The Project Management Tree Swing Cartoon, Past and Present

The project management tree swing cartoon below is famous amongst those of us who have engaged in any kind of software project management. I first came across it in the late 1990s, when I managed small projects at a regional data communications company. I remember printing it out and hanging it in my cubicle, as a reminder of what not to do. I would read it as a reminder to keep my sense of humor in the midst of a frustrating project implementation.

A few months ago, I thought of it and searched online for it. Project management may not be as sexy as data science, but if you don’t properly manage the implementation of your data and systems, you won’t be “sexying” anything, much less taming your data! As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO).

I was fascinated to learn via Alan Chapman that the history of the project management tire swing analogy goes back to the 1960s in the UK. He points out that people readily attribute the images to their own discipline, whether that is marketing, management, engineering, manufacturing, maintenance, or customer service. I found the images from previous decades fun to read, although I was and am a bit disheartened to discover that this problem does not seem eradicable, but continues to morph from industry to industry over time.

Samuel Jack of Functional Fun writes that an entire industry has grown around the cartoons. Via Project Cartoon, you can buy posters or t-shirts of the swing cartoon, or create a custom version. Users have updated the cartoon to include open source and disaster recovery plans.

Do you have any project management stories you would like to share? Have you found this cartoon relevant to your industry or projects?

22 Replies to “The Project Management Tree Swing Cartoon, Past and Present”

  1. It is an excellent example of how things go wrong. and why constant communication on all levels is vital to success.

  2. I’ve always hated this cartoon. It’s sophomoric, juvenile, derogatory, condescending and insulting. The only thing it tells me is that a bunch of incompetent people failed to adequately listen to what the customer desired and someone failed to probe, document and confirm those desires from the start to confirm mutual understanding/alignment. Teams who jump into development without that up front confirmation deserve to fail.

    My takeaway from this cartoon is – use visual communication early to drive alignment.

      1. I totally agree with the pictures – it is about multinational environment and it’s time schedule (make more, for less). At the end, it comes to the comic example. If you are not experienced enough, or live in a bottle, perhaps you can believe in fairy tales :)
        I say that, because I am really up to listen, to what they want – they just 1. don’t know; 2. can’t tell; 3. change their minds. Agility can help a little, but that is just the same story with more change management focus…

  3. My previous employer used this example at our meeting with the senior management. I loved it!! It totally defined the calls I received in the Customer Service field. The one I loved the most was the blank one which I saw so many times during the day. I felt like, at last, they get it something will change – oh how wrong I was.
    As I am sure you are aware time is of the essence in Customer Service but upper management was STRESSING to us in this meeting first call resolution. Add in the fact that they had created at this point, a separate team to work aged items older than 2 days which was more than 2 months behind and you can see a LOT of unhappy customers were calling back. With the 2 minute after call cap that immediate supervisors were still enforcing things were snowballing quickly.
    So I guess what I am trying to say is that while everybody agrees with the point when it comes to actually putting it into production it is not going to happen. A lot of flexibility in certain area’s will be required and some industries are not going to bend. They just bring out the picture to make it LOOK like they care and that is where the heart of the problem truly lies.

  4. This is an awesome read. Thank you for the post. I was looking for the cartoon after seeing it during a round of tech training with an international company and wanted to bring it home to my own shop. Very cool indeed. Thanks again. (And the history part is mind blowing!)

  5. of course we laugh but at its core this cartoon is totally not funny.

    it was worth a rueful grin when we first read it, or now and again to soothe the frustrations, pain or anger that we experience when we go through this process.

    but mostly it is just a stinging indictment of the whole product development process: or perhaps its people’s behaviour within the product development process.

    it’s got beyond sad – think of it this way: every time you look at that cartoon, there’s another failed product development initiative, another crippled product that doesn’t actually meet the intended needs, another waste of money, time and creativity, and another set of frustrations and other negative emotions, another tick to vested interests etc.

    if we could actually learn something from it, it would be worth its weight in plutonium, as well as being perceptive and witty. maybe it should be the framework for a “doing product development right” course or something.

    1. why would you think nothing has been learned? rapid prototyping for physical objects, modularity standards, 3rd party sdks, 3d printers, etc are all eliminating the need to jump full scale into fail. kickstarter, gofundme, youtube are outlets for potential products with new business models that circumvent these obstacles. innovations in both business models and solving physical limitations are solving the old problems. communications have improved drastically. large scale distribution in many independent regions for materials cover a wide variety of raw materials, services, legal counsel. there are some companies hell bent on failure which may still adopt these models, but it doesn’t seem representative of the average use case.

  6. I’ve loved this cartoon ever since I first saw it back in the 80s when I was in the architecture field, and it really made me think about how I was doing what I was doing, which was of course based on how we were taught in school. For me, it came down to learning how to really listen to the client (as in shut up and listen), and then ask questions, and then listen some more before playing it all back to make sure I had it right. Amazingly — amazingly — the clients loved that I showed so much interest in them and that their projects turned out so well. Generally, in projects nowadays, I tend to quote Stephen Covey (“Seek first to understand… “), but I think I’m going to get a copy of this cartoon and start using it.

    1. George, thank you so much for sharing such wisdom. It is so true — one needs to listen, and then listen some more. I state the my company, Impact Zone, is client-centered, and when people ask me what that means, I say it means it is about solving the clients’ problem, not about showcasing my ego. Your words are so true, and I am glad to hear your clients appreciated your efforts. — Jewel

      1. Thank you for the link to the adult tree swings. I want one of those! As for your story regarding your boss, yes. That is hilarious! Good for you! And good for him, too, for having a sense of humor.

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