Boom! School bus hits project manager!

Guest contribution by | 19.10.2020

Do you sometimes feel almost powerless as a project manager? Do you know the feeling when you go round in circles, feel left alone and wish for a release?

If you want to leave this felt project manager hamster wheel, then I would like to offer you help. Help in the form of a test. A test with a yellow school bus.

The “yellow school bus” test is a thought experiment for project managers that can be used in (self-) coaching to get a new perspective on oneself in the role of project manager.

The core question of the thought experiment is

“Suppose you are hit by a yellow school bus on your way to work while crossing a street. You are unable to work for 3 months, 1 year or longer and are not responsive. What happens in the project now?”

Working “in the project” or “on the project”

Do you know the difference between “working in the project” and “working on the project”? I have made the experience that for many project managers the difference between working “in the project” and “on the project” does not matter or make no difference at all.

Here is a pragmatic distinction that I often use in my coaching sessions with project managers:

Working “in the project” means putting the customer at the centre of your activities. For example, you work “in the project”,

  • if you take up the actual process in a workshop or cast the customer’s requirements into a concept,
  • when you work out the implementation options or
  • when the product is technically implemented for the customer.

As a process manager, business analyst or developer you usually work “in the project”.

In these roles you contribute to the customer’s problem solving as a specialist or expert. You produce results with a direct added value for your customer.

Working “on the project” means placing the project as a system itself at the centre of your activities. For example, you work “on the project”,

  • when you clarify the project mandate with the stakeholders,
  • if you arrange project structures for the project participants,
  • if you set regular appointments for the team and create spaces for communication or
  • if you are concerned about improving cooperation.

As a project manager, you work “on the project”, so that each individual “in the project” can contribute optimally.

If project managers neglect to work “on the project”, this can lead to the interaction “in the project” not functioning satisfactorily. As a project manager, you may be able to plug weak points “in the project”. As a result, you get even more caught up at the level of problem solving for the customer, which means that you lack the time to work “on the project”. This can quickly lead to more problems “in the project” and a negative cycle.

In practice I often encounter two questions about this demarcation:

Question 1:

To work “in the project” means to put the customer in the centre. Working “on the project” means to put the project as a system itself in the centre. Does this mean that project managers can really completely leave the customer out of their work?

No. As a project manager you always have the customer in mind. Without customers and without problems there is no project. However, through your work “on the project” you create optimal conditions to create added value for the customer “in the project”.

Question 2:

Is it basically bad as a project manager to work “in the project”?

No, project managers can work “in the project”. In many contexts, “hands-on” project managers who take on value-adding activities, such as conducting concept workshops or test tasks “in the project”, are very helpful. This is particularly common in smaller projects, where the role of project manager and specialist is usually assumed by one person. As a project manager you should only consciously perceive and decide whether you work “in” or “on” the project and whether this is goal-oriented. For example, your work “in the project” is not helpful if, for example, you always have to ” rescue” conceptually in the project even though there is a responsible business analyst. It is also not helpful if you micromanage the entire team at a detailed level of content and everyone involved asks themselves what their task “in the project” actually is.

The distinction described above is difficult for people who have been very much involved in projects in the past and are taking on the project manager role for the first time. Often it requires a completely different evaluation of their own work:

As a specialist you do excellent work and are therefore indispensable “in the project” with your expertise. As a project manager, you only then do excellent work because you design a system where you can be dispensed with “in the project”.

It also needs a different orientation:

For the work “in the project” you have the customer with his wishes as orientation for decisions. To put it bluntly, the customer doesn’t care what the people involved “in the project” do. What is important are the results produced “in the project” and the added value they bring. The customer pays for this added value.

The question is now:

Who do you use as project manager to orientate your work “on the project”?

The imaginary “project manager successor”

Imagine that there is a day x in the middle of the project implementation where you have to hand over your role as project manager to someone who has not been involved so far. Let’s give the imaginary “project manager successor” the name “Paula Mueller” for simplicity’s sake.

Mrs Mueller is certainly not only concerned with the customer problem. She will put the state of the project at the centre of her observation. After all, a good state of the project as a system increases her chances of taking over the project manager role smoothly on day x.

In contrast to the customer, Mrs. Mueller will raise questions that focus more on the state of the project, i.e. on her work “on the project”, for example:

  • What is the goal and what are the expectations?
  • How does the structural and procedural organisation of the project look like?
  • What dependencies exist?
  • What routines exist in the project work?
  • What makes people tick and how do they interact with each other?
  • Are there frictions or conflicts and what has been done so far?
  • How satisfied are the team members?
  • What are the risks?

As a project manager you can regard Mrs. Mueller as your customer on project management level. She gives you orientation in your work “on the project”.

You are particularly effective in the role of project manager if you create concrete added value for Mrs. Mueller, i.e. take care of the state of the project and take away her fear of the stress of being in charge of the project on day x.

If you take this perspective into account in your work, you will automatically be “working on the project”. What would Mrs Mueller do? How would Mrs Mueller decide?

My suggestion: Why don’t you arrange a regular Jour Fixe appointment with yourself and your imaginary Mrs. Mueller. From her perspective, shed light on what you still have to do “on the project”.

If you are now wondering specifically how this idea can be put into practice, I would like to introduce the “yellow school bus” test for project managers.

This is a step-by-step guide that you can use in (self-) coaching.

The “yellow school bus” test for (self-) coaching

Step 1: Visualise the current status

Think about your current project. It is best to visualise a concrete situation that is important to you. Describe the context, the people involved, the interactions. Highlight what you think works well and what works badly. What patterns do you recognise?

Step 2: Perform “Yellow school bus” test

In the second step we let ourselves be bypassed:

“Imagine you are managing a project with x employees. One day, a yellow school bus runs you over. You are absent for at least 3 months. What happens in the project now?”

Take a bird’s eye view of your visualisation from the first step. What changes with the day you leave the project immediately? What is going on in a target-oriented way? Which blockades do you recognise? How and where does the system settle in without your intervention? What patterns do you recognise?

Visualise essential changes.

Step 3: Designing the target state

In the second step you have developed a picture of what can happen in the project if you are no longer “working in the project”.

In this step you develop the target state.

Ask yourself the concrete question:

What does your imaginary successor, Mrs. Mueller, who “inherits” the project after your accident, want?

Visualise the target state.

What goes differently?

Describe the differences to the “yellow school bus” state from step 2.

Step 4: Derive measures

The final step is to derive concrete measures from the consideration of the different scenarios.

Collect measures that you can take today to get closer to the target state. Prioritise according to importance.

The probability after the individual steps is high that you identify measures “on the project” because you consciously take yourself out of the work “in the project”.

You no longer compensate for weaknesses “in the project” on an ad hoc basis as a “fireman”, but focus on better framework conditions and better interaction “in the project”.


At this point a disclaimer: Please continue to cross the pedestrian crossing carefully, even if you may feel powerless in your role as project manager. 🙂

I know from practical experience that the ” yellow school bus ” test is particularly suitable for people who are taking on the role of project manager for the first time. On the one hand, the test trains the conscious differentiation between when people work “in the project” and when they work “on the project”. On the other hand, the project managers experience in a playful way that projects often continue to run without their own involvement. Sometimes this insight already helps to avoid making one’s own identity dependent on the project and to avoid a feeling of powerlessness in crisis situations.

Furthermore, project managers regularly tell me that the moment when the yellow school bus hits the project manager brings clarity. This clarity improves the work “on” and “in the project”.

By the way, in my coaching sessions I also use an advanced version of the thought experiment:

“The moment when the project manager leaves for his planned vacation time and the project continues”.

People who are considering postponing their planned leaves should beware of the yellow school bus and the rumbling. 😉



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If you want to learn more about Hung Tieu, we recommend you take a look at his beautiful German website.

Hung Tieu has published another post on the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Prompting for project managers: How to increase productivity

Prompting for project managers: How to increase productivity

Hung Tieu

Hung Tieu

Hung Tieu has more than 15 years of project experience as a project manager in a wide variety of projects.  In his work, he can draw on a wealth of classical and agile methods in the field of strategy implementation and project management. Today, as a consultant, trainer and coach, he supports people in going beyond tools and checklists to master their projects with more clarity, composure and solidarity.