The Project Manager’s guide to Doctor Who: Ghost Light

‘I never knew you had dandruff!’ ‘I don’t!’

1. SET A CLEAR GOAL

For all the notorious complexity of Ghost Light’s plot, Josiah Samuel Smith would seem to have a straightforward, quantifiable task – to catalogue all life on Earth. But the worst thing a project manager can do is accept an open-ended brief like that without questioning its scope and defining constraints. Even allowing for ‘the evolution issue’ that will ultimately scupper the project, Light charges Josiah with carrying out the survey and then goes to sleep for two years. He only wakes up because the Doctor forces it. What timescales did he expect the catalogue to be completed in? It’s not clear. It’s not clear at all.

2. ESTIMATING AND PLANNING

‘I promise if you enquire about the Over 50s Plan no salesman will call!’

So from the brief given, Josiah’s first response should have been to set a realistic timeframe for the completion of the work and plan what resources he would need. He would have had to allow for his own evolution through insectoid and reptilian forms into the planet’s dominant species, showing an increased efficiency curve as he nears the status of a Victorian gentleman. And a full critical path analysis ought to have sorted the dependent sequential tasks from the freestanding parallel ones.

None of this seems to have happened. He’s pitched up at Gabriel Chase, got drunk on power, brainwashed, imprisoned or sent to Java everyone in sight, filled the place floor to ceiling with stuffed animals, and hoped for the best.

3. CONTINGENCY

‘There’s somebody at the door!’

You wouldn’t call him a planner, then, but you can’t fault Josiah’s careful vigilance around the house. There are secret glowing eyes in every room and corridor, which (in a deleted scene on the DVD) we see he monitors through a microscope. Why be so paranoid, though? His project comes with a robust risk impact buffer in the form of Control, her role to act as a balance to Josiah as he evolves according to the needs of the survey.

‘In twenty years this whole thing could evolve into Downton Abbey’

The trouble is, Josiah’s imprisoned Control in their cellar spaceship, jealous of her potential to swap roles with him if required. We all enjoy having complete control of our projects, but there are times when we have to share the glory and the responsibility with colleagues. This is harshly subverted in Josiah and Control’s symbiotic, energy-swapping relationship. Neither of them can thrive unless the other degenerates. Josiah’s desire to keep Control on the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder means that, in terms of the Leader–Member Exchange Theory popular among 1970s business analysts, he consigns her to his out-group when he should be fostering her dyadic linkages.

4. THE PROJECT GOES LIVE: MANAGING THE TEAM

Josiah assigns roles in the most patriarchal way possible. Lady Pritchard makes for a stern, tireless housekeeper whose hunger to hurt others he’s happy to harness. Wise, primitive Nimrod, released from storage following a previous survey, makes the perfect butler. Gwendoline is kept on mostly for company it seems. The rest of the night staff are compliant to the point of being happy to spend the entire day stood waiting in a bricked cupboard.

There’s a VERY strict chamberpot rota in there

He undertakes some work directly, an extended study on moth colouration within species for instance, and has learned and spoken enough about natural selection for his theories to be noted in academic circles. But you sense his heart isn’t in the project, and his passion is for his sideways ambition to assassinate the Queen and rule Britannia. At least his megalomania is expressed in terms of good PM practice: ‘The British Empire is an anarchic mess. There’s no clear directive from the throne, no discipline. Result? Confusion. Wastage. I can provide a new order.’

5. TRACKING, STATUS REPORTING AND CHANGE MANAGEMENT

Everything in the house runs like clockwork – to the literal point that the night staff start when the clock strikes six, whether or not it’s actually six o’clock. But as we’ve seen, Josiah sits atop this efficient structure doing little but indulge his fancies. He files no updates at all, in fact is so terrified that Light will wake up demanding a progress report that he begs the Doctor not even to touch his chamber.

The escape of Control is Josiah’s first serious problem. His immediate act is to offer the Doctor £5,000 to deal with her. It’s a great bit of speculative contractor recruitment in one sense, as he’s clearly identified the Doctor’s core competencies quickly and shrewdly, but of course he’s misjudged our hero’s motives and morals.

‘Centuries of work wasted!’

And it’s the Doctor who brings Light back into the project environment. Light’s a combination of all the worst clients you’ve ever had – he can kill with a single glance, people have gone mad on meeting him and he’s so stubborn he’d rather cancel the whole project than deal with the implications of all the amendments to the catalogue. I spent many years project managing catalogue production for some well known high street shops and it was a proper trial. The Christmas ones were the worst. The amendments were never ending. I do know how Light feels.

 So, naturally Josiah’s response to the unexpected client visit is to a) run away and b) try to kill him – we’ve all been there. And his treatment of his colleague Control catches up with him; having treated her as a ‘depraved monstrosity’ for so long she’s so desperate for freeness and change that she evolves far quicker than he ever could and takes his place. He’s left, a snivelling wretch on the floor, stripped of all authority and facing a servile future as the project starts anew elsewhere. Wicked.

‘What version of Lotus 1-2-3 is this? Don’t tell me it’s evolved into Excel aready.’

DEBRIEF

  • An unrestricted set of ultimate deliverables left the project vulnerable to scope creep
  • Failure to identify key milestones along the critical path meant that ongoing schedule evaluation was impossible
  • The core team performed well, however the relationship with the Control creature was decisively anti-synergistic
  • The project manager lacked focus and failed to leverage his own time to effectively prioritise the project
  • Client reporting and expectation management were shoddy to the point of opacity. When finally given access to the survey data, the stakeholder was forced to withdraw his buy-in completely
  • The project could only have succeeded if achievable parameters had been negotiated and agreed at the briefing stage
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3 responses to “The Project Manager’s guide to Doctor Who: Ghost Light

  1. Hi,

    That’s an excellent post on project management and I also love Dr. Who!

    I would really love to republish your post on PM Hut ( http://www.pmhut.com ) where many project managers will find it fun and interesting! Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

    • You’re very welcome to – it’s basically me pissing about so I’m amused to think of people accidentally getting actual educational value from it :)

  2. I see now that the project was doomed from the start.

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