5 Project Management Horror Stories Found in Sci-Fi Movies

Remember how we told you that science fiction has many good take-away lessons for the project manager looking for tips? Well, it’s still true. But it’s equally true that there are plenty of horror stories about project management in sci-fi. That’s because conflict makes for good drama… and attacks from aliens and robots make awesome drama.

Here’s what project managers can learn from even the worst projects we see in the movies.

2001

Computers are an important part of our daily lives; after all, without them, we can’t easily access our favorite websites. It’s even more important in our work lives. After all, without computers, we can’t easily access our budget spreadsheets and our favorite websites. Although no PC/Mac/Linux system is perfect—we will always have buggy programs and vendor woes—you can at least light a candle to St. Ada Lovelace that you don’t have a HAL 9000. In the film 2001, HAL 9000 lost its heuristically programmed algorithmic mind and went on a four-man murder spree.

There’s a reason that HAL went half crazy, and it wasn’t for the love of Daisy. HAL, which went to Jupiter along with a five-person team, was given two conflicting missions: 1) report accurate information to the crew of the Discovery One, and 2) keep the true purpose of the mission hidden. Unable to reconcile this conflict, HAL took the initiative to ensure that none of the crew would be able to blab about the monolith’s transmission from the moon to Jupiter, ever. (And now we all know. Uh-oh.)

(In Alien, the android Ash saw to the death of most of the crew of the Nostromo, but returning to Earth with the xenomorph was his priority. The safety of the crew, sadly, was not.)

What Project Managers Can Learn

There’s nothing more injurious to a project’s success than conflicting requirements. If team members feel the deliverables don’t make sense, they need to be able to say so without fear of reprisal from their management. Then you, as the project manager, need to figure out how to reconcile the requirements—which often means raising the problem to your own managers without fear of reprisal. (This is what they call “managing upwards”).

Sometimes conflicting requirements are owned by different team members (or in larger organizations, different teams). If your project has poor communication (come in, Prometheus) nobody’s going to notice until far too late. Guess whose job it is to facilitate the communication and make sure the requirements are aligned? Yup, that’s why they pay you.

Captain America

Of all the soldiers at our disposal during World War II, it’s 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers who gets to receive a serum that makes him super-fied. Dr. Erskine decided to promote the recruit to the position of Captain America because of Rogers’ compassion and bravery. Dr. Erskine may have put on his thinking cap when it came to Cap, but when it came to the super-soldier project as a whole, his smarts sputtered to a halt.

Mere moments after Dr. Erskine turned Rogers into the First Avenger, he was assassinated… and took the details of his serum to his grave. Had Erskine not kept the project in his own noggin, America might have had an entire super-soldier corps. Heck, World War II could have ended months or years sooner than it did. But no.

Thanks a lot, Dr. Erskine.

What Project Managers Can Learn

Poor documentation is the bane of many a project that might otherwise have been successful. But as it turns out, if your team can’t explain it well, it probably doesn’t work well either. This problem is exacerbated when the exact knowledge of how different parts operate is locked up inside the heads of individual contributors.

Plus, there’s a real temptation to skip that pesky “explanation of how it works” in the drive to meet deadlines. But allowing your team the time to document the project’s design and operations does more than make it much easier to maintain it once it’s in production. It also may contribute to the longevity of your project: When a key contributor leaves the company, you won’t be left with poor instructions that can’t build a super-soldier, but can make a super-soaker to drench your career prospects.

Aliens

In Alien (1979), Ellen Ripley survived an encounter with a xenomorph, a.k.a. a two-jawed phallic hellbeast, and in Aliens (1987), she’s back for more action. Ripley returns to the ill-fated planet LV-426 on the condition that she’s there specifically for xenocide and that the events of Prometheus are in no way canon.

Except the Weyland-Yutani executive, Carter Burke has another scheme in mind. Why destroy the xenomorphs when the bio-weapons division could use them to make a profit? It’s not a best-laid plan, yet it goes very much awry. As Carter had put it earlier in the film, a few deaths were involved.

What Project Managers Can Learn

What happens when you find yourself working with a problem employee who threatens the success of your project? Listening is the key. Learn why your contributor isn’t on the same page as everyone else. And remember to ask follow-up questions, so you can understand what the team member is saying.

There are no simple solutions to a problem employee, although setting simpler goals and checking in more frequently is one possible answer. But sometimes listening to her concerns, and explaining what you require, can clear the air.

Or you could always feed him to an alien.

Star Wars

There’s a reason the name “Darth Vader” strikes fear into the hearts of schoolchildren and psychologists alike. He’s deep voiced and faceless and does not hesitate to get his murder on in pursuit of the Emperor’s goals. He’s wicked with a lightsaber, too. As the Emperor’s right-hand man (who ironically lacks a right hand), it’s his job to make sure that the rebellion is crushed like so many windpipes.

Speaking of windpipes, watch what happens when someone comes out of lightspeed too close to a planet, thus negating the element of surprise. Or fails to track an enemy ship. Or just gives him lip.

No wonder the Empire referred to its enemies as “the Rebellion” instead of “the Terrorists.” All of the terror came directly from them.

What Project Managers Can Learn

The first thing project managers can learn from this experience is that leading through terror is demotivating. Your smartest and most able contributors will not rise to the occasion, realizing that their best strategy for a long-term career is to avoid getting promoted at all costs as your project devolves into Bantha poodoo.

As a result, your most active and vocal contributors will either be 1) the least qualified to do the job (but excellent at passing the blame) or 2) planning to promote you to an early grave so they can take your place—something Vader’s master suggests to his son Luke. What goes around comes around.

The second thing project managers can learn from this experience is to never, ever give Darth Vader lip.

Prometheus

There was so much wrong in the 2012 movie Prometheus that it’s hard to see what was right. But project manager Meredith Vickers was the winner in this competition of bad. With an icy, demanding personality, instead of boosting the team’s spirits—or even introducing them to each other before their mission to space—she let the crew of the Prometheus know who called the shots. Hint: Not them.

But the most important fault to lay at her feet: She hired that contemptible ensemble of a crew. The captain who had no interest in his destination. (“I just fly the ship.”) The geologist who has no interest in camaraderie. (“I’m here to make money.”) The biologist who had no interest in taking precautions with an undiscovered species. (“It’s crushing my arm!”) They may have looked good on paper. Had she conducted even a preliminary job interview, she would have realized that these people were not employee of the year material. Or even employee material.

What Project Managers Can Learn

Watch Vickers, then do exactly the opposite of everything she does. Unlike her:

  • Hire the right people. Enthusiasm for the job is one of the qualities a hiring manager should place highly on their list of qualities. The best employees train themselves with any additional skills they need, so long as they care enough to want to. They still need to be qualified to do the job, though. If your biologist is scared of a dead alien, he’s probably not your ideal first pick.
  • When you build your team, make sure they play well with one another. It helps if they meet each other prior to starting the actual project.
  • Set the expectations and priorities, and let your people figure out how to meet them. Solicit feedback before proceeding. You did hire them to have the skills exactly so they can do that, right?
  • Vickers introduced herself to her stakeholders with the line, “It’s my job to make sure you do yours.” Try the exceedingly more personable, “My job is to make sure you have everything you need to do yours.”

Surely there are more SF movies that can act as guidance for what a project manager should not do? Share them with me in the comments.













Photo Credit © StarsNewsOnline

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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  • Jeff

    I don’t know which article was more enlightening or entertaining, these two or the project management lessons from The Walking Dead you wrote. Keep them coming!

    [Reply]

  • gotheek

    I’d suggest pacific rim with project manager idris Elba and his team of scientists and grunts versus the governments who rip funding away for an alternate untested project.

    [Reply]

  • gotheek

    Another is gravity: an unrelated project (destruction of a rocket) having fatal effects on one that’s working perfectly well. Within this story is the alternate pm discussion around managers (in this case mission control) not listening to the concerns of a team member (Sandra bullock)

    [Reply]

  • http://codeflow.org/ Florian Bösch

    Clever as the discussion might be, I figure there’s a fairly easy way to explain the harrowing tales that movies tell about project management.

    It starts with the screenplay, written by people who by far and large are freelancers (who are already naturally predispositioned against employment/management scenarios) and enthusiasts (who wouldn’t know anything about project managment in the first place), who often are at the receiving end of any number of abuses by their clients. Naturally, their work experience or lack thereof weaves itself into the scripts they write.

    The next cruical step in the development of larger than life management failures is the hollywood industrial complex itself. It’s steeped in ancient anachronisms and organization structures, often the battlefield of personal powerplays, a misfitting ensemble of people is stuck together in a temporary company by a large and anonymous mother company and given the vaguely defined goal of producing a movie based on a screenplay the director probably hates. It’s organized like an army with a strict hirarchical structure and is rife with micromanagment.

    If that sounds like every fictional company in nearly every movie that hollywood produced, that’s because that’s their own “template”. They’re merely mirroring their reality onto the screen transmoglified by a storyline and regurgitated by actors.

    [Reply]

  • Colin Rosenthal

    The Lord Of The Rings: if Sauron had employed a proper risk-management strategy he’d still be on the Throne in the Dark Tower today.

    [Reply]

  • glasper9

    “the Weyland-Yutani executive, Carter Burke has another scheme in mind.
    Why destroy the xenomorphs when the bio-weapons division could use them
    to make a profit?”

    Except Carter Burke is obeying instructions from higher management. He isn’t a “problem employee”, he’s a good, loyal employee who’s faithfully obeying instructions. The “management lesson” intended is that when people are part of large corporations, they are capable of extreme sociopathy. And I would suggest you’re already well on the way to corporate sociopath status yourself if you shoehorn movies into “management lesson” lists like this instead of reflecting on what film-makers are actually trying to say.

    [Reply]

    AlfredoC Reply:

    Oh look! It’s THAT guy. Lighten up dude.

    It would however be more apt to say that Carter Burke was a problem teammate rather than a problem employee. The reasons and lessons would be more applicable then.

    Or if things go wrong just nuke the project from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

    [Reply]

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  • Scott Falkner

    2001: I disagree.

    HAL was programmed to put the mission above the lives of the crew. When he was threatened with disconnection, the mission was jeopordized because only HAL knew the true mission — investigation the transmission from TMA1. This made Dave and Frank expendable. Once the astronauts were dead, HAL killed the rest of the crew to protect himself from possible shutdown when they awoke.

    HAL did not have conflicting orders and HAL did not go insane. HAL followed orders.

    [Reply]

  • Alex Eldridge

    In Europa Report, the team seeks to complete the project after they have lost their method of communication. They do finally restore communication at the end and with their last transmission they communicate the project’s success in finding another life form, but they all die.

    They would have had a greater chance of survival if they had kept trying to repair their communications, but of course that would have destroyed the premise for the movie.

    Faulty communication, or weirdly unusual communication that generates surprises, is almost a necessity for sci fi film projects.

    [Reply]

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  • linda

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  • Ella Mapple

    Wonderful article. But recently if you are looking
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  • Justin Lowe

    Interesting article I might say! Imagine the projects they have to run. In 300 million movie budget imagine how many departments and project managers are needed. PMP certification is needed. http://pmhigherlearning.com/

    [Reply]