The Tortoise Theory

Project Management in Three Acts

The cast of characters

  • The Farmer: mentor to the heroine and anti-hero
  • The Tortoise: heroine and humble customer servant
  • The Hare: anti-hero and change management inspiration
  • The Fox: trickster sponsor who sets the direction/path

Act I – Projects like races have a start and a finish

One day a Farmer was resting from his toil and he started thinking about all his projects. He sensed a need to be sure that everything got done and he wanted it done in the best time and without spending more money than necessary.  In his thoughtful reverie, he recalled the fable about the Tortoise and the Hare.

“A Hare one day ridiculed the short feet and slow pace of the Tortoise. The latter, laughing, said: “Though you be swift as the wind, I will beat you in a race.” The Hare, deeming her assertion to be simply impossible, assented to the proposal; and they agreed that the Fox should choose the course, and fix the goal. On the day appointed for the race they started together. The Tortoise never for a moment stopped, but went on with a slow but steady pace straight to the end of the course. The Hare, trusting to his native swiftness, cared little about the race, and lying down by the wayside, fell fast asleep. At last waking up, and moving as fast as he could, he saw the Tortoise had reached the goal, and was comfortably dozing after her fatigue.” Source:   Wikipedia – Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare Also see: Disney’s (1934 animation short) The Tortoise and The Hare.

The Farmer didn’t take the moral as simply “slow and steady wins the race” or “perseverance always wins”. He had other thoughts about the fable related to his last few years working with many project managers.  He was inspired with the following theory:

The Tortoise Theory of Project Management: Maintaining focus on the critical path and continuously improving performance by adapting to Best Practices and enduring swings in project momentum with calm and deliberate attention to project activities will deliver successful project results.

To test his theory the Farmer enlisted the help of the Fox who was also friends with the Tortoise and the Hare. The Fox would assign projects to both the Tortoise and the Hare. This was partly to keep the Fox from the chickens but also to remove the Farmer from influencing the results of the experiment. The Farmer would not know which project was assigned to whom. The Fox set about his task with enthusiasm and secured the Tortoise and the Hare for the experiment and assigned projects.

Meanwhile the Farmer observed from a distance. The Tortoise seemed ambivalent and a little preoccupied while the Hare started bragging about how fast he could get project done and that it was no problem for him to fit it into his current workload. The Hare was off and running setting the first meeting right away without a moments thought to the customer or how complex the project; all that would work it’s way out in time as he got going.

The Tortoise, on the other hand, was still thinking about all the projects she had on her plate and worrying about how this new project would impact her current workload. The Fox was a clever friend and the Tortoise knew that helping him would be in her best interest. The Fox is not someone you wanted to let down if you wanted to get anywhere in the forest.  Also, the Fox really didn’t give the Tortoise much choice and the Hare was getting on her nerves so she agreed to do the project and felt confident that she would win against the Hare.

The Tortoise always remembered the Best Practices she had learned from observing the Farmer and instead of running off to the first meeting she began to “clear a space” for this new project.  The Farmer never planted without removing the rocks from his field and setting them aside and doing that first and with deliberate intent. It always seemed to the Tortoise that the plowing went much faster in the end. So, the Tortoise started clearing her mind and her calendar to make room for the new project. Lots of things worried the Tortoise and her experience was that many things could go wrong but setting those aside like clearing rocks was helpful for her to focus with enthusiasm on this new project. Her other projects were still there and she maintained contact with them and kept them moving but she was willing to adapt and endure to bring all her projects to success with Best Practices. She always focused her attention 100% on the project at hand. Again, the Farmer was her inspiration. He only looked at the row he was plowing keeping his attention focused on the distant finish point to plow straight. This helped the Tortoise realize that by not focusing or by looking beyond the current milestone it usually meant her project would take a turn for the worse. She realized she had a lot in common with the Farmer when it came to getting things done. Things seemed to be on track but the Hare was eating up a lot of ground while the Tortoise was clearing hers.

The Hare was well on his way with his new project when another customer called with a little emergency. No problem said the Hare, I’ll get right on it and off he went forgetting all about his new project. The customer was always right and the Hare prided himself in quick responses and felt he could multi-task his way through the interruption. The Hare talked to the Farmer from time to time and knew some of the Best Practices the Farmer quietly promoted but he always felt he was better himself. For the Hare, if it wasn’t his idea then it couldn’t be that good. So, the Hare went hurriedly on his way bouncing from customer to customer and never focusing too closely on any one milestone but juggling them all at once. The Hare looked very busy to the Farmer and he really seemed to be racking up the miles but something about the busyness bothered the Farmer but he couldn’t put his finger on the problem.

The key when starting a project is to wear (tortoise)-blinders, and cut off your bunny ears.” Scott Scheper

The Farmer noticed the Tortoise was enthusiastic about her initiative and avoided focusing on problems or listening to naysayers; the Hare tended to be sensitive to any issues from any source and was quick to dwell on the negative aspects. While the Tortoise especially reigned in her own past negative experiences the Hare was constantly reliving some of his previous horror stories. The Farmer realized humans tended to dwell on the negative aspects of the past; something built into our brains from the days when our distant ancestors’ ran from saber toothed tigers. Although a sensitivity to risk can save us from disaster and ensure our survival we rely on our knowledge as the ability to make effective decisions, and take effective, or in the case of danger, evasive action. Knowledge in the form of Best Practices advanced by many expert Project Managers was of particular interest to the Farmer.

The Farmer reflected on how the Hare jumped off to a substantial lead on his project and then with the luxury of feeling he was getting somewhere shifted his focus to another customer. He compared that to the deliberate way the Tortoise applied some of the Best Practices she had learned and invested time in quietly and tenaciously asking the clever Fox more and more about the customer and then once she had made her commitment she honed in on the first milestone and headed directly for it having blocked out her calendar and cleared her space. She could distance herself a little from the overwhelming sense of having too much to do by stacking the projects she wasn’t working on to one side and always paying attention to the task at hand. The secret for the Tortoise was to keep good notes and to communicate effectively to everyone on the project about exactly where things were so that when attention was again placed on one of the other projects she could get off to an immediate start without having to retrace her steps.

All was not to go well, however, the Hare was getting tired running from customer to customer and the trickster Fox had a few things up his sleeve that would surely send both the Tortoise and Hare down the rabbit hole!

End of Act I

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2 Responses to The Tortoise Theory

  1. Teresa McGee says:

    Clever adaptation! I’m reading the 4 Hour Work Week and the author’s all about focus (and outsourcing, but I’m ignoring that part). Looking forward to Act 2. What will the fox have up his sleeve?

  2. Rod McLeod says:

    Hi Toby
    Sister, Pamela, give me the heads up on your site…Act 1 is a valuable lesson about focus and following a plan to achieve a goal. Does this mean that attending to a customer is never a priority? Also, what about multi-tasking and attending to the unexpected event that arises just when you least want it to?
    Good work…looking forward to Act !
    p.s. Happy New Year!

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