Want to Know What You’re Playing For? PM Lessons Learned from Survivor
In a previous article , I had suggested that there were project management lessons which could be learned from Star Trek (the Original Series) and while Captain Kirk might not always have been the archetype for a good project manager, the challenges faced and the diverse backgrounds, skills and personalities brought by the crew makes the analogy to project management reasonable.
At first glance, it might seem to be a much harder stretch to consider the TV reality show Survivor as a source of useful project management practices. After all, the show centers around a competition to win an individual prize so what parallels could be drawn to the project world where collaborative, aligned effort to meet common outcomes is required?
While this is true, the human dynamics are what makes the show interesting and those provide the source material for some useful lessons which are applicable.
- Having a plan is important, but you should be willing to modify the plan as circumstances change: In more seasons than not, the overall winner has developed a plan within the first few days of arriving and has executed it diligently but has not let him or herself be slavishly locked in to it. We know that planning is a cornerstone of project management, but a plan is just a model of expected outcomes and if any of the assumptions or pre-conditions which supported your plan change, you should be willing to adjust it.
- Remove hurdles: While there is always the danger of their being perceived as a threat, generally the castaways who have supported and helped their team members in challenges and at the camp without letting their egos get the better of them have made it far, and if they make it to the final Tribal Council, are usually awarded the overall prize. A project manager will succeed if they focus on removing obstacles from the path of their team members.
- Clear, consistent communication is critical: Season after season we’ve witnessed what happens when castaways speak from both sides of their mouth or simply don’t keep their entire alliance in the know. Fear, uncertainty and doubt festers and this usually concludes in the castaway being voted off the island. It’s not enough that the leader is speaking to all of their alliance – the message needs to be consistent so that there is no paranoia when it’s time to go to Tribal Council. If project managers hoard information or are inconsistent in their messaging, they will quickly lose the trust of their team, key stakeholders and eventually, the customer.
- Use the right tool for the right purpose: While some castaways use school-yard rules or play favorites to decide who is going to perform which tasks on challenges, the consistently successful ones are those who carefully assess the skills required and appropriately assign owners. On projects, it may seem more convenient or less stressful to assign critical tasks to your friends or even to perform these tasks yourself, but this will alienate the rest of your team and may result in project failure.
- Learn lessons from the past: Castaways who learn from the mistakes made from other contestants on previous seasons and try to apply these lessons will usually do well. On the other hand, repeat castaways who double-down on their previous strategies usually end up getting ousted far sooner than they had been originally. The key is to understand the context of the lessons and to apply them appropriately – blind imitation can be as lethal as ignorance of these lessons. Completed projects are a valuable source of knowledge if one is willing to take the time to assess the applicability of the lessons to their specific circumstances and adapt them accordingly.
- Recognize the contribution of all team members to your success: An important ritual in Survivor takes place on the last show of each season when the final castaways take a walk down memory lane discussing the personality and contributions of each of the competitors who did not make it to the final challenge. It is important to reflect on the value brought by each team member and to recognize it in some fashion before the project ends.
- You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em: Rarely are sole Survivors those who tried to win each and every reward or immunity challenge. Such bravado saps the energy of the team or individual such that they have nothing left to give when a critical challenge takes place. Too often, project managers lose sight of the big picture and focus their team purely on achieving the next milestone even though that might jeopardize more critical deliverables further down the road.
If you ignore these lessons, you may hear the fateful words “
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