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Project management and the movies – episode 5 – Cast away

Cast away – The writers must be fans of Maslow


Michael Wood | 7 March 2014

Cast away – The writers must be fans of Maslow

In this blog I want to explore the film "Cast Away" 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 discussions.

Cast Away is a wonderful desert island film starring the equally wonderful Tom Hanks. From Splash through Toy Story to Captain Phillips, there is nothing he touches that doesn't turn to gold. But this is not about Tom Hanks, this blog is about the journey Mr Hanks goes through in Cast Away and what it has to say about motivational theories, in particular Maslow's "Hierarchy of needs".

Abraham Maslow was one of the founders of motivational theory, in my opinion many motivational techniques, such as Two-factor theory, stem from his idea that the needs that drive us to do one thing and not another are in a hierarchy - a prioritised list, with some things more important to us than others. Maslow suggested that as individuals we address different needs before others, and only address later needs once those earlier needs are mostly met. What I would like to do is talk about each of the five original need groups and compare them to the film Cast away.

  1. Physiological - Maslow said that the highest priority group is the physical needs that we have; food, shelter, sleep etc. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks washes up on the shore of his desert island after a plane crash, and his first thought is to get dry, sort out his injured leg, and find food. Only when he is dry and has constructed a shelter does he start to concern himself with…
  2. Safety - the need to protect yourself. Tom starts to hear strange noises in the jungle behind him, he becomes fearful and eventually investigates what they are. They turn out to be coconuts falling from trees.  Tom then explores to island, to find out if he can escape, and, you would imagine, to check there are no dangers lurking out there.  Once satisfied that he cannot escape but is no immediate danger he turns to…
  3. Social - the need for other people, company. Tom finds a volleyball, which he christens "Wilson" and begins talking to.  It is only a few days into his exile on the island, but now that his physical and security needs are met, he becomes lonely, and invents a companion to engage with. We then spin on four years in the story, and Tom has become pretty self-sufficient, and has had Wilson around to talk to for a long time, and so he begins to worry about…
  4. Recognition - the need to have a positive image with others. Tom now starts arguing with Wilson. He has gone from just being happy to have someone to talk to, to needing to win arguments with him. Of course, there is also the possibility that his loneliness has left Tom a bit unhinged, but even so, in his loneliness he still kicks Wilson out of his cave when he starts losing arguments with him.  He is then rescued, or aids in his own rescue more accurately. He is then home, fed, safe, with people, loved - except by the one woman whose love he cherishes above all. This leads him to….
  5. Self-actualisation - the need to find meaning and purpose in life. Tom ends up roaming the country, with a new volleyball to talk to. He does not simply go back to his old job. It appears from the film ending that he is looking for a new meaning in life. I should have mentioned that Tom Hank's character works for FedEx, and during the early part of the film he rescued a parcel which he was determined to have delivered. In this final part of the film he takes the parcel to its final destination, albeit four years late. In this way Tom is looking at his life goals, and reassessing what he wants to do with his life, completing outstanding goals and setting new ones. Maslow suggests that at this level, once all our needs are met, or needs turn outward, reflecting a need to make a mark in the world, to do something worthwhile with our life, and to help others. Pretty hard to do when you are starving to death on an island.


Motivation is a key element in project management . Project Managers are often trying to get their team to do things that ordinarily they would not do on their own; work overtime for free, or satisfy stakeholder needs they do not think are important. Maslow has a lot to say to the average PM; find what your team needs and go for the lowest level they have first. It's amazing what effect a £20 coffee filter machine can have on helping to satisfy physiological needs in your team. Perhaps you can't get them a pay rise (also physiological) or guarantee their job is safe (security level).  But you can at least make them feel wanted and valued by you, and you would be amazed how much a team will do for a manager who values them.

So, castaway, if you are on a desert island, do it Maslow style!

QA Training | Michael Wood

Michael Wood

Learning Programme Manager

Michael has been teaching at QA for 12 years and is the lead trainer for MSP, managing successful programmes. Before this he worked with the public sector to implement initiatives such as the egovernment agenda. Michael has also project and programme managed many large scale implementations in the construction industry and in web technologies and ecommerce, as well as enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution for some well know utility and communications organisations. Michael believes in teaching in a down-to-earth style, using everyday real examples and injecting a bit of humour!
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