Project management lessons from The Martian

spacehelmetRidley Scott’s movie, The Martian, has enjoyed good returns at the box office and has received positive feedback from most film critics and viewers. While it is exciting and funny, the film also manages to showcase some good project management lessons. In case you haven’t seen the movie yet, there are spoilers ahead, so proceed at your own peril!

Validate critical assumptions

It was a reasonable assumption that Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, had perished in the dust storm due to the lack of biometric data being communicated from his suit. However, once the remaining crew members had communicated with NASA that they believed Mark lost, the NASA ground team could have immediately started to review satellite imagery from near the Hab to eliminate any doubts about his status. While they eventually do realize he has survived based on the movements of the rover, a few precious days were lost. While there might not be a benefit in confirming all assumptions made on a project, you should identify the vital few which present the greatest risk of impact to your project outcomes if they are proven to be wrong.

Attitude IS everything

Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds of survival, most people would have given up hope and focused on enjoying the handful of days which they believed would be left to them. Mark briefly contemplates his imminent mortality, but quickly refocuses his efforts on survival. No doubt, his knowledge and experience help him to construct a plan of attack, but his positive attitude and sustained sense of humor ensure that he doesn’t give in to despair. The uncertainty that is native to project work will guarantee a fair share of bad days – we might not be able to control those, but we can control how we respond to them.

Creativity flourishes with constraints

Faced with being marooned on Earth, a castaway might expend valuable time in coming up with options to prolong survival. In the barren Mars environment, with only the contents of the Hab and rover at his disposal, Mark’s is able to narrow his focus to unleash his creativity. When confronting project issues, team members might pursue the path of least resistance resulting in a less than optimal resolution. Introduce smart constraints, and they might be forced to MacGuyver their way to something brilliant.

Stakeholders are your hidden strength

After the failure of first supply probe mission, things look very bleak for Mark. But thanks to the positive relationship between NASA and the Chinese National Space Administration, the opportunity emerges for another shot at it. We might feel that a given stakeholder has low influence or interest in our project – this should never be an invitation to ignore them. You never know when their support might be the last piece of the puzzle required for your project’s success.

Incorporate some of these lessons into your routine and you can help to successfully bring your project home!


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