Risky Projects: What Batman Got Wrong in Batman v Superman

By all accounts, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” wasn’t a great movie. Project managers know why: It’s because Batman didn’t understand how to manage risks in a project.

5404820750_ca07fbb052_oAll project management begins from one simple principle, outlined in Learning Tree’s Project Management: Skills for Success  course: †No one can deliver an impossible project. An “impossible” project is one who’s specified level of quality can’t be achieved within the parameters of the “iron triangle”: Scope, time, and cost. For example, if you set any two of the iron triangle (e.g. cost and time) then a good project knows that you have to accept whatever the third parameter turns out to be (i.e. if you set cost and time then you have to accept the scope: What you can achieve for that cost in that time).

After you’ve determined a project’s scope/time/cost then “risk” is something that will affect one of those parameters, making it impossible for the project to achieve the required level of quality. The items on the iron triangle remain interrelated when discussing risk. Risk usually affects time and cost by increasing them, for example; one of the most common ways to compensate for those increases (without affecting the quality of the delivered project) is to reduce the scope.

One way to think about risk is by basing it around your project’s task contracts. For any task in the project, a task contract specifies what will be provided, what will be delivered, when it will  be done, and what it will cost. More specifically, risks are deviations that can be associated with any of those four aspects of a task contract:

  • The “will be provided” is late, not provided, or wrong
  • The “will be delivered” isn’t provided or is wrong
  • The cost of the task is greater than expected
  • The time to complete the task is greater than expected

To come it from the other direction: If something can happen that doesn’t affect one of those four parts of a task contract then it probably shouldn’t be classified as a “risk.” Batman’s task, for example, is to provide a world free of crime and, in Batman v Superman, he sees Superman (more broadly, all meta-humans) as a deviation from being able to deliver that.

Identifying Risks

Of course, what you want to do is identify is source of the risk (the “drivers”): You want to know what, for any task in the project, can cause one of those deviations. To find them, you scan the environment for storm clouds, review project history for what’s previously gone wrong, and research projects similar to yours. Your goal is to build up a list of potential risks (a “risk register”). So far, in the movie, Batman’s on solid ground, given his personal exposure to meta-human “projects” like Bane and the Joker plus his research on the General Zod “project.”

A risk register not only lists all the risks, but also includes the quantitative (cost) and qualitative (non-cost) deviations that may result. However, not all risks are equally likely. So a risk register includes a probability of the risk occurring. That probability can be recorded using any mechanism that makes sense to you: One of three categories (High, Medium, Low) or a range of numbers (1 to 5), for example. Multiplying the probability by the cost of the deviation gives you a rough approximation of the importance of the risk, allowing you to rank your risks and, furthermore, decide which risks are big enough worry about — which risks are both expensive and likely.

This is where Batman went wrong when he justified attacking Superman on the basis of “If there’s even a 1% chance…”. Of course, as we all know, there isn’t a 1% chance of Superman — the eternal Boy Scout — doing bad things.

Having said that, Batman’s assessment does, in fact, reflect what happens when people rank risks. The reality is that everyone in the project will have a gut level understanding of what they believe the ranking of risks should be. As a result, if someone’s “favorite risk” ends up low on the risk register then that person will push for either a higher cost or a higher probability to be associated with the risk (or both). These discussions/disagreements can be very fruitful in understanding and exploring the nature of the risk and its impact on the organization — they, effectively, trigger brainstorming that generates a better risk register. Here’s where Batman goes wrong again: By focussing on this one risk (Superman), he fails to consider other risks (Lex Luthor).

Once you have a viable risk register, you can decide what you want to do about the risks. At the very least, you’ll want to:

  • Identify leading indicators that identify that the risk is either about to occur or is occurring
  • Develop a contingency plan to enact should the risk occur and determine its cost

While Batman establishes a contingency plan, he skips an important step: He fails to identify the leading indicators for his risk (or takes a dream that he has of the future as a leading indicator of the risk). As a result, Batman implements his contingency plan (neutralizing the risk) before he has any indication that Superman will trigger a deviation.

Batman also seems to skip applying a cost to his contingency plan, which is foolish — you don’t want to spend more on fixing the risk than the risk will cost you.  I suspect this a common risk when you have a billionaire like Bruce Wayne as your project manager (a risk that doesn’t get discussed as often as it should, apparently).

Mitigating Risk

However, those two steps are just the starting point. The next step involves actually implementing your plan to do one of three things:

  • Avoid the risk (“Let’s do things differently so this can’t happen”)
  • Mitigate the risk (“We can’t prevent this but we can keep it from being a big problem”)
  • Transfer/share the risk (“The vendor has agreed to pay for any cost overruns”)

Many plans encompass several of those goals. Batman’s plan could be classified as either avoiding the risk (neutralizing Superman) or mitigating the risk (removing one of the meta-humans). But, of course, classifying the plan by putting it into one of those three buckets isn’t what’s important: Developing a plan that will achieve one or more of those three goals is. It’s certainly possible that a single plan might achieve all three of these goals.

And, at the end of Batman v Superman, Batman does seem to have recognized that he has misunderstood the risk and, furthermore, developed a new risk register (!!Darkseid!!). This new plan includes ways to both mitigate and share the risk (!!Justice League!!). From a project manager’s point of view, Batman has also recognized the value of a team in resolving project-related issues. This is what success looks like: Great progress on the project,coupled with growth as a project manager.

Shame it wasn’t as successful as a movie, though.

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