Warning: This post contains spoilers
There are two types of science fiction movies.
The first type borders on fantasy. These films use technology more as a magic prop than as an actual human development. Think Star Wars, Star Trek and Avatar.
There’s also science fiction that is beyond the limits of technology and where humans have to solve their own problems. This vertical includes 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon, as well as The Martian.
Project managers will find plenty of lessons in The Martian’s depiction Mark Watney, NASA and the CNSA as well as Commander Lewis’s crew, useful for learning how to survive in difficult times. Amazing project management skills were what enabled Mark Watney to survive.
Let’s now bring five lessons from the Martian down to Earth.
Break your project up into little pieces.
Mark Watney panics when he sits down for the first time to record that he is alive on Mars. He has no food, no way to contact NASA (or humans) and no guarantee of rescue.
He panics, just like any other human being who finds out they are stranded on an inhospitable planet.
Watney, however, allows himself two days of panic and then gets back to work.
Watney, like any good project manager starts his projects with the end goal in mind. Watney, for example, must make 1480 sols of food from his initial 400-sol stock. He breaks down his must dos in Gantt chart fashion.
If Watney had remained panicked, he might have been overwhelmed by the enormity of the project and died long before help could reach him.
Project managers with specialized skills are more successful than those without.
Pawel Brodzinski, an IT professional, reminded IT professionals a few years back that project managers don’t need technical skills. He wrote,
Although technical skills are a great asset for project managers, they are not essential in the vast majority of cases. If a project manager has the best technical skills, why does she manage the project and not build it?
The idea that project managers don’t need technical skills is met with a lot of resistance. Without a technical background, how can project managers ensure that their team is competent and able to give reasonable estimates? They won’t be able to do this if they don’t go through a rigorous research process to verify their team’s numbers.
Watney is extremely lucky to be a botanist… he knows how to start up a long-abandoned Pathfinder and figure out a hexadecimal letter. He also knows enough chemistry to make water from hydrazine fuel.
He could not have solved his own problems without being exactly who he was.
That is to say, if Commander Lewis, Johanssen or Beck had not been there, they would not have survived. They didn’t have the knowledge to create a project program to keep them alive long enough to allow NASA to contact them.
Sometimes the “right” choice may not be obvious.
It was not an easy task to rescue Watney. The NASA director was faced with two options at the end of the film: either risk the lives and possibly save one man aboard the Hermes, or save all of them and let Watney die.
This classic ethical dilemma confronts Teddy Sanders, NASA Director. He finally makes the utilitarian choice to save everyone aboard the Hermes.
Sanders’s decision is not as clear-cut, even though the Hermes crew rebelled and saved Watney. The space agency’s underfunded PR department could have made a huge PR win by turning the crew around. He could cause division between NASA, the CNSA, and NASA by changing NASA’s use for the donated Chinese booster.
Whatever choice Sanders made it would not have been popular. What would you have done instead?
Communication tools are essential for project success.