Ants can do a lot of things but they need a leader.
Ant-Man is the latest addition to the Marvel Universe, following the high bar set by Avengers: Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy. And like its predecessors, Ant-Man is riddled with insights on project management.
From creative thinking to team management to stressful deadlines, Ant-Man is a great film that highlights common lessons project managers typically learn on the job.
Without further ado, here are seven project management lessons from Ant-Man! Warning: what follows contains serious spoilers.
1. Celebrate diversity of talent on your team.
Whether it’s ants or ex-cons, the movie is full of examples of team members with special abilities. All of them use their talents to help Hank Pym and Scott Lang. For example, Hank discovered the power of different kinds of ants as the original Ant-Man. He calls fire ants “architects” because they can use their own bodies and support each other to form bridges and rafts. They help ant-sized Scott to cross holes in the ground and navigate the water main into Futures Lab.
Fire ants aren’t the only talented members of Scott’s team. Crazy ants can conduct electricity, proving useful when Scott fries Darren Cross’s backup research. Carpenter ants can fly and carry heavy (by ant standards) objects on their back. And then there are the humans: Luis, known for having a knock-out punch, is handy both in prison and in crime. Dave and Kurt’s experience in hacking and getaway driving, respectively, are used time and again.
Without all of these specialized skills and knowing how to use them, Hank and Scott wouldn’t have a chance of completing any of their projects. Fortunately, they know how to use their team members’ skills to the highest degree.
Project managers need to have the same skillset. If they fail to identify where their individual teammates are strongest, they may be trying to solve a problem with the wrong tool. Just as Scott would have struggled frying Cross’s computers using just fire ants (but likely would have eventually been successful), project managers will struggle if the wrong assignment is given to a team member without the talent for it.
2. Transparency will inspire your teammates.
When first discussing how to take out Cross, Hank tells Scott that Hank’s daughter, Hope, is vital to the mission. But because Hank is hiding a secret, he almost loses Hope altogether.
Hank lied to Hope her entire life about her mother’s death and, relatedly, he didn’t tell her why she couldn’t wear the Ant-Man suit. Because Hope suspects her father’s duplicity, and because she doesn’t understand his refusal to allow her to perform the sting herself, Hope feels angry, hurt, and unwilling to throw herself into the plans.
Ultimately Hope refuses to get on board with Hank’s plans until he finally reveals to her that her mother sacrificed herself and disappeared into a quantum realm while disarming a bomb. After the truth has finally been revealed, Hope and Hank can reconcile, and the plan to take down Cross can proceed.
No one likes to feel lied to or manipulated. As a project manager, you have the most direct contact with higher-ups. Sharing as much information about the project—even bad news—with your team as possible helps build transparency and, by extension, trust.
This advice also applies to stakeholders. There’s nothing worse than believing that a project is doing well, only to be told that the project is a failure. Sharing details with stakeholders is key to not only getting needed guidance on how to proceed on a project, but also makes your stakeholders more confident in your team for future projects.
3. Don’t be afraid to go off script.
Although he’s not a project manager himself, Scott demonstrates the quick-thinking skills of a project manager when he breaks into Pym’s safes. Even though he’s not expecting to encounter a fingerprint scanner on the outside safe or an inside safe made out of the same material as the Titanic, Scott rises to the occasion and handles these contingencies with quick thinking, resourcefulness, and creativity.
Scott also shows the kind of creative thinking necessary in a project manager when he enters the quantum realm in order to destroy Yellowjacket. Even though it’s supposed to be impossible to escape the quantum realm, Scott’s creativity gives him the idea to supercharge the ant suit’s regulator using one of the disks Hank gave him, which helps Scott return to normal size.
As much as project managers fight it, problem solving in the moment is a necessary skill that all project managers need to have. A sudden change to scope, budget, and personnel is unfortunately common for project managers across industries.
Quick thinking is a skill, and it isn’t reserved for robbers. Consider reading up on the subject; Experis suggests Quick Thinking on Your Feet, Quick Wits: A Compendium of Critical Thinking Skills Activities, and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. An improv class may also help. No matter what you do, make sure you have the necessary skills to be able to address sudden and dire changes.
4. Take the time to learn your technology.
When Scott first puts on his Ant-Man suit, he has no idea how to use it. He ends up in a dire situation where he almost drowns while Luis is taking a bath. He doesn’t know how to regain his original form and doesn’t know how to control nearby insects. In other words, even though he’s wearing an incredibly powerful piece of technology, it’s obsolete without someone who knows how to use it.
Hank has years of experience behind him. Hank Pym’s skills as an entomologist and physicist form the basis for the entire story. His understanding of physics leads him to develop the ant suit, and his observation of ants helps him amass a veritable army of tiny allies. He capitalizes on their skills, using them to hold cameras, to deliver messages, to travel quickly, to fly, and to make him far more effective as Ant-Man than someone who doesn’t know how to use the technology and insects in front of him.
Thankfully, Hank and Hope work together to train Scott. Hank helps him learn how to use the ant suit effectively, Hope uses her formidable martial arts skills to teach Scott how to fight, and both father and daughter teach Scott how to control ants with his earpiece and take advantage of the different ant species’ particular abilities.
Like the ant suit, project management software is an incredible tool that many project managers capitalize on. But without proper training, you and your teammates are unlikely to optimize what benefits the software has to offer.
Make sure that your team is trained on how to use any software you may be employing for your projects. Most software offers training. For example, the three most popular kinds of project management software (Microsoft Project, Atlassian, and Podio) offer phone support, centers for learning, and live training. Take advantage of these resources to super power your team.
5. If scope changes, scale your team accordingly.
The initial plan for infiltrating Cross’s lab only involved three people: Hope, Scott and Hank. However, after Cross begins to get suspicious, he lets Hope know that he’s tripled security. Without another option, Hope has to agree because she has spent years earning Cross’s trust for this very mission. In other words, the project has suddenly changed in scope.
So Scott calls in his team. And not just the ants—they are already set to help him. His team includes Luis, Dave, and Kurt, three criminals, who have just the skillsets needed to break into a high-security building. Hank, acting as the project manager in this situation, is initially unhappy with the additions to his team, but comes around to the idea as he realizes there aren’t many other options .
Scope will sometimes change—sometimes it’s unpreventable. While adding freelancers, contractors, and new hires to your team may be a pain, you have to have the humility to accept when a project is just too big for who you have on deck at that given moment.
6. No project is entirely protected from negative events.
Hank’s plan for breaking into Cross’ lab and destroying his dangerous research is almost perfect. However, it fails to fully take into account Darren Cross himself. Hank fostered Cross’s genius as a young man—a reflection of what Hank may have become had he not seen the potential danger of continuing the ant suit research.
Unfortunately for Hank, Cross has an uncanny ability to foresee what his enemy will do and predicts that Hank will try to destroy his research. When Scott makes it into the lab successfully, Cross is waiting to kill him and Hank.
Even with Hank’s brilliance, a negative event like this still occurs. Sometimes it’s unavoidable.
The best risk management plan can never guarantee that your project is comprehensively protected. Project managers can, however, take steps to avoid problems. Identify pain points, evaluate the severity of each risk, and create contingency plans for your highest-priority risks. To learn how to do that exactly, check out our unconventional guide to risk management.
7. Arrogance leads to misguided thinking.
Darren Cross is a genius and, unfortunately, he knows it. His hubris and desire for power lead him to push his research in dangerous directions.
In fact, his arrogance puts the entire world at stake. He sells his research to Hydra, a tyrannical terrorist group hell-bent on conquering the world (you can’t get much more comic-book villainous than that!). If Ant Man does not successfully destroy Cross’s research or stop Hydra from escaping, the world is in serious trouble.
But that’s not the only example of how Cross’s conceit gets him into trouble. The products of his research are literally changing his brain chemistry through the duration of the movie, slowly changing him into a more violent, more insane individual. In his arrogance, Cross never stops to wonder why his old mentor, Hank, cut him off and tried to prevent him from further researching the type of shrinking technology that makes the ant suit and Yellowjacket possible.
Project managers have to check their egos. Arrogance can be blinding. Self-assuredness is certainly an asset in this field, but too much can lead to unwillingness to compromise, a wariness to ask for help or advice, and an aversion to giving up control. PMI.org has a fantastic article on how project managers should functionally control their egos—I’d recommend it to all project managers, even if you don’t think you have a problem.
Ant Man was a wild ride, chock full of project management and leadership lessons relevant to those outside the Marvel Universe. While these seven were readily apparent, I’m sure that there were project management lessons from Ant Man that I missed.
I’d love to hear your feedback; what lessons did I miss? What did you think of the movie? Did I get any of these lessons dead wrong? Leave a sentence or two in the comments section below with your thoughts!
Header by Abby Kahler
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