5 Project Management Lessons From The Martian

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Warning: This post contains spoilers.

There are two kinds of science fiction movies.

The first kind borderlines fantasy. In these films, technology acts more as a magical prop than an actual possible human development. Think Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar.

Then there’s the other kind of science fiction, the kind where science and technology has its limits and humans still have to figure out their own problems. I count 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon, and now The Martian in this vertical.

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For project managers, The Martian’s depiction of Mark Watney, NASA, the CNSA, and Commander Lewis’s crew provides plenty of lessons on how to survive when times are desperate. Mark Watney was only able to survive because of phenomenal project management knowhow.

With that said, let’s bring five lessons from The Martian down to Earth.

Break your project up into little pieces.

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When Mark Watney first sits down to record that he’s alive on Mars, he has a moment of panic. He has a damaged suit, little food, no way of contacting NASA (or any humans for that matter), and no guarantee of rescue.

Like any other human being who just found out they were stranded on a lifeless planet, he panics.

But unlike those who just keep panicking, Watney allows himself his two days of freak out and then gets to work.

Like any good project manager, Watney starts off his projects with the end in mind. For example, Watney needs to make 1480 sols worth of food out of his initial 400-sol supply. He breaks down his must-dos in Gantt-chart fashion:

  • Create soil to grow potatoes
  • Create a constant supply of water
  • Plant and care for potatoes
  • Harvest
  • Repeat

Had Watney remained panicked, he would have likely been overcome by the immensity of the project before him and died far before help could get to him.

Project managers with specialized skills tend to outperform those without.

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A few years ago, Pawel Brodzinski reminded IT professionals that project managers don’t need technical skills. He wrote,

Technical skills is always nice-to-have trait for project manager but in vast majority of cases they aren’t crucial [sic]. If project manager has the best technical skills in the team why is she managing the project and not building the project?

With that said, the idea that project managers don’t need technical skills gets a lot of pushback. How can project managers know that their team is competent and giving reasonable estimates without a technical background? Without going through a grueling research process to verify his or her team’s numbers, they can’t.

Watney is incredibly lucky that he’s a botanist… and has the know-how to boot up a long-abandoned Pathfinder, figure out a hexadecimal alphabet, and enough chemistry to make water out of hydrazine fuel.

He couldn’t have solved his own problems unless he was exactly who he was.

In other words, had Commander Lewis, Johanssen, Beck, or Vogel been left behind, none of them would have survived. They did not have the prior knowledge to create a project plan to stay alive long enough for NASA to make contact.

The “right” choice isn’t always the obvious choice.

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Rescuing Watney was not an easy task. Toward the end of the film, the NASA director had two choices: risk the lives of everyone aboard the Hermes (who had a low chance of dying) and potentially save the life of one man, or save everyone on the Hermes and leave Watney to likely fade away.

Teddy Sanders, the Director of the NASA, is faced with this classic ethical problem. He ultimately makes the utilitarian decision: save everyone aboard the Hermes.

While those aboard the Hermes rebelled and went to save Watney anyway, Sanders’s choice is not so clear cut. Turning the crew around could have been a massive PR win–or loss–for the underfunded space agency. He risks creating division between NASA and the CNSA by changing NASA’s use of the donated Chinese booster.

Whichever choice Sanders made, it would not have been popular. What would you have done?

Communication tools are imperative for project success.

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Even though NASA knew that Watney was alive, there was a month-and-a-half-long gap between discovering that he had survived and establishing any form of communication. Going from “yes” and “no” sessions to full out information dumps took another several grueling months. The difference in what could be accomplished–and Watney’s chances of survival–goes up as communication increases.

Watney’s survival was by no means a one-man project. It involved a multitude of divisions within NASA including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the CNSA, and the Hermes crew.

The Martian is a testament to the importance of project management software and its irreplaceability when communicating with remote teams. While project managers are certainly not regularly passing messages between here and Mars, they do often have to communicate with the opposing side of the world. Investing in software that will not fail in critical moments will help guarantee project success.

Keep it light.

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Let’s be honest: Mark Watney should have died.

If being impaled by an antenna didn’t kill him, his space suit could have deflated and left him suffocating.
If he survived getting impaled, he could still have messed up his sutures and bled out or succumbed to a serious infection.
If he didn’t figure out the staples, he could have still starved to death.
Once he found the potatoes, he still could have lacked the know how to sow the crop.

The list goes on–and it should also include the psychological torment that Watney must have gone through.

Luckily, Watney is a character who is able to make jokes throughout the entire movie to essentially no one. His optimism resonates back to Hermes, NASA, and the entire world. Watney’s positivity kept his mission–his ultimate survival–on target and on time.

Project managers: even when your project looks dismal, have the strength to bring positive energy to your team. It may be the difference between project success and failure.

More?

I’m sure there were lots of other great project management lessons from The Martian that I missed. What would you like to include? Be sure to leave your suggestions in the space below!

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Rachel Burger

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Rachel is a former Capterra analyst who covered project management.

Comments

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Rachel – Great article and excellent correlation with Project Management. Very Thoughtful !!

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Great movie and a interesting link Rachel 🙂
Here’s mine:
1) RISKS – There were plenty!! Meeting impossible deadlines – the JP team pulled the food parcel launch in by 2 weeks by removing safety tests. They met the deadline but lots of after launch problems as a result (I’m sure we’ve all seen that at some point). 🙂 Another example a risk assessment might have helped Mark not blow himself up on his water creation to feed his potato plants?
2) PRESENTATION (similar to communication) – plan ahead. What is the message you want to deliver to your audience. NASA weren’t great at presenting to the public.
3) PLANNING – Try and have a plan B (mitigation). NASA seemingly had no plan B for such a scenario.
4) RESOURCE – Working with limited resource – in Mark’s case food to meet the end of his objective to keep himself alive!! Having the right resource (people or food/equipment) is essential to help your project succeed.
I’m sure there are many more. Thanks. Kevin.

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Great minds think alike! We’ve just published a blog post that also takes inspiration from The Martian.

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-project-managers-can-learn-from-nasa-will-smart?trk=prof-post

We’d love to hear what you think of the Blog and eBook?

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Wow Rachel – you are bang on. Just loved the movie and the analogy to project management. Like you said successful project managers need technical skills (including life saving skills like how to make water or grow potatoes!) for projects to keep it alive and execute. And positive energy to keep the team motivated when things around you conk out. The positivity and practicality of applying technical skills is what kept Mark going and made the difference. Being a project manager myself who is facing similar situations I’d recommend a free project management software (http://www.projecttoolbelt.com) which is integrated with Timesheets to manage teams (at $1/user/month). It has the technical details and the communcation built in to make project management easier. Dedicated to all the Mark Watneys on Earth.

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