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Breaking Bad Serves as a Cautionary Tale for Project Managers

You might assume that a television show which portrays the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface would provide more relevance to the logic of paying high school teachers as opposed to being a source of useful lessons for project managers. Hopefully I can correct you of that assumption!

**SPOILER ALERT** This article is published months after the final season aired, so I hope that any reader who has interest in Breaking Bad is already aware of how the show ends, but if not, spoilers are going to be discussed!

In no particular order, here are a few lessons from the story as well as from how the show itself was made.

  1. “Are we in the meth business or the money business?” – Walter White originally started breaking bad as a means to provide for his family after his lung cancer diagnosis, but somewhere along the way, his objectives significantly changed. You might argue with me that there was always a little bad guy within him waiting to get out, but his original intentions were driven by necessity and opportunity. If there is a major shift in a project’s vision, make sure that you work with your project sponsor to help your key stakeholders and team members understand the rationale for the change and what it will mean to them.
  2. “Would you just, for once, stop working me?” – The relationship between Walt and Jesse Pinkman is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show. Walt appears to goes out of his way to protect and promote Jesse, but it is all done to further his agenda. Jesse frequently recognizes that he is being used, but goes along with it to get the recognition and attention from someone whom he considers almost a surrogate father. Project managers often wield a great deal of influence over team members and stakeholders, but there’s a very fine line between influencing someone to do what’s in the best interests of the project, and working them to satisfy your own ego or a personal agenda.
  3. “So, you’re chasing around a fly, and in your world I’m the idiot.” – One of the more amusing episodes of the series takes place during Season 3 when Walt’s chronic insomnia causes him to obsess about the risk of contamination from a single housefly which has entered the meth super lab. His attempts to remove the “contaminant” result in physical injury to him as well as almost maiming Jesse. Tunnel vision can often occur to us on high stress projects – we lose focus on the big picture and begin to obsess on minutiae. This is when having a trusted impartial observer can help to set us straight – so long as we are willing to listen to them!
  4. “We’re just getting started. Nothing stops this train.” – The episode Dead Freight from the final season provides a great example of how a project which appears to be right on track can go horribly wrong if basic expectations for behavior have not been established with team members in advance. After Walt and his crew had successfully pulled off the methylamine heist in almost perfect fashion, Todd Alquist kills an innocent kid who most likely had not even witnessed anything incriminating. Had Walt done a better job of setting his expectations with his team members for handling such unforeseen surprises, things might have gone differently.
  5. “W.W. I mean, who do you figure that is, y’know? Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?” “Heh. You got me.” – Midway through the fifth season, Walt learns his cancer has returned, but having achieved his financial goals is ready to live out his remaining days in peace. Unfortunately, his mistake of not disposing the copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which had been personalized by Gale Boetticher gives his brother-in-law, Hank, the final puzzle piece he needs to connect Walt to the meth empire. While I had indicated in an earlier lesson that obsession is dangerous, a lack of attention to detail can also introduce risk into projects.
  6. “Sell off what we have and then…well, then I guess I’m done.” – Vince Gilligan knew he had a hit on his hands with Breaking Bad after the first season aired and he could have tried to keep milking the cash cow well beyond the fifth and final season. However, having spent several years writing for The X-Files, Gilligan was also well aware of the dangers of a show “jumping the shark”. Ignoring or encouraging gold-plating or other attempts to increase scope might appear to be harmless and in the best interests of the project customer, especially when you are ahead of schedule or below budget, but it’s not the project manager’s place to make such a decision.

To use one of Mike Ehrmantraut’s great quotes, if you ignore these lessons, someone may eventually say to you “If you’d done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now!”

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