Project Management Lessons from Eight Seasons of “Game of Thrones”
Note: This post is dark and full of spoilers for all seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Read at your own risk.
The critically-acclaimed television show “Game of Thrones” abounds with teachings for would-be rulers, but it also offers quite a few different lessons for aspiring project management professionals.
As I look back on eight seasons of the show, I can’t help but notice that many of the characters and situations graphically portray both good and bad project management principles. By examining these situations, we can draw out lessons that apply equally well to both the world of business and the world of dragons. I have compiled these lessons into three basic categories: risk management (avoiding dragons), leadership (who sits upon the Iron Throne), and stakeholder management (lots of agendas in play).
In the final season of “Game of Thrones,” one of the most shocking moments for the viewer comes during the climatic struggle between the armies of the Night King and the coalition of the living led by Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow. In the midst of that huge battle, the women and children – who had been safeguarded into the Winterfell crypt – suddenly have to deal with re-animated skeletons emerging from their burial chambers and devouring all the living folks in their path. For the heroes of the show (and viewers), this shouldn’t have come as a surprise since this same “trick” was used in an earlier episode and it was consistent with what was known of the Night King’s power. In project management parlance, this should have been a known and documented risk (with high probability of recurrence!) for which there was a mitigation plan in place, especially considering that it could have a rather high impact on key stakeholders.
Instead, the risk was not mitigated, and there were rather disastrous results when it became an issue (i.e. the defenseless grandmas and children were eaten). You can avoid a similarly disastrous fate by questioning yourself and others on the possible obstacles that could rise up in your path to project success, and planning for how those obstacles can be avoided or mitigated if they occur.
Other risk management lessons that can be learned from the show:
- “Winter is coming.” – Everyone
This is probably the most repeated and famous “Game of Thrones” quote and is a great project management reminder: be aware of risks and plan well during the “good” times (the summer) so that you can survive the “bad” times (the winter). Preparation and communication are key to surviving the multi-year winters of Westeros as well as the “crunch” times of managing a project. Becoming risk aware and putting proper planning into how potential risks can be remediated is what catapults you towards project management excellence.
- “The night is dark and full of terrors.” – Melisandre
In order to successfully deliver a project, there are innumerable obstacles to overcome. Be vigilant, don’t assume anything, and take nothing for granted. Over communicate and ensure no one is left in the proverbial “dark.”
- “No matter who you are, no matter how strong you are, sooner or later, you’ll face circumstances beyond your control.” – Cersei Lannister
Unexpected things will happen no matter how skillfully you execute, maybe through no fault of your own. Have back-up plans for things that could potentially go wrong and be ready to adapt for scenarios you don’t foresee. In addition, standard project deliverables, a set meeting cadence, and consistent status reporting are all factors that help to limit the unexpected and bring order to the chaos of managing a project.
- “You know nothing Jon Snow” – Ygritte
Keep an open mind, constantly challenge your assumptions, and seek confirmation. You don’t always know what you think you know, and what you don’t know can hurt you.
From the first season to the last, leadership by example is one of the show’s running themes. During the epic battle referenced above, young Lyanna Mormont declares to her troops, “I may be small. I may be a girl, but I won’t be knitting by the fire while I have men fight for me. ” In the desperate fighting, Lyanna – who stands under 4 feet tall – challenges a literal giant and, despite all odds, manages to incapacitate the menace.
“Game of Thrones” has regularly included stories that show a true leader is someone who can be held up as a role model because he or she exemplifies the best values for others to follow. So, when Daenerys Targaryen sets a terrifying example for others to follow by burning down the entire city of King’s Landing (inclusive of its citizens), it is clear she will not be the leader to gain the Iron Throne. Although she sets an example that is ruthlessly followed by a subset of her followers (the Unsullied and Dothraki), she loses the Westerosi and her two closest allies and advisers – Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow. And in doing so, she ultimately loses both her dream to rule the Seven Kingdoms and her life when Jon Snow kills her with a thrust to the heart. By taking that action (considered in more detail in the next section), Jon shows another aspect of leadership the show highlights – “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
Together these dual lessons are important in project management. You’re the captain of an endeavor and should lead from the front. That leadership is most important when you need to roll up your sleeves and get dirty (or in this example, bloody). In other words, don’t outsource the important moments (as Cersei tries to do with her plot to send Bronn to execute her brothers). It is project management’s responsibility to communicate the tough messages. There is a reason there shouldn’t be a multiple-headed monster leading one initiative. Leverage the talent you have around you but understand that there ought to be a singular throat to choke – like Jon Snow and the Starks did.
Other leadership lessons that can be learned from the show:
- “A ruler who kills those devoted to her is not a ruler who inspires devotion.” — Tyrion Lannister
Your team is your army. Treat them with care and they will have your back. Ignore them or treat them with contempt or cruelty and they will find ways to put obstacles in your path.
- “Three victories don’t make you a conqueror.” – Jaime Lannister
Don’t get overconfident and take your eye off the ball just because you’re on a hot streak. Smooth sailing can be the result of careful planning or just plain luck, and past results do not guarantee future outcomes.
- “Hold the door! (HODOR!)” – Hodor
At times, projects require more than ordinary effort and you might experience an act of awesome. Recognize those moments and celebrate the people who push you past them.
In the final episode of “Game of Thrones,” a swift knife thrust was seemingly the first indication that Daenerys had that all was not well with her right-hand man / lover. But examined more closely, Daenerys made a few mistakes that fall under the general category of “faulty stakeholder management.”
First, she didn’t have open lines of communication with her subordinates about her thinking and decision-making, operating in a bubble and appearing “mad” to those around her. Transparency could have helped explain what factors she was mitigating with her ruthless actions. In addition, she wasn’t paying close attention to her key stakeholders, which is especially important during tumultuous periods of time.
The lack of attention meant she was able to delude herself to how her actions would play with her key advisers, and that they might cause a rupture in their loyalty and support. This can be avoided by having regular check-ins and open and clear lines of communications that ramp up during important periods (such as a go-live).
Other stakeholder management lessons that can be learned from the show:
- “A man without friends is a man without power.” – Renly Baratheon
“No one can survive in this world without help. No one.” – Jorah Mormont
In project management, you are at the center of a web of connections with different stakeholder groups. Success depends on managing those connections and stakeholders to effectively deliver on your project commitments.
- “I followed you into war. Twice. Without doubts, without second thoughts. But I will not follow you now.” – Eddard (Ned) Stark
Know your stakeholders, what they want, what they don’t, and where you stand with them. Your interactions with them should form the basis of your approach to managing your stakeholders – not assumptions of what they may want or how they might react.
- “Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” – Tyrion Lannister
Most projects don’t go exactly as planned, and every project will have obstacles along the way. In project management, you need to confront the hard truths and, most importantly, share them with your stakeholders. Transparency allows everyone to work together to solve problems swiftly and effectively.
Have these lessons resonated with your experience? Do you have your own GoT project management lessons to share? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.