5 Insightful Project Management Lessons from Sci-Fi

We watch movies and television shows to escape – if only briefly – the demands of our jobs, our lives, our parole officers. We don’t, however, run to the cinema or our Netflix queues to find advice on how to succeed in business.

But maybe we should. Movies and television, for the most part, are about problems that need solving. And many offices have nothing but problems to solve. In other words, there’s project management advice aplenty if you know where to look.

Star Trek: The Next Generation “Remember Me.”

In “Remember Me,” a clever episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, crewmembers of the Enterprise (and guest Dr. Dalen Quaice) are dropping out of sight and out of mind. No, they haven’t beamed off the ship. They’re just, gone. And as the crew’s complement dwindles down to one, only Dr. Beverly Crusher remembers them.

Perhaps Beverly has taken a ride on the crazy train. But rather than give in to the sweet, sweet oblivion of a fugue state, she decides to apply logic: “If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe.”

After asking the computer question upon question, Beverly pieces together the puzzle: She had been unwittingly sucked into a bubble universe of her son’s making.

What Project Managers Can Learn

Rather than a sign of indecisiveness, thinking outside the box (or in Beverly’s case, thinking outside the entire universe) is a good way to spot problems in a project’s design. And sometimes the bigger the problem—for example, missing requirements or missing crewmembers—the harder it is to spot.

It’s valuable to challenge your assumptions as your project progresses, especially while there’s still time to make adjustments.

Another takeaway lesson specific to Beverly: Your son is obviously trouble. Who knows how he’ll turn out when he grows up?

Robocop

Policeman Alex Murphy was minding his own cop business when he was killed in action by a crazed cocaine dealer. But that wasn’t the end for Murphy, whose body served as the prototype for Robocop, a robotic police force created by the company OCP. Using Murphy’s memories, Robocop tracks down the man responsible for his murder…

…who turns out to be OCP’s senior president, Dick Jones. And as a machine, Robocop says, “My program will not allow me to act against an officer of this company.”

When Robocop reveals Dick’s involvement, Dick grabs OCP’s chairman hostage. The old man shouts, “Dick, you’re fired.” With that, Robocop became free to extremely prejudice Dick with a Beretta 93R Auto 9.

What Project Managers Can Learn

Business is like a first wife: There’s always a newer, improved version in the future.

Even if your first project goes down in flames, it doesn’t mean that a new, better project can’t be built out of its remains. It helps to think of any project—even the successful ones—as the prototype of the project to come after.

Also, agile thinking can save many a project (and project manager) in a crisis. If you’ve been challenging your assumptions (see Star Trek, above), you can come up with those flashes of insight when that awkward question (or gun-toting power play) comes up in the board presentation.

Project managers have to think on their feet, even without a gun to their heads. Just don’t rely on quick thinking as a substitute for actually having a project plan.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Doublemeat Palace”

Buffy has always worked the graveyard shift, dusting vamps as fast as they can rise, not to mention preventing the occasional apocalypse. But in the episode “Doublemeat Palace,” our heroine has to take on a day job. The only place that will hire someone with no visible skills? A fast food chain.

Buffy is soon fired. She’s not too upset, because it’s a sucky job, and everyone knows it (including the vampires, who would prefer to nosh on a neck that doesn’t reek of doublemeat). Everyone except Buffy’s new manager, Lorraine.

When Buffy, who needs money to keep herself fed, sheltered, and suitably armed, asks for her job back, Lorraine rehires her and dishes out some much-needed motivation. Pointing to her “5 years” button, Lorraine tells her, “I want you to be shooting for this from here on out.”

What Project Managers Can Learn

Motivating your team members is one of the most important things you can do. An interested contributor does better work, and that’s true whether she is your star performer or just working on the line.

Motivation comes in many forms, particularly when the job is a tedious, not-so-stellar bullet point on the resume. But one of the best ways to motivate? Take advice from “Doublemeat Palace” and use yourself as a positive example.

Batman Begins

Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy, hasn’t had much time to spend at the office of Wayne Enterprises, or even in Gotham itself, what with all his training to become an ice ninja. When he returns, he sees how his father’s company has been run by CEO William Earle: with less applied research and more weaponry.

In fact, the unscrupulous Earle even fired Lucius Fox for questioning the disappearance of a microwave emitter—used to release a toxin from Gotham’s water supply—which implies that Earle knew more about the Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul’s psychotropic toxin than the movie admitted to.

So Bruce fires Earle and puts Fox in charge, where presumably, he’ll be doing double-duty as CEO and Batman’s version of Q. Not to mention keeping certain project and cost centers off the books.

What Project Managers Can Learn

Bruce had to shake up Stately Wayne Enterprises because Earle was clearly not a team player. Team building is harder than it looks, because even the most talented people can mix like oil and fire if the chemistry is off. Don’t be afraid to reassign the best and the brightest people to other projects if they’re not a good fit for the others on the team.

It’s nobody’s fault if a team-up doesn’t work—but it’s your fault if you don’t address it.

Ghostbusters

Hot on the heels of realizing that ghosts do indeed exist, three research scientists quickly lose their university funding, their laboratories, and, in Dr. Peter Venkman’s case, the chance to score with naive college girls. But Venkman has a plan. Go into business, specifically “professional paranormal investigations and eliminations.”

Ghostbusting is far from lucrative, until there’s a sudden city-wide increase in paranormal activity. And when something strange is in the neighborhood, ya gonna call the Ghostbusters, because when it comes to playing with spooks, they’re the only game in town.

What Project Managers Can Learn

That wacky, weird idea that nobody else in the organization believes in? Out in venture capital land, that’s called “first mover advantage.” Project managers don’t always direct the course of the company, but if you can identify a particularly interesting project, you can bring it to the attention of people who do.

Investing a little time and effort in speculative ventures can really pay dividends, just so long as you don’t expect them all to be successful projects. (Remember what I said about prototypes in the Robocop section.)

Also: portable nuclear accelerators. Force field traps. Ecto-containment units. PKE meters. The Ghostbusters didn’t seem to get patents on any of their intellectual property. Don’t be those guys.

What did I miss? Which SF movies and shows exemplify the best in project management?

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Photo Credit © Forty42

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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