PM Movies in SPACE!

NASA was an early adopter of modern project management methodologies, so it stands to reason that movies based on their organization would illustrate key principles of the discipline. Watching The Martian I had a lot of empathy for Teddy. He’s the director of NASA and pseudo project manager of the effort to bring Mark home. This thought prompted me to analyze other NASA movies that also demonstrate the fundamental aspects of project management.

SPOILER ALERT: I will not tell you who lives or dies, but I will be reviewing critical plot points of recent blockbuster films.

Image Source: IMDB
Image Source: IMDB

“…get a viable amount of human life off the planet.”
Interstellar

• Scope: Fixed
• Schedule: Variable
• Cost: Variable

Interstellar is the convoluted tale of saving the human race from an inhospitable earth. The schedule is variable because there isn’t a specific time table, and we’re just told at some point in the future the blight will destroy all the crops. The cost is never discussed in the movie. NASA has become a sort of shadow agency and appears to have unlimited resources. This leaves the scope of perpetuating the human race as the fixed constraint. They have multiple plans to achieve this goal, but never stray from that objective.

Image Source: IMDB
Image Source: IMDB

“I’ll start starving on SOL 584.”
The Martian

• Scope: Variable
• Schedule: Fixed
• Cost: Variable

In the Martian, NASA’s objective is to help Mark stay alive until he can be rescued. The schedule is fixed because Mark’s rations will last for a limited amount of time and there is an optimum launch window to send him more supplies. The schedule is so critical that they cut every ancillary step in the plan and add more people to the team to ensure they launch the resupply on time. There is an excellent scene on their risk analysis of shortening the timeline that I am sure left every Quality Assurance Analyst in the audience cringing.

Scope is a variable constraint because it changes throughout the movie. The initial scope is to get Mark a new supply of rations and equipment to keep him alive until the next planned mission to Mars. Eventually it changes all together as they analyze contingency plans. Cost is also variable because it is of no concern in the movie. Because the entire world is captivated by Mark’s struggle they have global resources available to them.

Image Source: IMDB
Image Source: IMDB

“Houston, in the blind…”
Gravity

• Scope: Variable
• Schedule: Variable
• Cost: Fixed

Gravity starts with 5 astronauts upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope. Implementation of the project work was originally scheduled to take a week, but minutes into the movie the mission is aborted and the new objective is survival. Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone’s objectives change a number of times as she is reacting to a series unplanned issues which is why the scope as variable.

The movie covers approximately 3.5 hours of Ryan’s life, and while there are 2 very specific milestones the schedule is variable in relation to the objective of survival. That leaves cost as the fixed constraint. Once communication is lost with Houston and her crew Ryan’s resources are limited to her own capacity and the resources within her reach.

The projects I work on do not have life and death consequences, but these extreme examples show how even when everything seems critical it is essential to identify and manage the primary constraint. This will help to focus and prioritize your work efforts and ensure you meet your objective. It also makes for a compelling story!

What other professions crop up in certain movie genres? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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