As a child in the late 1960s, I have fond memories of Sunday nights where after church my family would gather around the tv, pass around a large can of Charles Chips, and settle down for an exciting episode of Mission Impossible. The multi-talented characters became my personal heroes as, week after week, they battled fictional leaders of countries behind the Iron Curtain and members of the Syndicate that posed a threat to free societies across the world.
Thanks to a plethora of television channels that provide unending viewing pleasure, I can now revisit these episodes any time I want. While watching an episode recently, it suddenly occurred to me that this series sets an exemplary model of project management at its best.
The problem is clearly defined. The mission is succinct and clear. The episodes always begin with a faceless, low-tech (as measured by today’s standards) 2-minute synopsis of the problem, complete with the caveat that if the IM force gets captured, nobody will come to their rescue. In fact, government officials will deny the team was engaged or exists. While as project managers we rarely begin an effort with such blatant and threatening consequences of failure, the expectation is clearly set that the project should be completed on time and within scope.
The team is chosen with great care. Regulars are often supplemented with guest stars that possess unique skills that add value to the mission. The team always works in their strengths: Willy (played by Peter Lupus) is never responsible for programming a computer or rewiring the phone connections, and Barney (played by Greg Morris) is never seen carrying the oversized luggage.
The project plan is meticulously calculated. It is never fully revealed to the audience because it would remove the suspense when the plan unfolds as you wonder if the enemy’s reaction was by design or if it was a mistake. However, it is clear as the plan is executed the team knows the details inside and out. They are not only aware of their responsibilities, but also the responsibilities of other team members. When Cinnamon (played by Barbara Bain) comes across an important piece of information that affects Barney, she finds a way to let him know.
They use many types of tools and these tools are always ready. I clearly recall being amazed at the gadgets used to help penetrate enemy forces and carry out the mission. Although now they seem rather lame and cheesy, at the time they were inventive and creative. One thing was clear: they always had their tools ready and available when they were needed. Barney never has to hunt for his screwdriver as he hung suspended 120 feet in the elevator shaft.
They have each other’s backs. This is probably because their missions involve life and death, but how much more effective would our projects be if we exhibited the same commitment to our team members, always looking for missed clues or cues that might jeopardize the plan and working together to quickly fix any problems.
They manage the project by influencing others. I don’t recall one episode where the IM team ever purposefully pulled the trigger to kill off the enemy, but they certainly accomplished their mission by executing elaborate deceptions that divided the enemy, resulting in their downfall and ultimate demise. While I am certainly not advocating deceptive practices in project management, I think there is a lesson to learn in becoming so adept at understanding the reality of the project environment that the team was successful in persuading the enemy to believe and do things they would not normally do.
Something always goes wrong. This not only makes for exciting tv, it accurately portrays reality. Developing alternative plans and thinking on their feet was a strong skill for the IM force. I contend the reason they were so good at this is because they intimately understood the mission and they were committed to the end result.
They manage the message through effective communication. There are two important facets to this point. First, the team actually communicated with each other: frequently. They let each other know when their portion of the project was complete so the next person would perform their duties. If something was taking longer than expected and would jeopardize the deadline (or, in some cases, the explosion needed to be delayed), it was communicated to the entire team. Remember this wasn’t the age of the cell phone or texting. Sometimes elaborate methods were used to make these connections.
Secondly, the team used effective communication to team carefully guided the enemy to the prescribed conclusion. Then again, it didn’t hurt that the team was able to re-route calls and create fake broadcasts to reinforce their message. All the tricks aside, the IM team studied the enemies’ personalities and proclivities so they could tailor the message effectively to emit the correct response. The IM force understood that in order to complete their mission they needed to persuade individuals to act in a certain way and perform certain tasks. Don’t we as project managers have the same mission? Even when managing an IT implementation, we need for people to act. We will never get away from the human aspect, even in the most technical projects.
They know when it’s over. Maybe it’s because the 1-hour show must conclude on time each week, but you don’t see the IM force hanging around to gloat after the project has ended. There’s no post-project bragging about their PM skills, just a quiet exit and looking forward to the next venture. The lesson to be learned is that good PMs know it’s not about them, it’s about the project.
–Donna Grant, Consultant, TAC4 Solutions