Winter is coming, ladies and gentlemen. Winter is coming! In just a few short days, the twisted plots, betrayals, and subterfuge across the Seven Kingdoms will unfold in the fifth Game of Thrones season. If you’re a fellow GoT fan, you’re well aware of the political and strategic anglings that make the show so addictive.
Have you noticed there are several business lessons that can be gleaned from the show? I decided to see past the gore and flawed characters and found five project management lessons buried across the kingdoms, from the Great Hall of the Red Keep to The Wall at Castle Black. These might not be the greatest of humans—but we can learn from their strengths, successes and glorious mistakes.
[SPOILER ALERT] If you’re still catching up for the new season, there are some giveaways here.
1. Know the players
There are lessons to learn from watching Varys, the Master of Whispers, who works off a network of informants spread over two continents. He shows us how important it is to understand your stakeholders and all the key players in your project. If you’re implementing a project or selling services, you need to understand who the major decision-makers are and build a plan to address their concern and needs. Project management professionals call this stakeholder analysis. Varys seems to always have an answer and the source of his knowledge stems from understanding all the players in this game of thrones and kingmakers.
2. You don’t have to fight every battle
If you’re going to play the game of project management thrones, you need to know when to make your move, and that you can’t turn everything into a battle. Take Theon Greyjoy, as an example. At every turn, he found dissatisfaction and picked a fight everywhere he went. Things did not turn out well for him.
Project management is a game of influence, in part because project managers often don’t have direct control of the project team or the stakeholders. I’ve experienced situations where I couldn’t successfully influence stakeholders to move in the direction that I thought was best. My initial reaction was to fight the battle, state my position and defend its reasoning. One of my favorite executives encouraged me to simply wait it out, and forego the confrontation. Over time, the issue resolved itself and I didn’t have to waste time “churning the waters.”
For project managers, this can be frustrating because we want to close open issues and move to the next one. If it is a politically charged issue, it may be best to take a pause and wait.
3. Have a trial-by-combat option
If you ever needed an excellent example of risk transference, just watch Tyrion Lannister in action. Tyrion is crafty and strategic but is also physically disadvantaged, a serious problem when you’re trying to get ahead in an era of fighting-to-the-death confrontations. So, he uses his strongman Bronn as his trial-by-combat champion. Bronn literally fights his battles for him, starting with the one where he defeats Lysa Arryn’s champion in the Eyrie. When the risk of a swordfight becomes a reality for Tyrion, he has a plan in place.
As a project manager, you’re anticipating and managing risk throughout the lives of your projects. You need risk mitigation options readily available. This could mean making tough decisions to postpone projects until you have enough resources available, or finding ways to transfer the work (and risk) to an outside vendor who has the muscle to handle the challenge.
Tyrion tried to use this risk transference strategy a second time with Bronn during his trial for King Joffrey’s murder. Bronn declined and Tyrion had to find another risk management option. Fortunately, he found the Viper to take on the Mountain, which, in one of the more memorable GoT episodes didn’t work out too well for the Viper. Tyrion however, had a risk management plan and survived.
4. Know who to trust
This lesson is not only relevant to the social aspects of project management but also to survive the corporate jungle—and the battle for the Seven Kingdoms. Workplace politics and battlefield tactics can get downright nasty at times: the terse emails, people working their hidden agendas, betrayals, beheadings . . .
In the very first episode, “Winter Is Coming,” Eddard Stark is visited by his old friend King Robert Baratheon. Stark makes a series of agreements based on the history of a friendship—despite a few warning signs. Stark becomes the king’s hand, entrusts himself to the wily Petyr Baelish, and then loses his head in a grand betrayal. On the other hand, Daenerys Targaryen recognizes her brother’s problematic motives, “fires” him, and surrounds herself with a team that puts her on the throne and gives her the title Mother of Dragons.
It’s important to know who to trust when you need to raise sensitive issues. In some organizational cultures, announcing that a project is in the red is either embraced or discouraged. Figure out where your culture leans and learn how to respond effectively. If a management-appointed team member isn’t fulfilling his or her role, or if you’re having difficulty with your immediate boss, this can be a sensitive subject. Consider what information you want to share, who’s the most appropriate person to share it with, and whether it should be shared at all (or when).
5. Develop your influence and credibility over time
Project managers are often faced with new teams, new stakeholders and new jobs in unfamiliar companies. Even experienced PMs are eager to make their mark as the fresh face on a project team. As the new person, the best thing you can do is to focus on the delivery fundamentals, resolve issues and deliver values to gain your stakeholders’ confidence.
Take Jon Snow, as an example. The illegitimate son of Eddard Stark gets the cold shoulder from his stepmother and leaves the family to join the motley brotherhood of the Night’s Watch. Familiar with being the outsider, Jon exhibits patience, perseverance, and tremendous skill, and eventually wins over his brothers who turn to him for leadership.
By introducing new ideas slowly, delivering value throughout the project and building credibility and influence, you’ll see your own ideas flourish. Remember to develop your influence with each connection you make in the organization.
Let’s circle back to Varys, who spent his entire career developing his network of influence and cultivating his “little birds.” Your professional network, inside and outside your company, will support your success as you play your own (civilized) game of professional thrones.
With all these lessons, it makes me wonder which GoT character would make the best project manager. I’d put all my Gold Dragons on Tyrion as he’d find a way to achieve the goal despite all the obstacles. If Cersei was running the project, I’d doubt I’d survive—literally—her project status review.
Which Game of Thrones characters would you most like to work for?