The Project Manager’s guide to Doctor Who: The War Games

In this series I’m applying the methodologies of my day job to classic Doctor Who stories. Project management is a subtle profession requiring people skills and precise organisational abilities. Let’s find out if the War Chief’s got what it takes.

Every freelancer brings their own unique skillset to an organisation

1. SET A CLEAR GOAL

When we looked at Castrovalva in the first instalment of the series, we were analysing a self-starting project manager who was setting his own goals. In The War Games we’re looking at a more common scenario — our hero the War Chief is a freelancer who’s been employed to manage the War Lord’s people’s grand scheme. Their plan to raise a galactic army by kidnapping soldiers from across Earth’s history and whittling them down to find the best fighters may seem convoluted and ludicrous, but getting a ridiculous brief from a client and having to make the best of it is a daily occurrence in our profession. The question is: can you deliver?

2. ESTIMATING AND PLANNING

Amongst other capabilities, the War Chief contributed the TIme Lords' unique 'fridge magnet' control system to the operation

For a project so mammoth in scope, a great deal of resource is required. A suitable planet is found to host the games, and the War Chief contributes time travel capability to his clients’ existing brainwashing technology. Processing and relocating all the participating armies along with great chunks of landscape, ordnance and architecture must have been a logistical nightmare, but thanks to the War Chief everything seems to be running efficiently when we join the project. A clear line management structure is in place with the likes of General ‘glasses of doom’ Smythe running a tight ship in the 1917 zone, where we hear Captain Ransom telling Lady Jennifer: “People don’t understand. It’s the paperwork you see. It’s quite fantastic how many forms we have to fill in.” Reassuring.

If I said you had a beautiful body, you would believe it WITHOUT QUESTION

3. CONTINGENCY

Contingency’s the art of preparing for what might go wrong. We never hear of any particular timeframes that have been assigned to the project so delays aren’t necessarily an issue. And we see that the War Chief keeps a close eye on the one thing which could (and does) go wrong – the brainwashing process. We see him checking in with the head of science and responding to the news that it has a 95% success rate with the words “I’m not interested in excuses”. 95% is fucking brilliant if you ask me. But as a great project manager, he’s instinctively applying quantitative analysis and recognises that 5% of free-thinking humans could pose a serious threat.

And yet the process seemed so foolproof

There’s no black mark to the later revelation that his time travel machines have almost completely run out of energy – the project aim is to to conquer the galaxy and subjugate 1000 inhabited worlds, and time travel isn’t required for that. The SIDRATs trigger no further dependencies on the critical path. In project terms he’s met the goal parameters by using the available resources exactly to capacity. And that’s amazing.

4. MANAGING THE TEAM

The War Chief has a commanding presence, a nice way of strutting into a room and a deliciously camp, snarling way of delivering his instructions – we can imagine he’s a popular team leader. He’s described as ‘silver-tongued’ yet we also see that he’s not shy of injecting an element of threat into his briefs – “I hope for your own sake the experiment will be successful” is much more stick than carrot, for instance. Happy to get hands-on (as we see when he takes over from a technician in episode 6), he seems always to be seething with anger but tightly under control.

There are holes in the process, though. “Didn’t you receive your instructions?” he asks General Smythe in episode 7. And we learn that despite – or even perhaps because of – doing everything right, the War Chief is mistrusted, disobeyed. “I was promised efficiency and co-operation! Without the knowledge I have, this complete venture would be impossible!” he complains. We’ve all been there.

Even sitting on a chair incorrectly can foment hostility towards a visiting freelancer

And it’s the Security Chief we can blame for this. Resentful and disparaging of this senior member of staff brought in above him, he publicly badmouths our hero at every opportunity and spreads doubt about his loyalty. It’s a situation that will be sadly familiar to any freelancer – however good your work, the existing staff structure will violently cling together to ensure you never forget you’re an outsider.

Still, the bickering between the War Chief and the Security Chief is always fantastic. We’re not even halfway through the story before the War Chief starts calling his colleague incompetent. And of course, it leads to one of Doctor Who’s greatest exchange of insults of all time.

5. TRACKING, STATUS REPORTING AND CHANGE MANAGEMENT

The War Chief runs a tight operation and responds immediately and effectively to any crisis. He prides himself on his logical approach. Phrases such as “In future inform me of all such developments,” are never far from his lips, and we see him supervising even those operations for which he doesn’t have direct responsibility, such as Jamie’s interrogation.

The late, great Philip Madoc

But it’s the arrival of the War Lord from the home planet that throws everything into disarray. The Chief greets this news with the calm panic common to any PM faced with a visit from their key stakeholder at short notice. To be fair, the War Lord is a terrifying client. Sarcastic, suspicious and with a quietly kinky undertow, he’s mesmerising to watch and I’m sure a bastard to work for. We’ve all had devastating conference calls with his type.

Inevitably the client’s arrival is the catalyst for the in-fighting amongst management to escalate. “I am tired of this eternal bickering,” says the War Lord, a full three minutes after arriving at HQ. He hasn’t even sat through the previous six episodes! The classic technique of blaming a recently departed employee is deployed. “Smythe was a fool, he deserved to die!” spits the Chief immediately after the unlucky martinet is shot.

At the end of episode 7 the Chief is, effectively, sacked as project manager while the War Lord takes charge himself. An ignominious end to a project for any professional. But he wasn’t to blame. “I am in complete control,” he says just before that, even as the resistance rises and the operation spectacularly begins to fall apart. You believe him.

If only they'd given him one of these flattering uniforms

He continues to work as a sort of consultant – after all, his skills are irreplaceable – and has the dubious pleasure of seeing things fall apart without him as the  remaining team make increasingly dubious decisions. Their preparing to drop a neutron bomb, for instance, is as typically frustrating an instance of a client undoing all your hard work as I’ve ever seen.

Sadly the War Chief is finally shot dead by his clients to prevent him taking their secrets to a rival agency – a shame, as simply signing a standard confidentiality agreement at the start of the process would have obviated this. Before his death, he confides in the Doctor that his motivation in aiding the War Lord’s people’s plan was to “bring order”. A great project manager to the end.

And I'll need a VERY BIG MAP

DEBRIEF

  • The freelance project manager was given overall responsibility for all pre-planned war game activities
  • His allocation of necessary inputs was fully optimised to allow the project to begin with high efficiency levels
  • With hindsight, the responsibility assignment matrix should have allocated equal accountability to a permanent member of staff
  • Process execution and change control were good, but undermined by a clash of management styles within the organisation
  • What a stupid fool he was

Project FAIL

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2 responses to “The Project Manager’s guide to Doctor Who: The War Games

  1. Brilliant – I truely enjoyed this. And learned lots from it.

  2. Hi Bert,

    This is one very interesting post on project management. I’m sure many project managers will enjoy it, and that’s why I would like to republish it on PM Hut where many PM’s will be able to read it. Please either email me or contact me through the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

    By the way, I’m noticing that nowadays there are several posts on Doctor Who all of a sudden, is there any reason why?

    Thanks for sharing!

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