Michael Wood | 31 January 2014
Star Wars – Planning and quality, leadership and risk management
In this blog I want to explore the film franchise "Star Wars"
and what it has to say about project and programme management. As
with my previous film blogs, I should start by shouting SPOILER
ALERT! I may be giving away key plot points in my
Anyone who has been alive for the last 40 years has at least heard of Star Wars. The six films (with more to come) are iconic landmarks in film history (well the first 3 are, and by first 3 I mean of course the old ones). I am a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to Sci-fi, and so I like my Star Wars Jar-Jar Binks free, thanks!
Anyway, I'm going to tackle all of the films at once, as there are many elements in all the films that echo project management. First…
Risk Management - for me, the first (fourth) Star Wars film, "A New Hope", has the greatest lesson in film with regards to risk management - that pesky exhaust port, just above the main port, on the Death Star.
The Imperials, especially the devilish Peter Cushing, view the risk of the Death Star being blown up by someone hitting that port as negligible. In fact Cushing's character displays a classic sponsor response when it is raised "I think you overestimate their chances!" and this is without even hearing what the risk is. There's no delusion like self-delusion. The rebels, on the other hand, see it as "their only hope". Even though the chances are remote, they have no other option. So in analysis, the risk is seen as low probability (the port is very small and shielded so needs to be hit by a torpedo) and high impact, to the rebels, but a virtually non-existent possibility to the Empire.
Of course, this is Hollywood, so Luke Skywalker uses his as yet undiscovered force sensitivity to guide that bad boy straight down the exhaust tube. This proves something most Project Managers learn the hard way; no matter how remote a chance, if something can go wrong, it usually does - or Murphy's law as it is known locally.
The moral? Even if a risk is unlikely, it is always worth a bit of analysis, and if the work needed is minimal (a grill would probably have done the job) then why not do it on the off chance? Saying "it won't happen" is a sure-fire way of egging fate on, just so it can make it happen and rub your face in it. As Terry Pratchett once said "one in a million chances happen nine times out of ten".
Quality - In "Return of the Jedi" the empire constructs a new Death Star, and there is an interesting observation about quality, and its partner, grade here.
Quality is how "fit for purpose" a product is i.e. how well can it do its job. Generally speaking when we refer to something being "quality" we mean good; "quality used cars", "quality sofas". What is actually being referred to here is grade i.e. how "good" something is. In quality vernacular, a "quality" sofa, is a sofa that is fit for purpose i.e. you can sit on it, "sofas you can sit on" doesn't have the same ring though.
There is a very important lesson here though that I think is essential to project management. The second Death Star looks half made; it has holes in it, it has pieces missing - but this is a trick, it is actually fully operational and starts laying into the rebel fleet when they turn up. The Death Star Two is "low grade" i.e. it looks broken and half-finished, but it is "high quality" - it is very fit for purpose. As time and cost are usually so very important to our clients, quality is too. It is linked to time and cost, and so our client will invariably want "everything" for the price and in the time of "half of everything". One way round this is extend the original quality term "fit for purpose", by adding "and nothing more."
In other words, stick with the purpose of the product and build that, not the bells and whistles that would make it high grade. This will ensure you deliver on time, as the project team did for the Death Star.
Leadership - In "Return of the Jedi", we get more of an insight into the empire's approach to project management. Darth Vader arrives at the mid-construction point of the new Death Star for a progress meeting with the project manager. He reports that the corporate board (the emperor) is "most displeased with your apparent lack of progress." The PM gives the age-old excuse of "a lack of resources."
Mr Vader uses a tried and tested leadership skill, a motivation technique that B.F. Skinner, the father of behavioural psychology, called "positive punishment". He threatens the PM basically - do it or the emperor will do something terrible to you. Of course, this is not always possible; you may not have the authority or the leverage to suggest terrible consequences for a lack of co-operation, but as a leader you do have to stand your ground sometimes. This does not mean you need to go around threatening people, but sometimes your technical staff are either unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that they can get the job done if they just "redouble their efforts". Of course good leaders know when to give a little, when to be calming and conciliatory, but your team will also respect you when you say "no, it has to be done at this time in this way," so long as it is justified.
Star Wars; the empire may have been oppressive and merciless, but at least they could get a space station built on time…