6 Lessons “The Walking Dead” Can Teach You about Project Management

The Walking Dead is a television show based on a long-running comic book about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. When our protagonists aren’t being killed by zombies (Dale, T-Dog), killed by humans (Andrea), dying of natural causes (Lori), losing limbs to zombies (Herschel), or losing their tenuous grasp on sanity (Rick), they’re teaching us valuable lessons on how to better run your office.

No, seriously.

Rick’s crew manages multiple projects—i.e., defend their home base, rescue a captive—with varying degrees of success. You can learn from their triumphs (and catastrophes)… so you can keep your project alive and well.

(Spoilers are inevitable. I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?)

Do the right project

In season 2, Rick and Co. meet Herschel and Co. Before they merge into one big unhappy survivalist family, they learn that Herschel’s group had been keeping walkers in his barn; it turns out they believed that the undead were merely diseased and needed a cure.

Meanwhile, Rick’s crew had been searching for Sophia, a little girl who had been missing since the first episode of season 2. Despite the efforts of Daryl, a skilled tracker, Sophia was nowhere to be found.

We learned, horrifyingly, that Sophia had been in the barn all along… as undead as dial-up.

Herschel’s project—to round up all of the walkers they can find—wasn’t just the wrong project. He also didn’t communicate this project decision to Rick’s group. As a result, Rick’s group expended resources and exposed themselves to significant risk while unknowingly working at odds with Hershel. Herschel also expended his own resources gathering walkers (in itself dangerous) rather than pursuing other ways to secure the farm.

It’s true that it improved security to remove nearby walkers from the local area before they could stumble upon the farm. But a better plan would have been to fortify their location.

What project managers can learn:

Making sure you’re delivering the right result is the job of requirements gathering, but no amount of data gathering is guaranteed to be perfect. You can merely do the best you can to cover all the angles that you can identify. Consulting with other teams may help you gain the vision you need.

Don’t make decisions in a vacuum; check them for sanity

Rick is the leader of his band of allies (Rick’s crew? Rick’s group? The Rickers?), and it falls on him to make decisions, distribute tasks among stakeholders, and act as the go-to guy when problems arise. But after his wife Lori dies while giving birth to Judith in season 3, Rick and his axe go on a zombie-killing rampage, which is interrupted by a series of strange telephone calls.

It turns out that Rick is hallucinating these phone calls, as well as the appearances of Lori and his dead friend, Shane. Rick’s erratic behavior only serves to alienate potential partners (Tyreese and his sister Sasha), plus gets his new associate, Oscar, killed.

It wasn’t until that his and his friends’ lives were in great peril from the Governor that he managed to snap out of his trauma-induced psychosis and once again take charge.

What project managers can learn:

Even the most effective project manager should solicit feedback on decisions before finalizing them. Not only does this help to clarify the details, but also it involves other members of the project team in the decision-making process. Team members gain a stronger sense of ownership, and the chance of misunderstandings decreases. Conversely, going it alone and shouldering all the burden of a project can conceal defects in your thinking.

Many project managers think of asking for input about their decisions as a management weakness. But the truth is, sanity-checking your ideas is vital to avoid making costly mistakes. Not only that, it results in better decisions and stronger team unity.

And, just occasionally, it may turn out you’re crazy.

Make sure project contributors can communicate

In the pilot episode, Rick teams up with his neighbor Morgan to get weapons and walkie-talkies from a police compound. Before they go their separate ways, Rick and Morgan plan to use the walkie-talkies to keep in touch. It was a good plan… until Rick moves too far away to contact Morgan. Interestingly, this is a police unit, and Rick doesn’t scan frequencies looking for other signals. He also doesn’t pick up any extra walkie-talkies (perhaps there were only two left?), which just might have been useful to the group he ends up leading later.

This group, which is based in a campsite, even has its own radio, but it’s rarely seen. Might an ability to call back to base have been useful for Andrea, when she was separated from the group in season 2? Or Lori, when she overturned her car? Or to Glen and Maggie when they re-meet the evil Merle in season 3? In fact, there are so many times in the show when separated members of Rick’s group can’t contact each other, it’s hard not to keep thinking, “Damn, a walkie-talkie would sure have been handy here, Rick,” several times an episode.

What project managers can learn:

When a project involves several teams, and especially when they’re physically separated (by country, or just by floor), it’s easy for teams to move in divergent directions and to lose touch with each other. Worse, teams and individuals can start improvising in an information vacuum, without anyone else being aware of it – sometimes so much that the project can fail as a result.

Arrange scheduled meetings to let team members fill each other in on their progress. Use tools to help everyone track task completion. This lets teams learn about each other’s efforts and potentially alter their plans based on new information.

Don’t mistake a good prototype for the final deliverable

After the original camp is overrun by not very many zombies, the group realizes that it really needs a more defensible, better protected location. That’s why, after the trip to the CDC concludes explosively at the end of season 1, Rick recognizes Herschel’s farm as a far better location to set up. He persuades Herschel to let them stay.

Even the farm turns out to be flawed, however, after a walker stress-test causes a fence to buckle under the load. Without an evacuation plan, the group is split up and suffers several casualties.

Even though the farm was much more defensible than a few tents in the woods, it could never have become capable of handling an influx of more than a few walkers. A prison, as the group eventually discovers, is an excellent solution, and one the group could have come up with if they hadn’t gotten too comfortable.

What project managers can learn:

Sometimes a project needs to go through more than one prototyping exercise before the best solution is found. Earlier prototypes can be made serviceable, and even put into production, but don’t mistake a better solution for a final one. Too often, a project delivers an interim result “good enough” to encourage the sponsors to accept the first version and not continue to fund the project to proper completion.

A project manager should be aware of this possibility. Be ready to make it clear that while better can be the enemy of good, sometimes good enough for now can be the enemy of not good enough in the long run.

Learn from your mistakes

Throughout the series, Andrea had transitioned from loving sister (early season 1) to suicidal survivor (end of season 1) to gun-toting avenger (all of season 2) to survivalist (beginning of season 3) to the voice of reason (end of season 3). But there’s a hitch in that voice of reason. Andrea helped to negotiate a treaty between Rick and the Governor…but the Governor is a man who crazier than a loon, a bag of hammers, and a soup sandwich put together.

The negotiations broke down. Andrea unfortunately suffered the consequences.

Andrea, alas, won’t be around to learn from her mistakes. But Rick and the others have: They know that saving people is as important as killing zombies. At the end of season 3, Rick brings the people the Governor had abandoned to the safety of the prison compound.

What project managers can learn:

The first attempt to solve a problem may end up being harder than anticipated. At best, this means you need to apply more resources. At worst, you both waste resources on the wrong idea and burn out the team members trying to deliver it.

This means your solution needs to be rethought. Make sure your team members know they have the latitude to step back and suggest alternate approaches—even if this means discarding some progress. (This is an example of sanity-checking, see above.)

Another lesson to be learned: Crazy people are a significant source of project risk. Try not to have any of them on your team. (If you have to have one that you cannot discard, find a way they can contribute off the critical path.)

Make sure your team members are compatible

When Carl needs medicine, Rick sends Otis and Shane to a local school to raid a FEMA truck for supplies. Both men are capable, but the huge gathering of walkers proves too much for them. So Shane kills Otis to save his own life. While he does return with the drugs, losing Otis was not what managers would call a success.

And then there’s Merle. I’m going to let Merle speak for himself in this extremely NSFW series of quotes.

Let’s just say he doesn’t play well with others.

What project managers can learn:

Plenty of projects require teaming up people together. But it’s not enough to assign people to the same task; that does not make them into a team. If team members don’t work well together, their assignments are at risk; and individuals become more interested in protecting themselves from blame than making sure the team delivers. Focusing just on individual ability and not on team dynamics can cause a project to fail, even if all the contributors are the best available.

Often, you need to carefully consider who makes the best team-up—and that’s not always the same people who individually would be best suited for a task.









 

Photo Credit © The Blog Flume

Carol Pinchefsky

Carol Pinchefsky has written for the New York Times, Forbes.com, eWeek, Information Week, and many others. You can follow her on Twitter @carolpinchefsky, circle her on Google+, or Fan her on Facebook. She lives in New York City with her husband and their books.

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