Humour in projects

Guest contribution by | 21.07.2022

A touch of black humour is important for survival in projects.

Warning: The following text contains traces of black humour and is not suitable for every reader. Humour-averse contemporaries who don’t like to laugh and take things too seriously may find more pleasure in the statistical evaluation of the last business year; all others can look forward to unfamiliar humour, irritation and various side effects.

Luigi’s Problem Solvers Ltd. – where Igor and Luigi rule, every problem is guaranteed to be solved

Half past nine in the morning in Germany. Satisfied, Igor packs up his torture tools. The project meeting was a complete success. He didn’t even need 30 minutes. The project management was quickly tamed when he tightened the budget thumbscrews and discreetly pointed out a few more hot controlling irons he still held in the fire. He hadn’t even had to mention the target stretching bank. “This is how it has to be,” he thought to himself.

Igor is a business torturer extraordinaire. He is always called in when things are not going well and someone needs to get a move on. Actually, he had long since retired. Well, it was almost a little too quiet in his torture cellar and hardly anyone found their way to him in the catacombs in the old town. Who still has a need for an embarrassing interrogation today? Since the French Revolution, actually even earlier, but from here on definitively, hardly any proper questioning has been done. After all, nowadays one has to provide evidence and not confessions in order to pass judgement.

One day he received a call from a friend. Luigi, he makes the best concrete shoes north of the Alps and is the managing director of Luigi’s Problem Solver Ltd. – you may have heard of it. Luigi was urgently looking for reinforcements. People with experience. Not so easy to find them today. The demand had simply become too great, the need for problem solvers huge, but unfortunately only unsuitable candidates were available on the labour market. Or as Luigi put it so well: “There are enough dilettantes. I only want to work with professionals!”

It had taken Luigi quite a bit of persuasion to win Igor over to the modern business world. But eventually Igor had let himself be persuaded, modernised his equipment and swapped the hood for the suit. Managers who ride dead horses or conjure up employees with business mysticism like magicians were not his speciality, but actually it was no different in the past. Today it’s managers, in the past it was emperors, kings and popes. In self-perception, the transitions are fluid.

In any case, business is booming. The problem solvers are always called in when

  • managers don’t do their job,
  • project managers fail to deliver,
  • stakeholders are ignored,
  • budgets are not met,
  • deadlines are missed,
  • business cases are lost or
  • project workers desperately waiting for decisions to be made so that they can continue working.

So the two friends are sought-after experts in many corporate headquarters across the country. Little by little, the team is growing: “Little Britches”, the big game hunter, has joined as a manager tamer, and “Crazy Harris” has recently started to intimidate recalcitrant suppliers who vehemently refuse to put the customer in focus.

In view of the demographics and the growing demand, Lugi’s Problem Solvers Ltd. has even started to train its own skilled workers, so that a group of (hand-picked) juniors can work energetically. However, Luigi and Igor have to keep sifting through – the job is not right for everyone. But don’t worry, thanks to their experience, the young people quickly find new, well-sounding jobs in large corporations…

Don’t panic

Do Igor and Luigi really exist? Fortunately not. You can rest assured. No, they won’t be standing in front of your company headquarters tomorrow. Both are just the result of two black-humoured contemporaries who, while trying not to despair of the madness of everyday life, came into being in an evening round at a project management bar camp. Although, who knows, maybe Luigi’s Problem Solver Ltd. does exist under a different name… ūüėČ

The two alteregos have been constant companions of mine ever since. Humour is an excellent outlet to relieve the tension in many seemingly hopeless situations. Not in every situation, of course. Nevertheless, Luigi’s Problem Solver Ltd. has already provided many laughs and not only contributed to amusement, but also taken a lot of “pressure off the boiler” of those involved.

Let’s face it: in the complexity in which we find ourselves in our everyday organisational life, it is often difficult not to despair. While trying to solve problems, new challenges keep popping up. Frustration spreads, the pressure rises and everyone involved is so fixated on the supposed problems that it is impossible to think of solution-oriented work. Sometimes it helps to use humour as a pressure relief valve and to laugh heartily and together. Afterwards, the problems and challenges have not disappeared, but the tension and pressure are perceived as much less. Humour has a liberating effect.

Packed with humour, it’s easier to digest

The humour effect can also be used in other ways. I don’t know how many times I have already quoted one of my favourite books to point out many a critical point. Excessive processes, endless rounds of coordination or eternally long coordination loops are a frequent source of annoyance – not only in projects. And then I can’t help myself.

Many people know Parkinson’s Law¬Ļ, but only a few have read the book that goes with it.¬≤ Yet it is brimming with black and dry humour. It pokes fun at timelessly common problems of the organisation in a factually well-founded way. And so, when reading it, one laughs at the most extreme blossoms of a bureaucratic organisation instead of turning away in horror. Even when you recognise your own organisation.

In the meantime, I have a few of these books in my continuously growing library, but my favourite is and remains the work by C. Northcote Parkinson, which he wrote as early as 1956! Precisely because of the combination of his biting English humour and his high professional reputation. And this makes it easier to bring some hard-to-digest fare to the decision-makers in a tasty package. And if not, then at least I have something to laugh about. I simply feel better afterwards.

Conclusion: Humour is the ultimate survival strategy

There are constellations in everyday life, especially in large and – yes, bureaucracy just can’t be killed, because in the end it is a necessary evil – bureaucratic organisations, where resignation is close at hand. A breeze of concentrated (black) humour is the best medicine here – at least for me – to avoid despairing of reality.

Humour is the ultimate survival strategy for dealing with the real world. Laughing together not only relaxes, no, it even builds bridges. You know, when the team gets stuck – call Igor and Luigi and et voil√° tomorrow the problem will be solved. Or maybe not. But we feel better, blockades fall away and we can focus again on what brings us forward.

People who laugh are much more resilient in the face of the madness of everyday work. Or to put it another way: “I have decided to laugh because it promotes my health.” (I hope Voltaire will forgive me the variation of his words¬≥ and not order concrete shoes from Luigi for me).

But beware: humour must remain fair and never aim below the belt. Humour at the expense of others is taboo. There are limits and these can sometimes be very fine when it comes to humour. But of course Igor and Luigi know that.


Notes (some in German):

If you like the post or want to discuss it, feel free to share it with your network.

Thomas Michl has published a very nice video about humour in projects (in German).

[1] Was ist eigentlich Parkinsons Gesetz?
[2] C. Northcote Parkinson: Parkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Administration
[3] Voltaire, letter to Abb√© Trublet: “I have decided to be happy because it’s good for my health.”

Thomas Michl has published more articles in the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Scrum Master and Agile Coach in comparison

Scrum Master and Agile Coach in comparison

t2informatik Blog: Agile Administration and Local Politics

Agile Administration and Local Politics

t2informatik Blog: Agility in public administration

Agility in public administration

Thomas Michl
Thomas Michl

Thomas Michl holds a degree in public administration and an MBA. He worked in the public sector for ten years before joining borisgloger consulting GmbH in 2018 and then Exxeta AG. Today, the passionate agilist works for FourEnergy GmbH as a Senior Business Consultant.

Thomas Michl is one of the founding members of the Agile Administration Forum and a board member of the supporting organisation. The Agile Administration Forum is run on a voluntary basis and has set itself the goal of bringing the idea of the Agile Manifesto to public administration by providing a platform for dialogue and peer-to-peer advice.