What do student stories and the James Bond franchise have in common? They start with a helicopter and end with a crash.
Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead. A man in a skeleton suit leads a woman to a hotel room. A building erupts from an inadvertent explosion. A helicopter careens out of control. All this before the opening credits of the latest installment of the James Bond franchise, Spectre.
I’m not going to give you a review of the film, but I am going to discuss why sometimes formulas work and sometimes they go awry. I was thrown back into 007’s world when, as part of my volunteer work for the Sydney Story Factory, I read a series of stories that featured helicopters, henchmen and heists. The stories weren’t commissioned this way, it just seemed as if the students had recently seen a movie that featured this plotline, or perhaps one influential student was particularly loud when working out his plot and the rest tended to follow suit. Even minutes after reading one, I could barely separate a single heist story from the rest*.
Similarly, when I flick back in my memory to single out a Bond film, I find it very difficult. I’m not really a Bond fan—I tend to watch the films once, for fun—and the formula of villainous henchmen involved in chase scenes plus baddie with a disfigurement plus seduction of one or two or three ‘Bond’ girls is pretty much amalgamated as a single entity in my head.
Formula is fine when you’re after consistency. Anyone who complains about a Bond film being ‘formulaic’ clearly misunderstands why people go to Bond films. We go to Bond films because we know there’ll be cool action sequences and because we know our hero will triumph over the villain, not for plot innovations.
In a process-driven environment, formula is wonderful. It sets and meets expectations again and again. When projects are run this way, you get results that tick boxes, which keeps most people happy.
The problem is when you go beyond simple projects, using a formula results in a crash between those who want to tick boxes and the problems that don’t fit in a box. While you can use a formula as a starting point to find a solution, it won’t solve some of the unique issues you’ll encounter.
So if you believe your project has enough unique elements to render it different, stop trying to use a formula to address them. The formula for good project management is the versatility of project management itself—just like the formula for a good story is creativity within a narrative structure.
* Except one, where the plot twist involved being “ambushed by minotaurs”.