There are multiple project management lessons to be learned from old St. Nick, so here are a few to consider:
1. Time boxing works – a lot has been written about the evils of pre-determining project end dates before sufficient information is available to properly plan, but there are benefits to having a deadline that can’t be moved. If nothing else, it provides focus and removes one variable from the inevitable triple or quadruple constraint negotiations. By having December 25, 12:01 AM as an immovable deadline, it helps Santa focus scope and resources.
2. Projects are about integrating different skills together in alignment – they might not be the Seven Dwarfs, but the nine reindeer likely all have their own personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Santa’s team building abilities are evident in that the reindeer team is at a high-performing level but we are all aware of the initial “storming” challenges Santa faced with poor Rudolph.
3. Scope definition is crucial – what Santa would call his “Naughty or Nice” list is analogous to our scope exclusions & inclusions list. Without this, there’s too much room for mis-interpretation and scope leap.
4. Delegate what should be delegated and then get out of the way – with his magical capabilities, it would be easy for Santa to meddle or take over the elves gift creation work, but he doesn’t. But, for what’s really important – defining scope and being the face to the customer, Santa is highly visible. It would have been equally easy for Santa to have delegated gift distribution to his hundreds of elves, but as should any good PM, Santa knows that accountability for a merry Christmas falls on his shoulders, so he is the “face to the customer”.
5. Be predictable – imagine the dismay that would be felt by Santa’s customers if they had no certainty about when he would deliver his scope, or whether or not they would even receive anything. Cookies and milk will spoil if left out too long, but people leave them out feeling comfortable that Santa will not let them down. I’ve often heard executives say that they don’t like surprises, and Santa’s epic reliability is something that PMs should take too heart.
6. Greet the day and everyone you meet with a smile (or a Ho Ho Ho!). It would have been easy for Santa to throw up his arms in despair at the “Death March” nature of his project, but he knows that good cheer is infectious (“And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself”) and this positive attitude motivates his team.
On the other hand, if you wish to be cynical, you could quote Victor Borge: “Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year”