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What Sci-Fi Movies Teach Us About Project Management Skills 186

Posted by samzenpus
from the I'm-afraid-I-can't-accept-that-proposal-dave dept.
Esther Schindler writes "It's certainly fun to pretend to find work inspiration from our favorite SF films. That's what Carol Pinchefsky does in two posts, one about positive business lessons you can take away from SF films (such as 'agile thinking can save many a project (and project manager) in a crisis' from Robocop and team motivation lessons from Buffy), and the other, 5 Project Management Horror Stories Found in Sci-Fi Movies, with examples of the impact of poor documentation on Captain America."
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What Sci-Fi Movies Teach Us About Project Management Skills

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  • by rossdee (243626) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @11:47PM (#45743053)

    "We shall redouble our efforts"

    The commander of Death Star 2 when Vader told him the Emperor was coming to inspect the project.

    • "We shall redouble our efforts"

      The commander of Death Star 2 when Vader told him the Emperor was coming to inspect the project.

      I think spaceballs taught us everything we need to know about bad management.
      "The Secret Combination Is . . . 1, 2, 3, 4, 5".

    • by flargleblarg (685368) on Friday December 20, 2013 @03:30AM (#45743779)

      "We shall redouble our efforts"

      I've always wondered... Why didn't he just say quadruple?

    • by Sez Zero (586611)

      "We shall redouble our efforts"

      The commander of Death Star 2 when Vader told him the Emperor was coming to inspect the project.

      As a PHB, I learned a lot from the Empire. I'm looking forward to the new sequels where the Empire gets to win.

    • I always wondered how they got the design of the Death Star through the review committee given its obvious flaws. If your expensive creation can be destroyed by a single shot, why build it?
      • If your expensive creation can be destroyed by a single shot, why build it?

        Because like in most IT projects, they concentrated on the big things and completely ignored the small stuff. In their case, they were worried about defending themselves against battleships (or whatever the rebels were using), not small, one-man ships.

        In IT projects, everyone is so worried about getting the big things done, they miss the obvious little stuff. Let's build a web site where people can look up how much more
      • by BVis (267028)

        Politics. Guessing that snub fighters weren't in the initial spec, so they weren't accounted for. Once the problem was found, it was glossed over to protect the well-connected people who made the mistake in the first place. Hey, the death toll was only in the thousands, no big deal. Someone probably did a quiet cost/benefit analysis and determined that the expense of fixing the problem would raise too many troubling questions, and when the boss has a habit of Force choking people who rock the boat, tha

      • by rwise2112 (648849)
        Admiral Motti: Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they've obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe.

        Stewie (Darth Vader): That is fantastic. Terrific work. So no weaknesses at all?

        Admiral Motti: N... no.

        Stewie (Darth Vader): You, uh, you hesitated there. Is there something I should know?

        Admiral Motti: No, it's virtually indestructible, like 99.99%.

        Stewie (Darth Vader): Uh, okay, wouldn't be doing my job if

    • Was he hoping to complete it a parsec early?

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      I wish you'd have written TFA, because I thought TFA sucked. Buffy the Vampire Slayer? That is NOT science fiction, nor Batman, nor Ghostbusters. The "lesson" from the STNG episode? "Think outside the box."

      Lame article, I'll bet the comments here are a lot better (just started reading them)

  • Science Fact (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bscott (460706) on Friday December 20, 2013 @12:01AM (#45743109)

    You don't need to reach for SF to get a great project management lesson, just look at the Apollo program.

    A triumph of the human spirit, of technology, of ingenuity, sure - but mainly, an overwhelming triumph of project management. Who says the government can't handle any big jobs, eh? (well, anyone who's been watching for the last 40 years maybe...)

    • Re:Science Fact (Score:5, Informative)

      by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Friday December 20, 2013 @12:47AM (#45743297) Journal

      ... just look at the Apollo program.

      A triumph of the human spirit, of technology, of ingenuity, sure - but mainly, an overwhelming triumph of project management.

      And then NASA changed their management. And the new management dropped "belt and suspenders" "managing for Murphy's law" in favor of "managing for success". And they launched Challenger when the solid-fuel booster O-rings were too cold to seat properly, over the objections of the engineers.

      And the space program was put on hold for 2 2/3 years.

      • Re:Science Fact (Score:4, Interesting)

        by jd2112 (1535857) on Friday December 20, 2013 @01:06AM (#45743365)
        Appropriate quote:

        “Crash programs fail because they are based on the theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month.”
        Wernher Von Braun
        • by lfourrier (209630)
          As already explained by I don't remember who, it can be a correct measure, if your objective is to have a lot of people in a few years.

          Parallelize, and start over many times, and of course, each baby still take nine months to "produce", but globally, each 9 women will get you a baby a month.

          It is not Project, it is Run. Different objectives, different rules, different outcomes.
          • but globally, each 9 women will get you a baby a month.

            "...but on average, you will get a about baby a month." That's all you can really say.

      • Re:Science Fact (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Spy Handler (822350) on Friday December 20, 2013 @01:42AM (#45743487) Homepage Journal

        And they launched Challenger when the solid-fuel booster O-rings were too cold to seat properly, over the objections of the engineers.

        That's true, but what's even sadder is that those damn O-rings should've never even been there in the first place. The SRBs were meant to be a one piece monolithic design. However it was changed into a segmented multi piece O-ring design because pork had to be provided to Morton Thiokol at the insistence of the senator from Utah, who held the purse strings. (Thiokol, being in Utah, cannot ship a large one piece by ocean and could only build segmented ones shipped by rail)

        The lesson here is, do not let managers into your project who have their own agendas that conflict with the main project's mission.

        • Re:Science Fact (Score:4, Informative)

          by dbIII (701233) on Friday December 20, 2013 @03:45AM (#45743801)
          What's also sad is the engineers then had to sneak around their management to get to talk to the one guy on the inquiry that could not be threatened with loss of reputation if he delivered bad news. Some pressure was put on Feynman to drop the issue but thankfully he ignored it and the ugly truth came out.
          • by paiute (550198)

            Some pressure was put on Feynman....

            That I would have liked to see personally.

            • Apparently they gave him mountains of information and hoped he would get lost in it. He said, "They underestimated how quickly I can process information."
        • Re:Science Fact (Score:5, Informative)

          by DerekLyons (302214) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (retawriaf)> on Friday December 20, 2013 @09:42AM (#45744927) Homepage

          That's true, but what's even sadder is that those damn O-rings should've never even been there in the first place. The SRBs were meant to be a one piece monolithic design.

          No, they were never "meant" to be anything - there is no "absolute" Shuttle design from which the existing one was a departure.
           

          However it was changed into a segmented multi piece O-ring design because pork had to be provided to Morton Thiokol at the insistence of the senator from Utah, who held the purse strings. (Thiokol, being in Utah, cannot ship a large one piece by ocean and could only build segmented ones shipped by rail)

          No, they were changed to segmented design because nobody could figure out how to cast *one* motor grain with consistent burn properties (the monolithic grain took so long to cure that it stratified) - and the Shuttle required a matched pair. Nor could the figure out how to prevent the grain from flowing out the nozzle (the weight of the monolithic grain exceeded the strength of the grain material, resulting in the grain creeping under it's own weight). Not to mention the problem of handling a million plus pound motor without damaging it (as little as 3mm flex over the length of the casing could delaminate the grain from the casing and crack the grain).

        • by jafac (1449)

          SRB's should have never been there. This was design-by congress. It's the reason the shuttle failed, ultimately; it never delivered what it promised (cheap, reusable payloads to orbit; dual-use, cross-range capability). And it was so unsafe, they had to stop flying it, and were never able to afford to follow-through on developing successors (like X-33).

      • by thegarbz (1787294)

        And then NASA changed their management. And the new management dropped "belt and suspenders" "managing for Murphy's law" in favor of "managing for success". And they launched Challenger

        You say this as if previous management didn't also have blood on their hands. Apollo 1 saw 3 astronauts burnt alive in their capsule.

        Flammable materials, pure Oxygen environment, negative pressure preventing door from opening doesn't really smell like "managing for Murphy's law".

        • Re:Science Fact (Score:4, Interesting)

          by DerekLyons (302214) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (retawriaf)> on Friday December 20, 2013 @09:52AM (#45744977) Homepage

          And then NASA changed their management. And the new management dropped "belt and suspenders" "managing for Murphy's law" in favor of "managing for success". And they launched Challenger

          You say this as if previous management didn't also have blood on their hands. Apollo 1 saw 3 astronauts burnt alive in their capsule.

          Flammable materials, pure Oxygen environment, negative pressure preventing door from opening doesn't really smell like "managing for Murphy's law".

          And Apollo 12, which was sent to the Moon despite having been hit by lighting and possibly having damage which could not be detected. And Apollo (IIRC) 15, which had a failed cable assembly in the SPS - and which was allowed to go into Lunar orbit even though the mission rules specified a return to Earth. (There are others, but these are the ones that leap to mind off hand.)

          Apollo era NASA was lucky, they kept making bets and rolling snake eyes - and then covered up for decades just how big the risks had been and how close they repeatedly came to disaster.

      • I've used this example as one of management overruling the techies. The engineers argued against launching in the cold, And management said, "My God. When do you want me to launch? Next April?"

        They launched. The thing failed spectacularly, People died. And they did not launch again for over two years.

    • Apollo was problem solving. None of the stuff cited here is "agile" and this is all bullshit. Real PM is a lot of boring technical skills... fun to do, boring to watch.

  • 7 Habits (Score:5, Funny)

    by MrEricSir (398214) on Friday December 20, 2013 @12:07AM (#45743145) Homepage

    Sounds like it's time for Covey to come back to life and write "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Fictional Characters."

  • Hmm... (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 20, 2013 @12:11AM (#45743169)

    Sci-Fi teaches us not to hire George Lucas... he's terrible.

  • No movies will teach you about real skills needed for efficient project management. People who possess those skills are usually busy doing something else and consider their PM as pure overhead. It doesn't mean you have to be harsh with them. I mean help them as much as you can, sometimes, they might even cover your ass and take the hit for you if they are good PM.

    • People who possess those skills are usually busy doing something else

      Protip: Linux is successfull because of amazing project management by Linus. Hell, I consider Git a bigger boon to the world than Linux. Anyone can write a damn simple monolithic kernel [osdev.org], but to immediately gather a community and be able to maintain it is a rare skill. Leadership isn't key in sci-fi? Being in the right place at the right time with the right people helps too -- Also evidenced in sci-fi: A rag-tag group of ethnically diverse individuals from all walks of life will save the day! Diversity

      • The best management is still to stay out of your team's way, give them what they need to get their work done and make sure they're not pestered by beancounters.

        Works for me, at least. You just need a very motivated team, if you got slackers then you're in trouble.

    • by rtb61 (674572)

      The project managers greatest application of skill is to manage the necessity of themselves out of project completion. The best project managers have very successful projects whilst seeming to do not very much at all, the worst are of course the exact opposite, failed projects whilst working flat out all of the time. I liken it to the story of the woodsman and his axe, the one that was always working flat out and never had time to stop to sharpen his axe (the smart woodsman plans ahead and regularly sharpe

  • I bet there are a lot of lessons there, including not giving your agents too much independence, they could screw things so badly that you will need to hire your enemies to get rid of them.
  • Here are the real lessons [twitter.com] of Sci-Fi movies.
  • "Never tell me the odds" and then plow through it like crazed cowboys

    • by cusco (717999)

      'Armageddon' also taught us to not to had off the science checking to the intern that no one listens to unless you have a marketing budget rivaling the Superbowl.

      Although 'Deep Impact' taught us that even if the science is right a lack of marketing budget is difficult to overcome.

  • Ender's Game (Score:4, Interesting)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Friday December 20, 2013 @01:30AM (#45743441) Journal
    Not a hip movie to like right now, but Ender's Game is almost all about project management and leadership.

    Ender sees the great potential in his team, even in the misfits and castaways, but he also has high expectations for them to reach that potential. That is what I try to do as a leader.
    • Ender sees the great potential in his team, even in the misfits and castaways, but he also has high expectations for them to reach that potential. That is what I try to do as a leader.

      I try to emulate Ender too, but I prefer his "If you have a bunch of assholes impeding progress kick their leader to death. The others will fall in line" approach to team building.

    • It is Bean the one who first sees the potential in those misfits and castaways and assembles the team for Ender to command.
      I avoided Ender's Shadow for a few years thinking it would be just a rehash of a great book (if you haven't read it don't watch the mediocre movie before reading the book), but it is actually pretty good.

  • Sarcasm on

    Don't plan ahead, try to foresee difficulties and solve issue way before they come up. Instead blow things off, leave out important details and try to solve everything at the last possible moment. That's good management, or at least a interesting movie

    sarcasm off

    • by ArsonSmith (13997)

      My favorite is, don't tell your team the plan just give them a bunch of tasks. Let them question the outcome but don't let them know that when everything looks like it is about to fail you'll pull out your final thing and save the day explaining all the random crap you did to start with.

    • Well, on the plus-side, pretty much any sci-fi disaster (or pretty much any disaster) movie tells us that the beancounters will ignore the engineers who would actually know what to do until it's almost too late, then the engineer will risk career, neck and the life of loved ones to save the day and in the end the beancounter will be praised for it.

      Wait, did I say plus-side?

    • by cusco (717999)

      Also that the single macho dude who is a technological ignoramus and who operates by feelings alone rather than by logic will save the day and get the girl by doing something so random that it violates probability and most of the laws of physics.

  • by Greyfox (87712) on Friday December 20, 2013 @02:06AM (#45743561) Homepage Journal
    Should have a prominent big red self destruct button. This button should not do anything, and it should be booby trapped.
  • I like to find leadership lessons from unusual places too. I occasionally write about them on my blog. This year, that included IT leadership lessons from Zombies, and leadership lessons from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic! Coaching Buttons blog [blogspot.com] :-)
  • If you haven't seen it, there may be spoilers.

    THX 1138 surprisingly by George Lucas.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066434 [imdb.com]

    The ending is a lesson for project managers.

  • Do not let a private company take over what should be government's job.

  • The answer is, of course, fuck all.

    What the author meant was:

    Here's what I think about project management skills, and here are a few vaguely coincidentally similar situations in sci-fi movies to make me look nerdcool

  • The Robocop example is really the 'first waffle' concept. You always have to make a first waffle, and it's almost always bad -- the iron's just not warm enough, oily enough or whatever until the second one comes out. But there's always, by definition, a first one. So just plan on your first iteration of a project to fail and to start over and do it right based on what you learned about the wrong way to start. Or not. Either way, the first iteration fails. You can throw it out and start over, or you can try

    • a few things to make your life more wonderful

      1 put your engineers (and security folks) in the best amour you can (hint in space these should be vacuum rated)
      2 always have your basic tools on you (Com ,Defense and Fix)
      3 Boots are a groovy place to put spare tools
      4 CNC should always have medium/heavy weapons "stashed" somewhere
      5 You either can Take a Joke or YOU ARE THE JOKE
      5 always rig stuff with an extra power input (esp stuff that can go BOOM if it loses power)

      oh and the real RoboCop lesson

      Your Core Rules

  • by JDG1980 (2438906) on Friday December 20, 2013 @10:17AM (#45745143)

    How can you write about IT project management failures in sci-fi movies and not mention Jurassic Park?

    For all Malcolm's talk about "chaos theory", the failure of the park was a very predictable result of (1) relying heavily on IT for mission-critical systems, and (2) putting all of this IT infrastructure in the hands of one guy, that the CEO knows is disgruntled! Any project manager with half a brain should have seen it coming. But Hammond, who "spared no expense" on everything else, apparently couldn't be bothered to hire a competent CIO, or spring for a real IT team.

    A general rule of project management, not only in IT but in other fields as well, is that you should never have critical, undocumented knowledge that is in the possession of only one employee. The reason is obvious: if that employee quits, or is fired, or gets hit by a bus, or is eaten by a Dilophosaurus, you're completely screwed. All mission-critical systems should be covered by multiple people and should be properly documented.

    • by freeze128 (544774)
      Not to mention the fact that your disgruntled IT guy is NEWMAN from Seinfeld. What did you even expect from him?
  • by PPH (736903)

    What can happen when the boss has an ulterior motive of which the staff is unaware. Worse yet, that motive requires that the project, as officially defined, must fail miserably.

    I've been on a number of in-house projects where someone up the chain got a call from some outside vendor. If only your project were to fail, we could be brought in to consult/rescue it/sell your company our technology. And you'd get a kickback for that.

    Pay no attention to the entrails of your staff splattered about the landscape.

  • by PPH (736903)

    The pitfalls of treating staff as interchangeable resources.

  • "I'm here to put you back on schedule."

"Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed." -- Robin, The Boy Wonder

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