pieces that wear out, break, or otherwise degrade. For example, while at the 2014 International CES trade show in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, I stopped in at the magic shop in the Riviera Hotel, and got spares for two tricks I do (“Patriotic Ropes” and “Rising Card“).

If you wait until the last minute, you’re bound to forget something. Then the critical item you need may not be available in time, or it will cost a lot more to get quickly.

Do a pre-event (milestone) check.

When possible, I poke my head in the room where I’ll be working ahead of time, to see whether I want to re-arrange tables and chairs. For magic shows I don’t worry about audio, but for other presentations, it’s good to reconfirm that whatever microphone, video, or other A/V is being taken care of.

For a project deliverable, it’s the same deal: Make sure whatever you’re relying on will be there. Not just the stuff your group is responsible for but anything else it requires, whether it’s a local server, access to cloud services (connectivity, accounts/passwords, etc.), or library modules. Have a checklist.

Stay in control of the agenda.

It’s your show/project. Don’t let the audience gain control. With magic shows, kids call out requests or start demand-chanting, like, “Pull a hat out of a rabbit!”  Similarly, if people ask questions or show expectations outside of the project’s mission, rein them back in, “Good point, but that wasn’t what we were tasked with doing.”

Be ready for things to go wrong or sideways.

You can’t anticipate everything that might go wrong. But do be prepared for something to go wrong, whether it’s your bunny falling apart, a too-close audience member abruptly throwing up on your shoes, or your computer blue-screening. Accept it, acknowledge it, and keep the show going.

Log FNTs.

Every show has different successes, challenges, and learning experiences. Writing down your FNTs–“For Next Time” reminders help me improve my performance next time. It’s important, really important, to schedule a post-mortem after the project is finished. Take the time to recognize what you did well (so you can repeat it next time) as well as recording the lessons you learned. This is a good time to recognize and thank team members (even if the team is “just me”) for their contributions.

The show’s the thing.

At some level, everything you do involving other people is “show business,” just as all tasks involve project management. So keep in mind that your project deliverable shouldn’t just do what it’s supposed to. If possible, find ways to make it exciting: have fun examples, make sure that results are readily visible, not just one small blinky character towards the bottom of a screen.














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Daniel Dern

I'm a free-lance technology writer, providing bylined articles and columns, as well as PR writing, editorial and consulting services, especially case histories, interviews, FAQs, OpEds, releases and feature articles. I also write my Dern Grim Bedtime Tales (Few of Which End Well), And Other Stories, along with science fiction, Jewish stories, song lyrics and other stuff. Plus I'm an amateur magician.

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  • http://www.pmhut.com/ PM Hut

    Hi Daniel,

    I like the analogy – a lot! I love the point about “Staying in control of your agenda”. I think the fact that you’re comparing stakeholders to kids is funny! They really call for crazy changes, most of these changes are not technically feasible!

    Very nice post Daniel!

    [Reply]