Casual.PM Blog

Managing a project is like baking a pie

Waiting till the end of the project to see its results and success? Or failure? There’s no need to. Just “bake” it slowly.

If you’ve ever baked a cake, you may know that the outcome can sometimes be unpredictable, even if you followed the recipe. There are so many variables and factors involved: you used different flour, accidentally added too much sugar or had to substitute some ingredients…

The same goes for projects. Even similar projects turn out different since conditions always differ. So how can you keep from failing? How can you increase value and limit risks? Moreover, how can you start getting results early on (i.e. returning investments earlier)?

The answer may surprise you. Just approach project management like cooking.

Let me tell you the story of my fellow Project Manager who’s also a great chef (somehow these two skills complement each other). She was asked to make a wedding cake for her friend.

First she was horrified by this huge responsibility and by the fact that she only had one chance to succeed. Plus she was facing some constraints: 1) a small oven (a big layer may not fit in it); 2) the lack of a big car to deliver it to the venue.

And you know what she eventually decided to do? To make two macaroon towers! Sounds crazy, right? She didn’t know how she was going to make a cake and now she wanted to make two macaroon towers. However, if you think about it in terms of Project Management, it makes perfect sense.

1. Limited Space, Unlimited Time

As she had a small oven she couldn’t fit a cake in there. Macaroons are small in size and she can put several of them on a tray and repeat the process as many times as needed. As for delivering the cake, the solution was even easier: she planned to assemble the tower at the venue.

If you’re facing a limiting constraint, plan on the one that is unlimited or cheap.

2. Get results as early as possible

In my friend’s example, she had to make at least one layer to see what it was going to be like. If she needed to change or improve something, she would have wasted a lot of resources (time and material). With macaroons she only had to bake a few to try them out at first.

Break the project into phases so that each phase has a usable deliverable. It may not be perfect in the beginning. But always look at it this way: if you stop or cancel the project tomorrow what can you use, how much money can you return? Adjust the way you look at the project. Switch from thinking processes to thinking deliverables.

It is called Iterative and Incremental Projects. The project is broken into phases. Each phase has a starting point, planning part, execution and end point (closure). In iterative projects you have similar activities in each phase. In the macaroon case it is baking macaroons in the oven, one portion after another, over and over again. In Incremental projects, each phase has a usable deliverable: macaroon test, bake all the macaroons, deliver them, create tower bases and put the macaroons on bases.

On the contrary, thinking processes in this case would be: make dough, bake a layer, make cream, put layers together and add cream, and, finally, decorate. You don’t get a readymade solution till the very end. In my friend’s case, if worst comes to worst, she would serve macaroons.

3. Always Have a Plan B

Why did she decide to do two towers instead of one? Again, worst case scenario, the first tower goes wrong, and then she has enough material and can apply the lesson learned on the second one. Best case she has two towers!

Always have a Plan B and other options in case problems arise. Plan your time and resources taking into account testing, debugging and potential changes.

Project management is a piece of cake when you know how to cook it!
Happy Project management,


P.S.: For those of you who were really worried about how those towers turned out, I’m delighted to confirm that both towers were there at the wedding.

About the author: Olga Drobysheva is a blogging Project Manager with 8 years tech projects experience in startups and corporations in Asia and Europe, working with fresh grads and dinosaurs, country-top-CEO’s and basic workers, creatives and conservatives. Team builder and leader. Certified Professional Scrum Master.