Is Darth Vader a Good Project Manager or Not

Lego Star Wars Darth Vader by Jesse757It’s not popular to go against glorifying everything Star Wars—especially in the techie world. Not one to turn from a challenge, VMC’s Michael Pruitt has stepped up to the plate to take a swing at Brandon Koeller’s article, “Top 10 Reasons Why Darth Vader Was An Amazing Project Manager.”

“I was alerted to this article on geekwire promoting the project management skills of Darth Vader. In the article, the author, Brandon Koeller, gives us 10 examples of Vader’s PM skills that draw conclusions either at odds with the evidence or framing poor Project Management as Good Project management.

Koeller writes:

“Number 10: Vader prioritized brutally. Over the course of Vader’s pursuit of the Rebel Alliance, you see him set and pursue priorities according to their strategic value. When he knew the plans for the Death Star had been leaked, he focused on mitigating that risk. When Luke came on the scene, he shifted priorities to recruit him to the Dark Side! Vader paid close attention to the happenings of the galaxy, evaluated the impacts of any given issue, and went after the highest priorities…time after time. No emotional attachments, no personal agendas…just the right thing to do to preserve the Imperium, and see his project through to successful completion. In project management, if you can’t prioritize, you won’t get anything done, let alone anything done well.”

I believe he is making the classic mistake of taking specific characteristics common to one type of project contributor and extrapolating an extreme example of that characteristic as something different. Koeller argues that Vader had a clear strategic goal: preservation of the empire. That may appear to be the case, but by the end of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, his stated Strategic Objective was to overthrow the Emperor. In the context of the entire trilogy, a strong argument can be made that neither preservation of the empire, nor overthrowing the emperor were Vader’s true strategic objectives. Instead, he was driven by an obsessive need for control to protect his love ones. Darth Vader is a project manager who lets his emotional attachments and personal agendas drive decisions, and that’s not good project management.

When Koeller says, “Vader prioritized brutally,” I think he is confusing Vader’s single-mindedness with prioritization. When we talk about prioritization in project management, we usually mean ordering the relative importance of an objective, deliverable or other unit of work. Prioritization paired with a clear strategic objective allows teams to identify the features that we believe will achieve that objective and then stack rank them in order of priority. Then you can pursue features based on that ranking. To ensure that workable solutions or products are delivered within constraints, you need to have the ability to prioritize and use that prioritization to keep projects focused on the highest value work. Vader is single-mindedly pursuing the Rebellion because that’s the task the Emperor assigned him.

Regarding his attempt to seduce Luke to the Dark Side, there’s no evidence of a thought-out plan on Vader’s part, so much as a desperate attempt to turn Luke and overthrow the emperor in order to protect Luke. Remember that business case to the emperor in Empire Strikes Back arguing that Luke would be a powerful ally? Seemed like a manipulative rationalization to justify an otherwise questionable decision to me.

Ultimately I’d argue Koeller is making an equivocation fallacy. And, I’m glad he did because it does two things:

  1. It allows me to geek out at work
  2. It gives me the ability to address the difference between prioritization and single-mindedness.

Prioritization can be adaptive and is a characteristic of facilitators and project managers. Single-mindedness at work is a trait that allows us to focus on specific tasks and focus on them to completion. This isn’t really a core trait of a Project Manager; it’s a characteristic of individual contributors.

Is Darth Vader an amazing project manager, or just a loose cannon? Which Star Wars character would you choose for your next project?

Michael Pruitt chronicles his pursuits as an Engagement Manager at VMC Consulting. You can contact Michael at MichaelPru@vmc.com.

About VMC Consulting and VMC Game Labs

VMC Consulting is a technology consulting and outsourcing company that provides flexible and scalable build, run and support solutions. VMC Game Labs is the world’s leading partner for games quality assurance and support.
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One Response to Is Darth Vader a Good Project Manager or Not

  1. I’d go as far as to say that Vader wasn’t even being single-minded, especially throughout Episode V. He was being obsessive. Obsession is an irrational psychological condition that is the result of an unfocused, chaotic, insane mind attempting to project sanity onto some particular quest. Vader demonstrates in Episode V that everything else is irrelevant except tracking down his son to invite him out for coffee and a little chat or something.

    Anyone who tries to be a project manager while actually in serious need of deep psychotherapy will probably be overwhelmed with the challenge. I would recommend Vader be replaced with someone who is intelligent and adaptable, someone who, while focusing on the main goal, knows how to fine-tune the immediate strategy and manage particular tasks effectively. I recommend Steve Urkel.

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