May the Fourth Be With You: Project Management Lessons from the Star Wars Rebel Alliance
In honor of today’s celebration of all things Star Wars, I thought it would be worthwhile to mine this epic tale for project management lessons. While many have written about the Empire’s challenges constructing the Death Star, I’m interested in what can be learned from the victors, the Rebel Alliance.
Build a Diverse Team
The project team in A New Hope was fairly diverse. (Okay, not great gender diversity, considering everyone but Leia was male). Their ages varied, ranging from 19-year-old Luke and Leia to 200-year-old Chewbacca. Some were biological; others droids. Some were experienced; others less so. Some thoughtful, others prone to action.
Obi-wan was a Jedi master and military commander. Leia, despite her young age, was an experienced diplomat. Han and Chewie had extracted themselves from many a tough situation. And Luke was courageous, enthusiastic, hardworking, and force-sensitive. R2-D2 was a veritable Swiss Army knife of capabilities. His tools and skillset included the ability to communicate with main frame computers, a fire extinguisher, spaceship repair, and data storage. C-3PO was good for comic relief without being too annoying (see Binks, Jar Jar). Everyone brought their unique gifts to the team, and gave 100% (except C-3PO).
Better to have diversity than a team who are all very good at the same thing. Diversity brings different approaches, which makes innovative solutions more likely.
I once worked with a team of smart, young engineers. They were great about asking the experienced engineers for design reviews or brainstorming sessions. They were open about trying new ideas and quickly built prototypes to test their ideas. In a few weeks, they had a working proof-of-concept for a problem that our client had worked months on without progress. A team of just the “grey hairs” or just the young’uns would not have been as effective.
Work the Problem
When presented with a problem, our heroes never gave up. They continued to work whatever problem they were presented with. When Han, Chewbacca, Luke, and Lela were trapped in the cell block on the Death Star, they just kept working the problem:
- Escape the attacking storm troopers by shooting open the garbage chute and jumping into the trash compactor
- Shoot the door, which was magnetically sealed, so that it would not open
- Save Luke from the monster
- Use material in the compactor to keep from being crushed
- Call C-3PO and R2-D2, who stopped the compactor and opened the door by talking to the main frame computer
Sure, there was some insults hurled and not every idea worked. But they kept at it until they had a solution.
Often when working on a project, things don’t go as you planned: one of your risks becomes an issue, a requirement changes, or a key contributor leaves the team. Focus on the problem that you need to solve, not the one you planned to solve.
It’s also important that your stakeholders know how things have changed. It’s possible that the proper response to the new situation is to cancel the project, and the stakeholders must be given an opportunity to recommit to the new plan or cancel the project.
Share Your Plan
For project managers, creating a plan and not sharing it with the entire team is a common mistake.
In the beginning of A New Hope, the construction plans of the Death Star are uploaded by Leia into R2-D2, and no one else sees the plans until the team arrives at Yavin IV. Until then, R2-D2 is a single point of failure. If he’s destroyed, the project fails. [Spoiler Alert] The Rebel Alliance does not learn of the weakness designed into the Death Star. And, thus, Luke cannot destroy the Death Star.
Why not give everyone a copy, so that if anyone gets to the Rebel base, the project will succeed?
Have you ever worked on a project where the PM has created a detailed plan in MS Project, and the only copy of the plan is on the PM’s computer?
Even if everyone had a copy of the .MPP file, most engineers don’t have MS Project on their computer. Maybe the PM converted the plan to MS Excel. But now the plan doesn’t have the dependencies and critical path clearly labeled. The team can’t interact with the plan and point out where it’s out-of-date.
That’s why I prefer using web-based tools, like LiquidPlanner. It’s easy to share the plan with the entire team and easily get their input in the creation of the plan.
Use the Force (Go with Your Gut)
The most important lesson from the rebels is that sometimes you need to “use the force” to make decisions with incomplete information.
I’m not suggesting we go through our project with the blast shield down, unable to see what’s is right in front of your face. But there are times, especially early in a project when there’s a lot of uncertainty, that even with your eyes wide open there’s no way to be certain what the right path is.
That’s when you use the force to understand what is that best path through the asteroid field.
As project managers, it’s nice to be able to look at a plan, focus on the work breakdown structure and critical path, and know what the most important tasks are. But sometimes things aren’t that clear, and you’ll have to fall back on experience to provide direction. Tools like a risk register can help, but they don’t stand in for being force-sensitive.
Your mission may not be “vital to the survival of the Rebellion”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Every project deserves a solid team with the needed skills and a “work the problem” attitude. Every project manager needs to share their plan and communicate to meet their stakeholders’ needs.
And sometimes, you just need to set the flight computer aside and pull the trigger like you’re shooting womp rats back on Tatooine. Maybe you won’t get a medal at the end, but neither did Chewie or R2-D2. They understood that success is its own reward.