Published here December 2010


Musings Index

Yes Minister - A Lesson for Project Managers?

As a project manager, you have invested in project management as your career. And to fuel that career, you know that you need an endless supply of projects to work on. For the more perceptive, you may wonder where those projects will, or do, come from. Well, believe it or not, the majority of projects ultimately stem from the activities of all levels of government, i.e. the responsibility of politicians and their bureaucracies at all levels.

That's because governments are responsible for creating the rules that govern almost every aspect of our lives. That means the rules for what we can and cannot do in a civil society, the social rules for sharing and caring, and the economic activity that is necessary to support the whole arrangement. So, in response, we create projects either to comply with, or to take advantage of, all these rules.

For our projects to be successful, they must make sense in the first place, and they must be justified for good reason. And, since as we have just shown most projects stem from governmental activity in one way or another, I suppose that most of us sincerely believe that all of this, or most of it at least, is being done in good faith. But is it?

One of the most fascinating insights, and certainly the funniest, is a program series run by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) starting back in the 1970's. It was called "Yes, Minister" with a follow-on series called "Yes, Prime Minister".[1] The main characters are the Minister (Jim Hacker), his Permanent Secretary (Sir Humphrey Appleby) and his Principal Private Secretary (Bernard Woolley).

To give you some idea of the content of these series, the Minister attempts to formulate and enact legislation, or bring about some departmental changes and so on, but is opposed by his Permanent Secretary. The Principal Private Secretary is usually caught between the two. Although obviously targeted at the top levels of the British government, most of the episodes present predicaments that are easily recognized by project managers in the daily challenges they face with their own corporate managements.

Here is what wikipedia currently has to say about the situations portrayed.[2]

"The series commences in the aftermath of a general election in which the incumbents have been defeated by the party to which Jim Hacker MP belongs. The Prime Minister offers Hacker the position of Minister of Administrative Affairs, which he accepts. Hacker goes to his department and meets his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and his Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley.

While Appleby is outwardly obsequious towards the new minister, he is prepared to defend the status quo at all costs. Woolley is sympathetic towards Hacker but as Appleby reminds him, his civil servant superiors will have much to say about the course of his future career, while ministers do not usually stay long in one department. Many of the episodes revolve around proposals backed by Hacker but frustrated by Appleby, and many others revolve around proposals promoted by Appleby but rejected by Hacker, and which Sir Humphrey attempts by all means necessary to persuade Hacker to accept."

The series were authored by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay who subsequently observed (in part) in a news paper article in 2009:[3]

"We had to get down to basics, to the classic actors' studio question: 'What's my motivation?' There are two answers: the expressed, publicly acceptable motivation, and the real motivation. The minister's declared motivation is to serve the voters, to satisfy their hopes and aspirations, at whatever personal sacrifice. His real motivation is to get promoted, to get re-elected, to burnish his own and the government's image.

The civil servant's declared motivation is to carry out the wishes of the government efficiently, economically and impartially, working conscientiously and tirelessly to turn ministers' policies into just, beneficial and workable laws. Their real motivation is to raise their personal status, to enhance the importance of their department, to avoid blame, to gain credit, to minimise work, to resist change, and to retire with an index-linked pension ..."

We know that projects are surrounded by politics so it may not be unreasonable to substitute "project manager" and "team members" in the above quotation. If so, then there is an important lesson to be learned - a lesson that is, unfortunately, not quite so funny.

1. If you have not seen them, you really should. "Yes Minister" and "Yes Prime Minister" are available on DVD from and other sources.
2. accessed 10/26/10
3. The Daily Telegraph, 20th November 2009
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