June 3rd, 2010

5 things you can learn about project management from LOST


As the winter TV season comes to an end, I find myself saying goodbye to some long-running TV series. Without a question, my favourite was Lost, which, in my humble opinion was the greatest series ever to air on network television. But then, I am one of those strange people that enjoys a TV show that makes my head hurt. In a good way.

And so, as I ready myself to delete the epic Lost Series Finale from my PVR, I think it’s only right to reflect on what we can learn about project management from Lost.

Before you think that this is some sort of frivolous goodbye post, or an excuse to talk about Lost on a project management blog (ahem!), be forewarned: each of these lessons actually ties in to deeper reflections about some of my favourite subjects in project management and business. And one final warning: if you still haven’t watched the finale, be aware that there are spoilers in this post.

1. Leadership does not follow the lines of an org chart. I once said this to a boss of mine. And I remain mystified to this day as to why I never did get promoted. (Umm, not really.) But did you notice how there was not one single org chart on the island in Lost? Don’t kid yourself: corporate life is actually not that different. How many of us really follow the leaders that the Power Point lines tell us to follow? Exactly. Instead we follow those natural leaders that spring up from the many corners of our teams and organizations. In the Lost universe we watched Jack, who led by science; Locke, who led by faith; and Ben, who led by lies and manipulation: each of these leaders was able to perform in certain situations and not necessarily in others. And then there was the unexpected leadership of Sawyer, the bad-boy loner who, in the absence of Jack and Locke, surprised us all with his leadership during Season 5 in the Dharma Initiative. And finally, we witnessed the blossoming of Hurley as a leader when he accepted the title of Protector at the Series’ end. Each leader offered something different to his followers, something that was needed at the time. (Yes, in biz speak, we like to call that “situational leadership”.) What they didn’t offer was an org chart. Remember: hierarchy really is irrelevant. And, yes that is even more true in our business lives.

An unexpected leader. Without his shirt on.

2. Projects need an end, and so do great television series. A project is, by definition, a unique endeavor, with a defined start and a defined end. The defined end is what makes a project…well…a project. There is no doubt in my mind that when the Lost producers announced, near the end of season Season 3 (in May 2007), that they would end the series in Season 6, the quality of the show increased a notch, maybe even several notches. This is actually quite rare in television: most series keep going and going like the Energizer Bunny until they run out of ratings and steam and then die a slow and painful death when no one is watching anymore. How delightful then, that by announcing its scheduled end in advance, the Lost creative team had to work to a schedule and a goal, thereby having no choice but to stay on focus and close their various story lines. In other words, by turning Lost into a project, they made it better. Huh.

3. It’s a mystery why I can’t get colour-coding on my project issues. No matter how much dark chocolate I use as bribes, I can’t seem to get my project teams to upload their documents to our collaborative software “team room” without nagging them 45,000 times. So when I first saw the Lostpedia site, I nearly fainted. And these people are doing it for free. Because they want to. Because they want to share a passion with the world. I mean, they even colour code and cross-reference the Lost mysteries for heaven’s sake! I would love to have something similar for my project issues but, man, I am dreaming in technicolour. (Bad pun intended.) What remains a mystery to me, (somebody please stop me) but I plan to explore on this blog, is why knowledge management and information sharing is so difficult in project environments. We have the technology: where is the behaviour? Why do we want to share our knowledge of the Lost mysteries (in colour) but not of which project issues we’ve closed and how? I remain…mystified. (Okay. I’ll stop now.)

4. Believe in duct tape. One of my favourite lines in the Series finale was uttered by Miles. In his usual deadpan manner, came these words of wisdom: “I don’t believe in a lot of things, but I do believe in duct tape”, which he uttered as he was wrapping duct tape around a leaky hydraulic line on the plane so that it could take off. For 20+ years, I have searched for the nirvana of project management: the magical software that will integrate project scheduling with timesheets and business systems and give me all of my project status updates at the push of a button. It just doesn’t exist. A colleague with much more experience than I have told me this: “a little Excel is all you need to fix any business system.” Excel. It’s the project manager’s duct tape. Don’t believe in the do-it-all project management information system. Believe in duct tape, believe in Excel.

5. The art of the status report. Another of my favourite lines in the Series finale was an exchange between Ben and Frank, as Frank was frantically readying a very battered plane for takeoff:

Ben (in the walkie-talkie): How’s it going over there with your timetable?

Frank (in the walkie-talkie): Don’t bother me.

Ben (turning to the group): Sounds like they’re making progress.

I think that Ben has the status report down to a fine art, don’t you? I just wish I could answer like Frank sometimes. Sigh.

And so I bid adieu to my all-time favourite network television show. Goodbye hatch. Goodbye mysterious numbers. Goodbye donkey wheel. Goodbye Sawyer without his shirt on. Goodbye Jin without his shirt on. Goodbye “brother” and “dude”. Goodbye Claire’s crazy hair. Goodbye flashes backwards, forwards and sideways. Goodbye Man In Black whose name we never learned.

And, most importantly, thank you, Lost, for teaching me not to multitask while watching TV, because I might miss stuff like Walt’s picture on the side of a milk carton. Which I did. Because I was.

Goodbye.

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