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PPM at the Movies (Part 2)

As a film fan, I personally enjoy watching movies that teach you something. The sort of cinematic treat that has you leaving the end credits a different person (even in just a small way). Similarly, some of the most interesting projects I have worked on during my career are the ones where I have learnt lessons the “hard” way. Nobody sets out to fail in project delivery but when failure strikes, it serves a valuable learning experience to walk away capable of learning from it.

Some of the silver screen’s greatest cinematic successes carry valuable project management lessons (if you know where to look for them):

Reason for failure = Lack of skills and proven approach to project and risk management.

Star Wars – Probably the biggest project management fail in cinematic history. Darth Vader got his Death Star but where was his Risk Manager screaming at the small hole in the side that could blow the whole thing up? More importantly, where was the Project Manager looking at design options and contingency plans? “I know, Lord Vader, it’s a bit of a glitch but we have a workaround in place; we put the hole right at the end of a long corridor and line it with guns and stuff. Nobody could make that shot, anyway...” We never meet the Empire’s project team but you can guess what happened at their Post Implementation Review!

Lesson learnt: Even the Force won’t save you from poor project management...

Reason for failure = Lack of clear link between the project and the organisation’s strategic priorities, including measures of good performance.

Jurassic World – One of the highest grossing movies of all time and throughout the entire franchise there is one mistake that they repeat over and over. Different organisations use the same premise (creating dinosaurs) for different strategic reasons; scientific curiosity, profit, glory, entertainment, etc. Though we never see it, I wonder if any of these organisations had a Key Performance Indicator around the number of deaths from dinosaur attacks? By the time the fourth film comes around, one has to wonder why businesses (even those run by wealthy idiots) sign up to a strategy that has failed so many times in such spectacularly gruesome ways?

Lesson learnt: What is the point in delivering a project successfully if it is not done for the right reasons…

Reason for failure = Lack of clear senior management ownership and leadership.

The Lord of The Rings – You have to feel sorry for poor Frodo. In a world filled with armies of Men, Elves and Dwarves, one little hobbit had to deliver the big change pretty much on his own (no offence, Samwise). Walking the One Ring all the way to the fires of Mount Doom could have been made easier for him with a little senior authority support. If you think that he had a wizard as his Senior Responsible Owner, that only took him so far (especially when the SRO went wandering off to fight his own battles). They could have at least given him a map! Just a few more helping hands from powerful, influential supporters would have had Frodo back home in Bag End just in time for second breakfast!

Lesson learnt: Even the smallest heroes need a little help from the mighty and powerful...

Reason for failure = Evaluations are driven by initial price rather than long-term value for money (especially business benefits delivery).

Brewster’s Millions – a classic comedy with a very real message about pursuing longer term benefits (or “short term = bad, long term = good”). The objective for Richard Pryor’s character is spending $30m in 30 days in order to win a $300m inheritance, which provides some clever takes on the notion of sound investment decisions leading to bigger gains. As well as some relevant lessons about wasting resources, I also think there is a great lesson in here about innovation in achieving value for money. If you doubt me, check out the scene when Brewster buys the world’s most expensive stamp…

Lesson learnt: A robust cost benefits analysis will lead to wins for all (if managed right)...

Reason for failure = Lack of effective team integration between project staff, partners and suppliers.

Toy Story – Woody made everything more difficult for himself when Buzz first arrived. He brought something different to the team, new skills and abilities that (as we eventually found out) made the whole group function better. But that ol’ cowboy did not want to integrate a newcomer into his operation, nor did he want Buzz to “be himself” in doing so. This brilliant animated masterpiece is full of many existential teachings but Woody learned the hard way the importance of developing strong interrelationships within the team in the right way.

Lesson learnt: When a new piece of the puzzle arrives, embrace it instead of resisting it...

Reason for failure = Lack of understanding of and contact with the supply industry at senior levels in the organisation.

The Hunger Games – hear me out on this one. The dystopian future that Suzanne Collins developed for our enjoyment might have worked out in the end. The big mistake? Their tactic for engaging the people who actually made society function was to ritualistically murder their children and dress it up as a reality talent show! Surely President Snow and his think tank could have come up with a better way of getting their suppliers (not just the customers in the rich, “better off” Districts) to buy into the idea of peace and an end to war. Revolution could have been avoided with just a better supplier management strategy from the beginning (or at least, a willingness to adapt).

Lesson learnt: Dictatorial projects run by fear rather than collaboration are doomed to failure...

You can see the biggest lessons in project management history in some of the biggest movies and franchises of all what? What is the point of finding these lessons if you don’t learn from them? Or am I just running out of fun ideas for a blog?

Fortunately for you, not only have Hollywood’s brightest directors illustrated them for you but there is a lot of work across the project delivery profession (and probably within your own organisation) that looks at the most common reasons why projects fail and attempts to address them before you even start on your journey. Check out the Government's Project Delivery Profession for a list of the most common causes of project failure and you will see some familiar lessons without the big budget blockbusters.

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