3 Lessons in Project Management from Kahn

By: Bryce Blilie
In the Star Trek universe, Khan Noonien Singh (or simply, Khan), was one of several genetically engineered human “Augments” of the late-20th century Eugenics Wars on Earth (1990’s), and considered over three centuries later to have been the “best” of them, known for being a tyrannical and ruthless dictator with an unquenchable thirst for power. During the Eugenics Wars, Khan and his followers exiled themselves from Earth in the starship “SS Botany Bay”, outbound in self-induced suspended animation from the solar system with no intended destination. Reappearing with a cadre of Augment followers 300 years later in the 23rd century, Khan was to become a notorious enemy of USS Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk. Here now are three lessons in leadership for project managers based on his experiences.
Lesson 1: Find ways to use scope change to your advantage.
Khan Noonien Singh in 2267
Khan Noonien Singh in 2267
When the Enterprise unintentionally discovered the SS Botany Bay adrift in space, they boarded it to discover its contents. In doing so, they disrupted Khan’s plans of travelling to a distant location far from Earth’s wars and “regular” (non-genetically augmented) people. Upon being awakened, Khan saw an opportunity to overtake the Enterprise and use it to complete the journey. Confined to quarters after Kirk discovered he was a tyrannical leader from the 20th century, Khan was forced to re-evaluate his strategy. Unfortunately for the crew of the Enterprise, Khan’s new strategy meant being held captive, leading to a showdown between Kirk and the super human. Captain Kirk prevailed, but Khan had earned his respect. The captain concluded imprisoning a group of super humans was, at a minimum, wasteful, and released the Augments to a habitable planet, Ceti Alpha V, where they could spend the rest of their days building their utopian civilization. (Star Trek: The Original Series, “Space Seed”)
Had Khan not attempted takeover of the ship, had he not challenged Kirk’s authority, had he not risked his life to take advantage of an opportunity presented by scope change, he and his followers would have likely spent the rest of their days in a Starfleet prison. Khan needed Kirks sympathy and admiration to avoid imprisonment, and knew he’d have to prove he was worthy of it. But Khan didn’t wait for this to happen, he threatened the captain’s life to get it. Project managers shouldn’t threaten lives of course, but attacking scope change and finding ways to use it for the projects advantage – is advantageous.
Lesson 2: Listen to and trust the advice of business analysts.
Ceti Alpha V
Ceti Alpha V
Unfortunately, after just six months on Ceti Alpha V, a nearby planet exploded and the resulting shockwave destroyed the ecosystems on Khan’s new planet, turning it into a desert wasteland. No one from the Enterprise or Starfleet ever checked back on Khan. Years later they were again accidentally discovered by Captain Terrell and First Officer Chekov of the USS Reliant, out on a survey mission to locate suitable planets for the Genesis Project, a new massively powerful genetic device capable of creating life on otherwise lifeless planets. The irony was thick. (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)
Khan needed revenge having been abandoned and left to die after Kirk and humanity’s broken promises. He was able to commandeer control of the Reliant, and Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise was sent to investigate. Using deception and trickery, Khan inflicted massive damage on the Enterprise before it retreated into a nearby nebula, its shields reduced from the surprise attack. But what Khan ignored would turn out to be his undoing.
His Lieutenant Joachim, playing the role of Business Analyst, warned Khan that following the Enterprise into the nebula would reduce their shields and weapons, making the battle a “level playing field” due to the effects the nebula would have on the Reliant. Blinded by rage, Khan refused to agree and pursued the Enterprise into the murky dust. The Reliant lost sensors and shields in the nebula just as forewarned, ultimately leading to the Reliant and Khan’s demise.
“From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee… For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee…”
– Khan’s last words, from Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s, Moby Dick.
“For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee….”
“For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee….”
Successful project management requires trust between the project manager and the business analyst. If a project manager doesn’t trust a business analyst, the project manager takes on their responsibilities, an unwelcome change that puts unnecessary and perilous pressure on the project overall. If project managers don’t trust business analysts, the risk of “flying blind” becomes exponentially greater. Business analysts can support the project manager in separating themselves from egotistical and potentially detrimental actions.
Lesson 3: “Mistakes are alright, but failure is not. Failure is just a mistake you can’t recover from; therefore, try to create contingency plans and alternate approaches for the items or plans that have high risk.” (NASA)
Khan had no contingency plans for his civilization on Ceti Alpha V. Granted, a nearby planet exploding was a rare and somewhat unpredictable event, but he had an opportunity while aboard the Enterprise to ask them to investigate planetary stability. Khan was able to recover from this mistake, but it should have been a lesson learned to create contingency plans. What about asking Starfleet to leave a communication beacon behind, or some type of orbiting shuttle? Instead he continued brazenly jumping from one critical situation to another, always thinking he had the upper hand and overestimating his abilities to adapt. Had Khan not been blinded by rage and vengeance, his logical mind could have led him to use the Genesis Project himself to create a new ecosystem, and perhaps negotiate with Starfleet on some kind of cease fire – a contingency plan in the event he wasn’t able to defeat the Enterprise.
Consulting project managers are rarely brought in when things are going well, and are often hired when there is either a problem to be solved or when things are going badly. That’s why it’s even more important to plan for inevitable setbacks, and use scope change as an opportunity to show leadership. Consultants do not have to prove themselves to get raises, bonuses, or promotions from the client, but because they are brought in for a specific project or purpose that includes a defined end date, they must prove their value quickly. It can be much simpler for a client to not renew a consultant’s contract than it is to fire a full-time employee and so consulting PM’s need to become an instant expert to gain respect from their client. Part of this requirement demands that contingency plans aren’t convenient – they’re crucial.
Consultants playing the role of project manager face challenges different than those of the full-time employee project manager. Although they can (and should) choose not to involve themselves with interoffice politics, peer pressure can be greater with less forgiveness for mistakes. Khan made the mistake of always resorting to politics, believing he’d be able to outwit his opponents. In many cases he did, but it only served to fuel the fires of resistance, leading to a no-win catastrophe. Consultants should be aware of political situations and their ramifications, but avoid participating in political discussions that undermine their position of external participant. Office politics are found in any organization and consultants usually won’t have an adequate background or history of situations and people to fully understand them – therefore it’s appropriate for them to stay out and stay away whenever possible, yet remain engaged in the relationships that can affect the business value of the project.
In the end, Khan tried to adapt to the myriad of scope changes and external factors affecting the success of his utopian civilization (project). But because he failed to trust his advisors or learn from his mistakes and create contingency plans, his dream of ruling over a race of super humans far from Earth ultimately turned to dust. Project managers and team members alike can learn from this fictional character’s egotistical miscalculations, even without super human genetic augmentation.