Spinal Tap, John Otway and the not so gentle art of project mis-management

You could attend a 3 week executive masterclass to learn the principles of project management.  To learn about the practical stuff could take you a lifetime and involve learning from expensive mistakes as well as successes.  So, is there a way to learn about Project Management quickly and without risk by examining the spoof rockumentary ‘This is Spinal Tap’.  Of course there is! 🙂  Let’s examine the classic ‘Stonehenge’ sequence to get us started:

It’s obvious to me as a Taphead and sad business consultant with an MBA that the Spinal Tap sequence is a sorry tale of poor project management… 🙂  Just before the sequence starts a drawing of Stonehenge is drawn on a napkin by Nigel Tuffnell, the group’s guitarist and handed to the scenery designer.  This is unwittingly taken by the designer as a definitive project specification.  All the project resources are committed to the ‘model’ based on the dimensions (in inches).  The band is then forced to execute their strategy using a micro Stonehenge model, due to lack of budget to correct the mistake.   They attempt to accommodate the mistake in size by using dwarfs and bringing the Stonehenge model down from the heavens, but it is clear that they have failed.  You may rightly say “Well, this is a Hollywood comedy movie and nothing like real life”.  Au contraire, as a I break into French, as if to make the point seem more important – if I had a dollar for every company that has told me they have wasted millions on poorly specified projects that resulted in delivery of the wrong thing, I would have retired and you would not be reading this blog.  The comparison of the ‘project management gospel according to Business and Spinal Tap’ summarises this:

The Project Management Gospel according to Spinal Tap vs Business

Spinal Tap Business Lesson # 1.  If you are experiencing problems in executing a project, look back several stages to the project definition or proposal.  Fuzzy goals produce fuzzy action.

I had my own ‘Spinal Tap’ moment when I made a large investment of money and time in ‘cult punk rocker and two hit wonder’ John Otway’s World Tour, having done corporate gigs with John at Pfizer and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).  This was a wonderful idea to live the Rock’n’Roll dream on a record breaking world tour, calling at the greatest venues on the planet with a birth, death and car crash all in two weeks, but not necessarily in that order.  The idea was great, so what went wrong?  Poor execution of the strategy killed the project dead.  Watch the trailer video to see the essence of the project idea:

Read more about the comedy of errors that was John Otway’s world tour at The Real Spinal Tap Tour.  What was the project management lesson?

Spinal Tap Business Lesson # 2. Inspiration is essential for innovation, but perspiration is even more important to turn your ideas into profit!  Bright ideas are plentiful but people who are prepared to sweat it out are rarer.

Check out our seminar offerings based on project management lessons from the John Otway World Tour at The F Word.  A recent article about the self-proclaimed ‘Patron Saint of Failure’ can be seen in The Independent.  Check out our posts on real heavy rock bands – Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Prince and our evening out with Bernie Torme.

My new book ‘Punk Rock People Management – A no-nonsense guide to hiring, inspiring and firing staff’ is available for FREE as a pdf.  Please contact me directly here or via the Punk Rock People Management webpage for your copy.  A beautiful full colour print version and a KINDLE version are is also available.

We’ll finish with another classic Spinal Tap song, Big Bottom, a metaphorical tale about the bottom line…

Postscript – I was just sent this additional video by my Web guru Nick Power of ‘The Folksmen’ – faces seem familiar?

12 responses to “Spinal Tap, John Otway and the not so gentle art of project mis-management

  1. Hi Peter,

    I’ve read (and published) posts about project management in nearly every aspect of our lives (even cooking, see here), but this is the first time I see project management associated with Rock’n’Roll, interesting!

    Thanks for sharing…


  2. Peter, thanks for bringing a smile to my face by reminding me of the classic ‘Stone ‘enge’ sequence from the film.. Absolute classic example of ‘when good projects go bad’.. and then get even worse….
    There is much to learn from Spinal Tap.. the record signing event that failed to draw an audience.. the album cover being potentially illegal in some States.. team members splitting up.. even the food in the green room breaking up into little pieces.. I can feel a conference coming on!
    I’m a big fan of your work Mr Cook, and thank God there are people like you bringing a sense of reality and fun to the often dull world of Project Management!

    I think the PRINCE2 Manual should have a section called “F@*!K the Knapkin!”

    All the best


  3. I remember receiving a phone call from a good friend, “Jase meet me at Fibbers at 8pm I’m taking you to see Otway”. Upon arrival we got a good place to stand but not close to be at risk of flying Shure SM58s or John himself.

    Five minutes before the gig started my good friend placed one pint of finely poured ale in my hand and said, “that’s the only pint you’ll have all night, you’ll be crying with laughter the rest of the time”…. he was right. One of the best gigs I ever went to (and yes it’s up there with Wilco Johnson and Norman Watt Roy, King Crimson or David Sylvian and Robert Fripp. A legend and long may it continue.

    Spinal Tap – a tip for all aspiring bassists, watch Derek Smalls and see how he is the eternal peace keeper for the band. Also worth noting how many other real bands nick Tap dialogue and claim it there own.

    I once started a tech talk in front of 80 odd startups and simply said, “Hello Cleveland”, 78 people in silence and 2 snorting with laughter…. as far as I was concerned it was worth it.


  4. Peter, Once again you picked the perfect musical metaphor! Anyone who reads this can never think the same way about project management again. Great post and thanks for making me smile on a gloomy, rainy morning here in Connecticut.


  5. The true story of the Black Sabbath Stonehenge stage set is actually funnier and even more salient in terms of someone needing to be a little more exacting in terms of getting the requirements thrashed out satisfactorily…

    To quote Ian Gillan lead singer of the band at this time… “Geezer Butler suggested Stonehenge. “How do you envisage it, Geezer?” asked the engineer. “Life size, of course,” replied Geezer. So they built a life-size Stonehenge. We hired the Birmingham NEC to rehearse in and they couldn’t get these bloody things in there. We opened in Montreal and Don Arden had hired Maple Leaf ice hockey stadium for a week, so they shipped the set over there and could still only get a few of those damn stones up, one each side of the stage, one behind the drums and two cross-pieces. ”

    Taken from http://www.spinaltapfan.com/articles/stonehenge.html I’ve seen an interview on tape with Gillian about this… my memory is that he thinks they just abandoned it in a container somewhere on the Eastern seaboard of the USA…


  6. This from Linkedin:

    Harley Blake • Great way to introduce the topic: mispell the word failure in your title! 🙂

    The key to learning from any failure is to embrace the word and the concept, and not try to cloak it as a success. Tom Leahy (famous in adventure education/facilitation/experiential circles in the US) has a great teaching on this concept. He breaks an effort to accomplish something into two main areas: Process (soft skills, how you go about the task, communication and treatment of team members, etc.) and Task (the specific thing that is trying to be acheived). In this way, Four different possibilities could occur in terms of failure and success:

    Succeed at Task and Succeed in the Process
    Succeed at Task and Fail in the Process
    Fail at the Task and Succeed in the Process
    Fail at the Task and Fail at the Process

    You can take a moment and reflect on what each of these scenarios look and feel like…

    The problem tends to be that we don’t own up to the failure in the task, allowing us to honestly take a good look at it and learn from it with a positive attitude. We tend to say things like “We gave it a realy good effort, and we communicated well, and we treated each other well, so actually we succeeded.” Indeed, as you suggest by the title, there seems to be a real dread of the word, therefore it often prevents a healthy exploration of what caused us to fail at the task because we want to redefine it as a success.

    A large contribution we can make as trainers is to help revive and embrace the concept of failure, and help people to seperate the two components of task and process. In this way, perhaps we can help teams to understand that if process is good, than failure at a task is simply a step toward success (the Thomas Edison and the light bulb metaphor comes to mind).



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