Insight/ General Management

Project-Management Lessons From A Gingerbread House


by Phyllis Schaeffler Dealy
Woods Witt Dealy & Sons

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Article Highlights:

  • Enthusiasm at the start of any project should be tempered with a heavy dose of realism.
  • Not enough dough (literally) can hamper the best-laid plans.
  • Too many times we put extraordinary efforts into making things work when they are clearly not working at all.

Sometimes we can learn valuable project-management lessons in unlikely places. Recently, I decided to make a gingerbread house from scratch with my three sons.  It seemed slightly daunting but absolutely achievable: I enjoy baking, I love the holidays (really!), and I’m secretly “crafty.” What could go wrong?

Day 1: Planning
My blueprint is a dusty issue of Country Home magazine with a gingerbread house recipe I’ve saved for years. I eagerly procure the ingredients, copy the pattern onto the back of some wrapping paper, and, most importantly, spend several hours building up my family’s expectations of a fun-filled Sunday afternoon.

Project-Management Lesson: Enthusiasm at the start of any project should be tempered with a heavy dose of realism about time constraints and the talents, experience, and abilities of you and your team.

Day 2: Creation
Sunday afternoon and ready to go! The first sign of trouble comes when the required two batches of gingerbread dough don’t produce enough gingerbread surface area to fulfill the pattern. That means I can only bake two-thirds of the pieces required. I stack the completed pieces on a tray and put them on top of a shelf for protection from hungry mouths.

Project-Management Lesson: Getting the raw materials and measurements right from the beginning are absolutely critical to the success of your project. Not enough dough (literally) can hamper the best-laid plans.

Day 5: More Creation
It takes me three days to procure an extra bottle of molasses for the recipe. Then I make another batch of dough and bake the missing roof pieces. I set them aside with the other building components (now hard as a rock). Our plan is to assemble them later, but our dreams are beginning to crumble and project fatigue is setting in.

Project-Management Lesson: Keep project essentials on hand in case of emergency.

Day 7: Production
Ah, the weekend! By this time, my gingerbread house team has abandoned ship. I know there is only way to re-enlist them: the promise of Royal Icing and food coloring. For good measure, I throw in a motivational speech laced with minor threats, motherly guilt, and video game blackmail that I know would be 100% illegal in a workplace environment.  

Then, trouble. I can’t find the meringue powder required for the Royal Icing. There must be a simple substitute, right? My trusted adviser Google directs me to several different cooking sites that say whipped egg whites are a fine substitute. Great! I’m back in business.

I spend the next two hours trying to produce Royal Icing that is stiff enough to (1) hold the house pieces together (2) cover the surface for decorating, and (3) reaffirm my confidence as a baker. While I’m frantically mixing, I send my oldest son to run to the deli to buy “real” food coloring because the organic coloring wasn’t right.

After several hours (it’s now 6 p.m.), I am roused from my gingerbread house stupor by a banging sound. Through tired eyes I surmise my children are just a few gummy worms away from a complete sugar meltdown. I decide it’s time to shut down this operation.

Project-Management Lesson: Improvising can be an amazing asset in business, but not when your project depends on specific ingredients and a documented process. Also, Google is not always our friend. Sometimes because we have so much information at our fingertips, we feel empowered to make decisions that are bad calls. It could be as small as naively substituting egg whites for meringue powder, or it could be as monumental as skipping an important quality assurance step that crashes your whole project. Some projects are more forgiving than others. Know the kind of project you’re managing.

Day 10: Realization
I survey the beautifully crafted but now hardened and abandoned pieces of my treasured Gingerbread House. My seven-year-old son wants to know when we’re going to finish it.

“We’re not going to finish it,” I sigh.

“So can we eat the pieces then?” he asks, with a surprising amount of enthusiasm.

Oh, yeah, that is the end purpose of building a gingerbread house–to take it apart and eat the pieces. I had forgotten that in the building process.  

In minutes, the kids are gleefully stuffing candy shutters and chocolate rock pieces into their mouths.

Project-Management Lesson: Too many times we put extraordinary efforts into making things work, when they are clearly not working at all. We don’t believe we can fail when it looks from the beginning like the perfect set up. Even when there’s a clear process to follow, with a tested, proven blueprint for success and a qualified team, things still go wrong. Whether it’s denial, unabashed optimism, or just plain stubbornness, when they do go wrong, it can be difficult to be objective, step back, and assess what’s really happening. Other times, we’re trying so hard to succeed, that we even forget why we’re doing it in the first place. What were the goals we were trying achieve, and are we still on track to accomplish them?

Sometimes the only way forward is to go back to the beginning and start the process again. Or, in the case of the gingerbread house, it’s probably best to find a really, really good off-the-shelf kit.

About Phyllis Schaeffler Dealy

Phyllis Schaeffler Dealy is a partner at NYC-based ad agency Woods Witt Dealy & Sons. A pioneer in digital marketing, Phyllis has 20 years of experience creating and managing traditional, digital, and social marketing campaigns for clients including Chivas Regal, Duracell Powermat, CNBC, Hickory Farms, Cheerwine, Sony Music, Cuddl Duds, and Jam Speakers.