Everything I Know About Project Management, I Learned from Game of Thrones

  May 24, 2013

In George R.R. Martin’s masterful series, A Song of Ice and Fire (currently an HBO television show, Game of Thrones), many characters in the fantasy world of Westeros create goals, make plans, maneuver people and events toward the goal they want, and eventually realize their goal. It’s kind of like project management, but with more entrails.

Although a lot of the schemes these characters are based on objectives you wouldn’t normally find in an office —revenge, reprisal and retribution against an ever-increasing list of enemies — a project manager can learn a great deal from these books. They’re kind of like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, except with less sympathy and better costumes.

So here’s what we can learn about project management from a few choice characters in Game of Thrones. (Spoilers are unavoidable.)

Theon Greyjoy: Make sure your stakeholders are on board.

theon-greyjoy-alfie-allen-helen-sloanIn the books/series: Theon Greyjoy was the ward of Eddard Stark, given to him as a hostage when his father Balon’s uprising failed. Later, Greyjoy tried to prove himself to Balon…by seizing the Stark castle of Winterfell.

What project managers can take away from this:

Theon launched an ambitious project without ensuring his participants had the same goals in mind. While he shows great initiative in switching his original plan—Theon went from raiding fishing villages to capturing the stronghold of his father's enemy—he fails to take into account that the Iron Islanders are experienced in sacking and pillaging strongholds. But holding and defending them? Not so much. While his men are apparently willing participants, they actually have entirely different motivations and goals from Theon's project. As a result, it's doomed to failure from the start.

Failing to take into account the divergent goals of his stakeholders caused Theon to make decisions that ended up torturing him for months afterwards.

And when I say “tortured,” I mean it.

Viserys Targaryen: Have a clear goal with defined milestones.

viserys-targaryen_0Viserys is the son of the late king, Aerys the Mad, and the heir to the throne before it was seized by Robert Baratheon. In hiding for most of his life, Viserys has become cruel, callous and impatient.

What project managers can take away from this:

Viserys has only one goal—to retake the Iron Throne of Westeros—and a vague plan on how to accomplish it.

  1. Marry his sister Daenerys to the horselord Khal Drogo, in exchange for the use of his 40,000 riders.
  2. ???
  3. King!

It’s a grand idea, but Viserys hasn't thought through any of the details. The Dothraki horsemen are a formidable fighting force, but Westeros is far away across an ocean, “poison water” from which their horses do not drink, and transporting such an army by ship is a massive undertaking. Viserys' solution (or lack thereof) to these critical project details is a clue as to why he's still not king.

As in Westeros, project leaders who fail to provide a project plan, or clearly delegate that responsibility to an actual project planner, find their project going over time and budget. Their projects, and perhaps their careers, could ultimately be killed. Which is exactly what happened to Viserys.

In the few chapters in which he appeared in the first book/season, Viserys is also guilty of a second project management faux-pas: Daenerys later proves to be a far more versatile asset than he ever gave her credit for. By viewing her as merely a bargaining chip for Khal Drogo, Viserys failed to draw on what was actually his most talented contributor. If he'd given Daenerys more responsibility, respect, and input, his plan may have had a chance of working.

Daenerys Targaryen: Ambitious projects require leadership.

doreah-dany-irriDaenerys was treated cruelly by her brother. But she was treated extremely kindly by her husband, and through their relationship, her confidence grew. After both brother and husband died, she decided to do what neither of them could: Take the Iron Throne for herself.

What project managers can take away from this:

If you have an ambitious project in your hands, with stretch goals that you know will tax your strongest contributors, you need more than a good project plan and milestones: You need your people to be inspired. Daenerys knows she lacks all the pieces for her plan to take the Iron Throne; she also knows it involves her dragons, who are currently too young to be much of a threat. But she projects both flexibility and conviction, and that's enough to inspire her followers.

To pull this off, Daenerys is approachable and listens to her advisers. She encourages them to speak freely but then gives clear direction as to what she expects. Even when her situation looks grim—and believe me, it’s hard to find the light side when you're leading a band of starving people across a desert—Daenerys commands enough respect to keep her people’s morale intact.

Danerys also shows another key quality of good project management: She constantly seeks to learn, and she frequently integrates new information into her plans. That allows her to take advantage of opportunities when they arise, where an inflexible project leader (say, King Joffrey) sees only distractions.

At one point, she tells her people, “I swear to you that those who would harm you will die screaming.” Remember that loyalty to your team is important, although threatening blood and fire might not work in the boardroom.

Tyrion Lannister: Turn obstacles into opportunities.

tyrion-lannister-peter-dinklage-helen-sloanTyrion Lannister is the son of the richest, most powerful man in the kingdom, but as a dwarf unloved by his father, he’s learned to rely on his wits. More than anything else, Tyrion is a master of turning adversity into assets: When attacked by bandits, he converts them from would-be murderers into his own private army. Later, he feeds different information to three powerful men in order to learn which one would betray him.

What project managers can take away from this:

Every project has obstacles to overcome. Although you can plan for some, others arrive out of the blue. A good project plan has built-in resiliency in case the more unpredictable pieces don't deliver as expected: This is of course especially true in organizations like the Small Council where politics can come into play.

Being quick on your feet is no substitute for having an actual plan, of course. But once you have a plan in place, make sure it's flexible enough to survive a few unexpected twists, and be creative enough to find alternate ways to achieve your objectives when obstacles block your progress. Giving your contributors the ability to show initiative will greatly help, but only if you have a plan (see: Robb Stark).

Hodor: Make sure you're using all your assets.

bran-hodor-1920Hodor, a servant to House Stark, is extremely tall, strong, and loyal. He’s also completely free from the ravages of intellect. You’ve heard the expression, “a man of few words?” He’s actually a man of one word: “Hodor.”

What project managers can take away from this:

Every project of any size needs both talented individuals to drive it forward and people to support them in that endeavor. Overlooking all the assets available can leave valuable productivity on the table and may even cause it to fail. Harnessing the full value of contributors increases the project’s chances of success.

Some project managers focus on their principal contributors to the exclusion of the rest of the team. But that's not always what those primary contributors need. Spend time harnessing the abilities of the whole team, and those principal contributors will become more productive. Although Hodor might not seem useful, he provides Bran with critical support: mobility. After Bran loses the use of his legs, Hodor carries the young man everywhere in a basket strapped to his back.

Eddard Stark: Understand the scope of a project before you execute it.

promo-ned-with-iceEddard is the friend and right-hand man of Robert Baratheon, king of the Seven Kingdoms. While trying to solve the murder of the previous Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, he learns that the newly anointed King Joffrey isn’t Robert’s son after all: He’s the child of Robert’s wife Cersei and (eek) her brother Jaime.

What project managers can take away from this:

When he realizes that Joffrey isn't Robert Baratheon's son, Eddard Stark puts in motion a plan to prevent Joffrey from ascending to the throne. Unfortunately, he is primarily a military man and is used to uncomplicated projects (like winner-take-all swordplay) where might is the primary determinant of success. As a result, he is completely unaware of the political complexities involved in carrying out a plan in the environment of King's Landing.

Stark needed to consider how to manage the political aspects of his project. If he'd realized the project was more extensive than a pure show of force, he would have bided his time and involved Robert’s two brothers to find a successful solution. Instead, he relied on an unreliable resource, Littlefinger (who even told him up front he was unreliable. Even the most clueless project manager should be able to spot that risk).

Eddard Stark did not understand the scope of his project well enough to execute it. As a result, it executed him.

Robb Stark: Make sure your contributors understand the context of their deliverables.

garden-of-bones-01-1920During a battle, Robb Stark has a plan to draw enemy forces into his territory, where Robb's troops have home advantage. Unfortunately, Robb does not explain this to his uncle and commander, Edmure. As a result Edmure, on his own initiative, sees what he thinks is an opportunity and attacks.

What project managers can take away from this:

Any good leader should encourage initiative in their reports. A tactical decision in the heat of the moment can sometimes make the difference between success and failure. But Robb failed to communicate his plan, causing Edmure's initiative to backfire. Worse, having explained the plan afterwards, Robb has now discouraged Edmure from taking any further initiative, for fear it may disrupt Robb's plans.

Ideally, all participants in a project have access to the whole plan, even if they are only involved in delivering a piece of it: Understanding how your piece connects to others can help contributors find problems early, or help propose improvements, that would otherwise only come to light much later. In both Westeros and in the here and now, there are good reasons to avoid communicating a whole plan. But that just puts more responsibility on the project leaders to make sure the right information is communicated.

All photo credit: winteriscoming.net

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