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Five Lessons that Project Managers can Learn from Star Trek

Learning using analogy is a common approach used when gaining knowledge, and as most project managers will likely have seen at least a few episodes of the original Star Trek series, here are some PM lessons to be learned from the valiant crew of the Starship Enterprise (beyond knowing when not to wear a red shirt!). 

  1. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC). This tenet of Vulcan philosophy supports the rationale for cross-functional teams.  The diversity of the Enterprise’s crew contributed both varied experiences and versatility to their shared purpose and demonstrated that the whole can be more than just the sum of the parts.  Project managers sometimes complain about the challenges of building teams with resources that come from different backgrounds and departments, but it is this variety that can help overcome the toughest project issues or come up with truly innovative solutions.
  2. Leverage the Specialized Skills of Your Team Members (and don’t get in their way!)  While Captain Kirk might have had a general understanding of most disciplines, he still knew when to defer to the advanced scientific, engineering, medical, communication or navigation skills of his direct reports.  Project managers, especially those that have played an SME role in the past, have the tendency to roll their sleeves up.  This is a good thing, but they should ensure that they are not neglecting their primary commitments or stepping on the toes of the team members that are responsible for those areas.
  3. Hold Yourself and Others Accountable for Responsibilities and Commitments Although Kirk was a people person, he had no difficulty in throwing direct reports in the brig if they deserved it, removing himself if he felt he was not fit to command, or challenging authority figures if he felt that they were not “doing the right thing”.  Turning a blind eye to people issues might avoid conflict in the short term, but will undermine team morale or productivity and can eventually fester into a much bigger problem.
  4. Follow Process but Don’t be a Slave to it.  The crew of the Enterprise embraced the policies and procedures established by the Federation, but also broke these rules if the situation necessitated it, so long as their actions were in line with the overall mission or vision of the Federation.  Project management methodologies and policies are tools to be used consistently, but they need flexibility to allow project teams to make their own decisions under special circumstances.
  5. Communicate Bad News Effectively in a Timely Fashion. When the situation took a turn for the worse, Kirk would get on the PA and let the crew know what was going on.  Project leaders sometimes follow the “ignorance is bliss” approach, but a lack of consistent, open communication is a common cause of team morale issues and project failures.  It is important to present bad news in a solution-focused format – Kirk refused to believe in the “No Win” scenario, and that optimism is something else that project managers could adopt!

 Follow these lessons from Star Trek, and your PM career may “Live Long & Prosper”!

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