Like so many other action movie fans, I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy this past weekend. And it was awesome: the movie had witty narrative, well-developed characters, incredible action scenes, and an original story line.
I would recommend this movie to anyone, but particularly to project managers.
While watching Guardians of the Galaxy, I was completely checked out of work. I was enjoying my popcorn, immersed in the gorgeous cinematography, and yet… my project management hat couldn’t come off.
There were too many good project management lessons from Guardians of the Galaxy to be learned. This post contains heavy spoilers, so don’t read on if you intend to see the movie but haven’t yet.
Here are just ten of the most important project management lessons you can learn from Guardians of the Galaxy:
1. Look for non-verbal communication.
Groot really doesn’t have a lot to say. Literally. His lines in the movie range from “I am Groot” to “We are Groot.” But Groot’s character extends far beyond his lack of verbal communication. His facial expressions and demeanor give life to what would otherwise be an incredibly boring personality. Viewers know that Groot is “good” without him saying so.
Project managers should take this lesson to heart. According to Project Smart, up to 90% of a project manager’s day is spent communicating, like working with your team or giving a presentation. But instead of chattering for the entirety of that time, lean back and watch how your team speaks and interacts. Note their body language and how they communicate. Doing so could provide invaluable feedback to the health of your team’s functionality. It could also reveal who is really invested in the project (and who isn’t).
2. Go out of your way to serve your team.
Drax just doesn’t get along with anyone. He fights with Groot. He verbally assaults Rocket. He almost kills Gamora. But by the end of Guardians, Drax has proven himself to be a loyal follower and chooses to act without self-interest when he helps Peter bear the power of the Infinity Stone, risking his life in the process.
Until Drax comes to terms with himself and his anger, he does not act as a valuable member of the team. It’s when he puts aside his own ambitions to single-handedly kill Ronan that he is finally able to see his personal mission completed—with the help of others. In other words, he only becomes useful when he embraces the idea of service.
I’ve written extensively on the importance of servant leadership and project management. Maybe you have personal goals—to climb the corporate ladder to COO, to receive commendations from your office, or even to build a reputation of success—but none of that can happen until you put aside your own desires to serve your team and your projects. Your career goals will be met along the way.
3. Plan in advance.
By far, my favorite part of Guardians of the Galaxy was the escape from Kyln. Rocket was brilliant. Using knowledge gained from breaking out of several other prisons, he knew exactly what materials he needed (plus an extra leg) and who would be best at retrieving them. And while he didn’t know that Groot would make the plan jump quickly into action, he had prepared his team to act.
Project completion was explosively successful.
Rocket’s plan was airtight. He had thought through all of the potential sources of project failure (except for getting killed in a gunfight—but hey, he’s a superhero) and the team was successful because of it.
In other words, planning in advance saved the Guardians.
Then there’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along planning, like when Drax attacks Ronan in Knowhere. For Drax, that led to an embarrassing and demoralizing defeat.
The importance of planning in project management cannot be overstated—as TechRepublic puts it, “Poor planning is project management mistake number one.”
Consider employing Agile or iterative project management processes to allow your team members to work at their own speed, but create concrete benchmarks with concise definitions so that no one is left confused. Emphasize that planning is the most important part of your project’s success—take the time to do it right. Use project management software to help you figure out the best ways to maximize your efficiency and ensure that your plan is actionable, and to keep your team up-to-date with how the project is progressing.
4. Encourage your entire team to learn new skills.
Peter Quill turns to Gamora and says, “I don’t learn. One of my issues.”
But that is, entirely, a falsehood. For the majority of the film, Rocket is expected to come up with a plan. But when the Guardians realize that they—and the entire galaxy—will be destroyed now that Ronan has the Infinity Stone, it’s Quill who says he has a plan.
Naturally, the team is skeptical. And rightfully so—Quill admits that he only has 12% of a plan. But he has supporters—Groot points out (through Rocket) that “It’s better than 11%,” and, through the power of personal appeal, eventually the rest of the team works together to create a strategy that saves the galaxy.
Peter’s 12% of a plan is crucial to saving lives—he alerts Nova to Ronan’s invasion, which prompts many to evacuate the city and Nova’s defense forces to assemble. He also convinces Yondu and his ravagers to help support the Guardians when they attack Ronan’s ship.
Peter, for the first time, demonstrates that he can creatively aid in the planning process—even though Rocket is the designated “planner.”
Encourage your team to develop new skills. They may have hidden talents that could greatly benefit your team and your goals. And don’t discount them when they try something new; great things may come of pushing your own comfort zone and relinquishing control over your team.
5. Understand the scope of the project before executing it.
Gamora attacked Peter to steal The Orb and betray her father. But was her plan really well-thought out? While she was able to track down Quill, she assumed that she could steal The Orb with brute force and run away with it. She seemed surprised that Quill would even put up a fight.
She also had no idea what The Orb was or the reputation of The Collector, who attempted to buy The Orb from her. Had she asked what The Orb was or researched Quill beyond his physical appearance, I believe Gamora would have approached betraying Thanos and Ronan differently.
In other words, the scope of betraying Thanos was far beyond what Gamora had initially imagined.
Take the time to understand the entirety of your project. Research key players and carefully outline how to respond to potential points of failure. No project manager wants to adjust his scope mid-project. Make sure the scope is well thought through and locked into place before starting your project.
6. Humor has its place.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a hilarious movie.In fact, without its humor the movie would be a drama, leaving the audience depressed and demoralized. Humor in Guardians of the Galaxy alleviates the stress of the movie’s considerable dark side. For example:
- Rocket is constantly picked on for being the result of a lab experiment, sometimes to tears.
- Drax’s wife and daughter were violently killed.
- Groot has no family to speak of and has trouble communicating.
- Gamora watched her family die, then was tortured and raised by her family’s murderer.
- Peter lost his mother at a very young age and never knew his father.
- Nebula wants to be accepted and loved—and she never really is.
- Hundreds of Nova pilots are killed while hopelessly defending their homeworld.
- Hundreds, if not thousands of people die when Ronan invades Xandar.
Without the humor, Guardians of the Galaxy is an incredibly dark movie.
And that can teach project managers about the importance of humor while leading a team. It can help reduce stress and conflicts and leads team members to find you more engaging—an invaluable skill for presentations in particular.
7. Try to get over your prejudices.
Rocket, while seemingly small and weak, has an amazing mind and can certainly handle guns that are the size of his own body. He has an unparalleled technical prowess and, at the end of the day, cares more about another person (tree?) than himself.
But as someone who didn’t read the comic books, I, at first, didn’t care for Rocket. He has an annoying voice and let’s be honest: raccoons are gross! Yet, by the end of the movie, he was my favorite character.
Without any context for Rocket’s skills in real life, I would have definitely mismanaged him due to my raccoon prejudice. But we all know that prejudice extends to humans as well.
Evaluate your team’s abilities objectively. Even if one team member has a grating personality, they might be the best person to take care of a task. Overcoming personal biases will help you lead a more effective and harmonious team.
8. Learn humility.
Peter’s hubris gets him into trouble time and again. He makes promises that he can’t keep, he considers women disposable, and his arrogance makes many people—rightfully—distrust him.
Throughout the movie, there is a tension between Gamora and Peter Quill. They are painfully attracted to each other—an obvious trend established in their first fight. But Peter’s arrogance ruins his chances with her. Even after he saves her from floating through space, he brags about what a hero he is. Gamora, while initially excited to kiss her savior, becomes plainly disinterested.
Project managers have notoriously high egos. But that ego could be getting in the way best managing a project. It can lead to lying about how far a project has come along, or mismanaging assignments based on skills. Check your ego as you go into a project, and don’t risk your reputation for lies that make you look better in the short run.
9. Avoid plans with a single point of failure.
Ronan is a horrible project manager. As a Kree fanatic, he has genocidal intentions for the Xandarian people. But when he goes to execute his plan, he relies on his ship, the Dark Astor, and the Infinity Stone.
The Dark Astor, much like the Death Star in Star Wars, has a single vulnerable point that Rocket and his crew easily eliminate, allowing Quill and the other Guardians to enter the ship. Who would design a ship with such a serious design flaw?
And when Ronan loses the Infinity Stone, his entire plan turns to dust. He dies soon thereafter.
Clearly that wasn’t well thought through.
While planning a project, make sure that it doesn’t hinge on an unworthy assumption or a variable outside your control.
10. Celebrate creative thinking.
In the spaceport of Knowhere, Gamora is in trouble, and it’s up to Rocket and Peter Quill to save her. The three of them are in three separate pods with no weapons. Quill realizes that the pods are indestructible, and then starts using his as a weapon against Gamora’s attackers.
In truth, this is genius thinking. Those pods are meant to be used as a safety system, not as a weapon. It takes a leap of creative thinking to use a tool effectively while ignoring its intended purpose.
As a project manager, you will have many tools at your disposal. And not all of them will work the way that they were designed or intended—but that’s not always the end of the world. Think outside the box to find ways to use that tool in a new and innovative way. Doing so may save your project.
Guardians of the Galaxy is spilling over with project management and leadership lessons. I’m sure I didn’t catch all of them. What project management trends did you notice when you were watching the movie? What did I miss? And, of course, did you enjoy the film? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
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