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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Lessons learned: What the Silver Screen Cinemas can tell us?

I have been an ardent advocator of teaching the basics of project management, leadership, and emotional intelligence throughout my training and teaching career. In one of the recent classes that I was fortunate to facilitate, I used the example of Apollo 13 motion picture (Grazer & Howard, 1995) to illustrate to the class about the practical realities of how risks and quality can severely turn the happy path scenarios around. It was a revelation for the class as the various teams related to the emphasis of the "unknown unknown" risks on the management reserves, the criticality of risk identification and management strategies on contingency planning, influence of leadership on the conflict resolution and negotiation, etc. Synthesized in this blog are the major lessons that evolved from the class. When used effectively, the use of movies can become an effective tool at both academic and practitioner settings.

One of the first lessons was the importance of the timely response to strategic changes in directions as the management and leadership reestablished the priority. Not only did the NASA management disregarded the original mission to land on the moon but quickly established the revised project goal as they reset the impossible expectations on the on-ground team to bring the astronauts back to earth! Even at a tactical level, when one of the engineers pointed out how much power they need to be conserving in order to return to earth, the decision-making was quick. One may question the time taken here because all these discussions were captured in a movie. However, when relating to the Apollo 13 timeline (n.d.) that were documented by where the entire episode of the discovery of the problem to the egress of the astronauts from the command module was approximately only 2.5 days, the importance of decision making cannot be overlooked.

The recurring theme among the teams was the relationship of proactive risk management. A space shuttle launch initiative is a major undertaking and risk management is a sine qua non of such larger programs. Yet, when the calamity dawned on the team, it became apparent in the class discussions how many of the risk response strategies had to be reworked identifying the secondary risks of the release of unsafe chemical gases and attempts to squeeze more power from modules for which no clear documented procedures existed.

Another theme resonated nicely from the discussions was the importance of stakeholder and communication management. As heard in the movie, “Failure was not an option,” for NASA but there were several stakeholders in the power-influence grid that need to be managed. The team’s efforts in managing these numerous stakeholders’ expectations during this major recovery exercise were commendable particularly in light of the fact that that the only available communication channels available at that time were the radio, the television, and the newspapers. Managing expectations of public relations was still achieved in the absence of today’s Internet-connected social media world.

An interesting point was the class’ focus rested predominantly on the on-ground team efforts until discussions were brought on the astronauts that needed to execute these sequences under entirely different situations of limited heat, extreme stress, limited resources, and intense focus. These facilitated discussions further highlighted the analogy to the gaps experienced with the distributed, virtual, and remote teams were brought to light.

In summarizing, this exercise brought a good closure in bringing home the vital elements of management and leadership while constantly managing the emotions expeditiously and relating to the basic principles of project management.

What other movies do you think can bring home similar experiences in a teaching or training setting?

Apollo 13 Timeline (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2016, from

Grazer, B. (Producer), & Howard, R. (Director). (1995). Apollo 13 [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

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