In 1934 southern California, a successful animator of cartoon shorts embarked on a project to make, for the first time, a feature-length cartoon. The cost to create it was estimated to be $250,000 over two years. But when the story line kept changing, the budget skyrocketed to $1.4 million, and the project timeline nearly doubled.

If you haven’t already guessed it, the animator was Walt Disney and the film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It earned over $7 million in its first run, paving the way for Walt Disney Company to deliver other astonishing firsts.

In terms of project success measures, the project was abysmal. Disney blew the schedule, budget and scope, but for understandable reasons:

  • No metrics: Since a feature-length cartoon had never been made before, there was no historical data to rely upon.
  • Little understanding of risks: Without data, risks could only be guessed at based on the experience of past successes and failures making shorts, not full-length features.
  • High margin of error in the estimate: With such a lack of empirical data, it was easy to miscalculate the time and budget required for the effort.

Nevertheless, in terms of sponsorship, the project was wildly successful. Here’s why:

  • Clear vision: Disney knew what he wanted, unwaveringly stayed the course, and worked hard to achieve his vision.
  • Understanding of the customer: He knew what his customers liked and set out to expand his brand to appeal to adults as well as children.
  • Decision-making ability: Without a board of directors to rely on, it came down to Disney to make the hard decisions vis-à-vis the risks and reward of the project.

This imbalance of strong sponsorship on the one hand, and an insufficient project management process on the other, is fairly common for companies at the 1.2 to 1.7 maturity level. This is a people-centric model centered on passionate individuals, but it doesn’t scale when four or five projects are being pursued in tandem. Assuming everyone at a company doesn’t have the passion or vision to drive his project à la Mr. Disney, it becomes essential to install and implement process, which moves you closer  to crossing over the level 2 maturity hurdle.

Disney did just that. Over time, he learned from his project management mistakes, leveraged this learning to build a repeatable process, and further developed his visionary sponsorship to give his customers something new and extraordinary time and time again.  For Walt Disney, it wasn’t all just wishing on a star—he is one of the greatest American innovators because of his mastery of realization.

If you’ve worked on a project with a visionary sponsor but poor project management (or vice versa), tell us your tale.