Michael Wood | 11 April 2013
The Italian job – sponsor engagement, issues management and team development
In a new series of blogs I wanted to explore famous films and
what they have to say about project and programme management.
First, I want to discuss "The Italian Job", the iconic 60's robbery
film starring Noel Coward and Michael Caine. I suppose in
true blog fashion I should start by shouting SPOILER ALERT! I
may be giving away key plot points in my discussions.
As I often tell my delegates, illegal and unadvised though they are, a robbery is a project. Granted the stakes are often higher, the cost/benefit/risk analysis is influenced by the fact that if it goes wrong you could all go to jail. This is not just the case for this film; if you look at any robbery film, from Ocean's Eleven to Reservoir Dogs, you can see many examples of project management theory.
It starts with Charlie Croker (Caine) receiving a taped presentation from his dead friend explaining how the gold delivery in Turin could be hijacked by disrupting the traffic system. This is the equivalent of a project mandate. There is some broad information but no mention of how to get the gold, simply that the traffic jam would aid the escape, from this Charlie is supposed to form the project himself.
First, he needs funding to start it up; he goes to see Mr Bridger (portrayed fabulously by Noel Coward) in the famous "someone broke into my toilet" scene. He explains the value to Britain of taking the gold from Italy, knowing that Mr Bridger is a fierce patriot, thus altering his communication to suit his audience, like any good PM. Although at first Mr Bridger refuses, changes in the political climate cause him to change his mind and offer the funding. This is common in projects; a business case that does not seem beneficial at one time may become so later.
Next, Croker puts his team together; the scene where he introduces the team is very reminiscent of a project kick off. There is big William, the bus driver, the three mini drivers, the heavies who will hijack the gold itself, and Professor Peach (Benny Hill), the IT expert who will rig the traffic system. Each brings different skills, and come from different backgrounds. Croker makes a point of introducing each one and outlining their role and responsibilities, and then squashes any issues about working together by enforcing his position, "It's a very difficult job and the only way to get through it is we all work together as a team. And that means you do everything I say.."
Then there is the risks and issues, they know about the police, but the sponsor, Mr Bridger, brings to their attention another stakeholder who is in a position of high power and high interest against the project; the mafia. The team must incorporate this new development into their plans, including coping with the destruction of their cars by the mafia when they enter Italy. Mr Bridger arranges a funeral for his "Aunt Nellie" and delivers a speech to the team, explaining that they had better think about making sure they do the job right, or "Nellie here will turn in her grave, and, likely as not, jump right out of it and kick your teeth in!" This is an example of the sponsor motivating the team using leadership; he is not speaking about exact elements of the plan, but offering "inspiration" and making the team aware of the consequences of failure.
During the planning phase there are tests, such as trying to drive the minis into the truck, and quality control testing, where we hear probably Michael Caine's most famous quote "you're only supposed to blow the bl**dy doors off!" This planning allows the job to be carried off with the minimum of unexpected incident. If they hadn't tested the explosive for the doors, they could easily have blown up the trucks, gold and all.
Before the job begins, Charlie brings everyone together and over a map of Turin and goes through every step the team will take, this is similar to Mr Bridger's speech earlier, but goes into more detail about how the job will be delivered, and is designed to ensure it is delivered successfully, rather than just to motivate. This is exactly like a planning session before the execution of any project in the commercial world.
Finally, we come to the ultimate issue; big William ends up driving the bus too erratically and it ends up half hanging over a cliff with the stolen gold at one end, and our heroes at the other. Various attempts at a solution are made, until the film ends with the project manager, Charlie Croker, suggesting that he "has an idea" for a resolution to the issue. Like all good projects, just when you think you are home free, something knocks you off the rails. It is also worth noting that he doesn't blame the driver at this point, like all good project managers Charlie goes into problem solving mode first, not finger pointing.
So, The Italian Job; it is a good example of how to run a project, but also just a very, very good British film.