The Great Circle Route

If you’ve flown to Europe or Asia, you know that the flight path, viewed on a “normal” map, looks far longer than it should. The plane flies what appears to be thousands unnecessary kilometers on a route that curves up near the North Pole, rather than flying in a straight line.

Appearances are deceiving, as you probably have realized. The earth is not flat, and that so-called normal map, usually a Mercator projection, greatly distorts distances at higher latitudes. Trace a route from Toronto to Tokyo on such a map, and it appears to pass about 700 km south of Seattle. However, trace the same route on a globe and you’ll cross the 122nd meridian about 2,000 kilometers north of Seattle.

Such true paths are called great circle routes.


Legal Project Management is the equivalent of a great circle route.

Project management asks you to do a number of tasks that to the uninitiated appear to add rather than reduce work. For example, project managers usually create a project charter, require concrete plans ahead of action, and ask their teams not to make changes without involving them.

In reality, these tasks only appear to add time and effort to the project as a whole.

The legal world is not flat. Indeed, the course of most legal projects is anything but a straight line.

Legal Project Management recognizes this convoluted, less than perfectly predictable course. Legal project managers create charters, make plans, and constrain changes in order to minimize the twists and turns, the deviations from a clear course. These techniques help the project navigate among the storm cells, traffic, and hostile terrain that affect even the best great-circle routes.

To carry the metaphor one step further (which is probably two steps too far, but that’s the way it is with metaphors), few fliers would want to ride with a pilot who plowed recklessly through raging thunderstorms, who flew low through unmapped mountainous terrain, or who took to the air despite a cockpit full of warning lights and malfunctioning gauges. (As one pilot said over the PA during an extended ground delay, “It’s better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.”)

Likewise, attorneys who’ve seen Legal Project Management in action, with project managers skilled in the techniques and art of managing professional (rather than engineering) projects, recognize that despite occasional frustrations project management generally gets them to the right destination with less wasted time and effort.

Think of a project plan not as a Mercator projection but as a globe. Just as a great-circle route, on the proper map, seems more reasonable, a planned project, in the hands of a properly trained legal project manager, will appear to follow the shortest course after all.


Map generated by Steven B. Levy using the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

It’s a matter of perspective.

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