Warning: This post contains spoilers.
Avengers: Age of Ultron came as a shock to many. The movie was notably darker, more philosophical, and more complex than previous Marvel superhero movies. And while Ultron came to an unsurprising ending—the events leading up to it left the audience wondering, “What’s the right thing to do?”
Now, don’t let these philosophical questions detract from the fact that Ultron was an enjoyable movie—shields were thrown, hammers were lifted and swung, and towns were explosively leveled. But hidden under the rubble of a summer action movie, there are some deeper project management lessons that every project manager should take to heart, regardless of their personality type or super power.
Here are just eight of them.
1. Don’t hide your mistakes.
Tony Stark knows that experimenting with Loki’s staff is dangerous. He knows that uploading J.A.R.V.I.S. into Ultron’s synthetic body is not well advised. And yet he does it anyway. The audience can tell that he knows that not everyone would approve because he only tells Bruce Banner about what he’s doing.
When Ultron surprises the Avengers while they’re “reveling,” no one has a clue what Ultron is except for Stark and Banner. They’re entirely unprepared, and are later angry about his arrival. Ultron’s entire existence—and the problems he brought with him, would not have come to fruition had Stark been upfront with his team about his intentions. His rash need for unbridled and arguably unethical scientific exploration put the entire world in danger.
If you find yourself hiding how you are progressing forward, or catch a team member doing so, that is a strong suggestion that your or their actions are not motivated by or contributing to the project.
2. Capitalize on what motivates your team.
One of the subtler themes in the movie is personal motivation. Hawkeye wants to know that his family is safe at home. Captain America wants to know that the cause that he’s fighting for is just and that innocents are protected. Iron Man wants to show off his genius and be appreciated for it. The Hulk wants to keep those around him safe from himself and particularly values his team for that reason. Thor wants to help Asgard, defend Earth, and build friendship with his comrades.
(As a side note, after polling my coworkers, we couldn’t find a good motivator for the main woman in the film, Black Widow.)
But even while knowing this, there were few efforts made to appeal to each of these motivators. What the team needed was Fury to stand up and make the personal appeal to each of them. In other words, things would have gone much smoother for the Avengers if they had a strong project manager.
3. Don’t be afraid of giving real responsibility to your team members.
With that said, there was one key moment where one Avenger appealed to another’s instincts—and it was one of the most powerful moments in the movie. Hawkeye and the Scarlet Witch were cornered while on Sokovia. The Scarlet Witch was scared and didn’t want to fight anymore.
Hawkeye took her to the side and appealed to her sense of duty and humanity, and touched on her need to avenge the death of her parents. Scarlet Witch emerges not just as a woman determined to save the people of Sokovia, but also as a new Avenger.
Hawkeye took on the role of project manager in this instance. He convinced her to throw herself into the project and motivated her to get her task done on time and within scope. Part of her empowerment came from the realization that she was important and had real responsibility. Sometimes, team members need that drive in order to succeed.
4. Know when to criticize privately and publicly.
At the beginning of the movie, Captain America blurted this line out after Iron Man swears over the Avengers intercom. It’s a running joke in the movie, one that Captain America is visibly irritated with. But it’s friendly poking—it’s different than the real disagreements Captain America and Iron Man have throughout the rest of the film. At no point does Steve Rogers take Tony Stark to the side to discuss their differences.
Captain America is often seen as the “leader” of the Avengers—the project manager. It’s arguable that he had every opportunity to avoid the conflicts Iron Man created by having a frank, direct conversation with him. These conversations are so important to viable office cohesion and communication. No project manager should shy away from them.
Elsewise Earth may very well be in trouble.
5. Avoid office romances.
A recent survey by CareerBuilder found that 37% of office workers admit to dating a coworker at least once in their lives. That’s surprising, since virtually every expert advises against pursuing an office romance.
The reasons why translate over to the Avengers. It’s no secret that Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner have feelings for each other. They cutely dance around this reality until Banner backs off. But their interest in each other still seeps into the Avengers’s mission. Romanoff and Banner pause to consider running off together. They’re so concerned about each other’s safety that they ignore their own. And, at the end of the movie when Banner leaves, it’s clear that his departure will act as a distraction for Natasha for upcoming Avengers films.
Distracted employees mean disengaged employees. It creates difficult team members and an environment where the project isn’t the prime objective—romance is.
If team members come forward about an office romance—or you inevitably find out about it—ditch “love contracts,” but don’t shy away from setting boundaries. It’s your job to make sure that projects are done on time and done well. If the two need to be physically separated in the office, do so.
6. Automate your processes.
Stark is the king of automation. Between J.A.R.V.I.S. and his peacekeeping bots, Stark has identified areas where technology can assist him, the Avengers, and ultimately the world.
Of course, his accidental creation of Ultron is what Marvel calls “terrifying automation.” He is symbolic of what happens when managers rely too heavily on software. Ultron’s mission was inaccurate, his scope was misunderstood, and ultimately there was a massive waste of capital and no mission was achieved.
Project managers should balance their personal skillset with the best project management software for their company. Don’t over-rely on it, but do take advantage of a localized system to take care of planning and communication processes.
7. Have a backup plan.
Ultron’s plan was ill-conceived—and that sentiment extends beyond the ridiculousness of his “destroy the world with a city” strategy.
The way that Ultron had set up Sokovia established a single point of failure—the trigger to send the city rocketing down to the earth. Naturally the Avengers crowded around it and successfully defended it for a majority of the final battle. By the time one of Ultron’s drones pushes the launch, the team has already rescued those on Sokovia and can dissolve the city.
Ultron’s second point of failure with his plan is that he didn’t practice risk management. By devoting his entire army of Ultron drones to the city, he didn’t have a “back-up” Ultron to continue existing. Just leaving one drone to sit out the fight would have been enough to allow Ultron to continue existing should the Avengers succeed in defending the city.
Don’t assume that your project will always go as you initially assume; this is why Agile project management was created in the first place. Be iterative, be flexible, and always be aware of what your risks are and how you can mitigate them.
8. Realize that “Down in the real world you have to make ugly choices.”
While Ultron may be Marvel’s Worst Project Manager, he does have one of the best management lines in the movie: “Down in the real world you have to make ugly choices.”
One of the disappointments in the movie for me is that the Avengers weren’t forced to make a difficult decision regarding Sokovia. The film nicely set up the problem: the Avengers didn’t want the innocents on Sokovia to die, but they also didn’t want Sokovia to destroy the human population. Had Fury not have shown up unannounced and with the exact equipment to evacuate Sokovian survivors, the Avengers would have had to make that choice. (And it wouldn’t have ended well for Sokovians.)
Ultron is right: ugly choices abound in the business world. Often, it’s project managers that have to ultimately make those decisions. Recognize that the decision to hurt someone’s feelings for the sake of the company, or that your company must take a short-term loss in order to potentially thrive in the future is never easy, nor should it be. But with that said, it’s ultimately your job, as the project manager, to arrive at those verdicts.
I’m sure that there are a lot more project management lessons that were acted out in Avengers: Age of Ultron. What did I miss? Did the movie resonate with you? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!