I watch a fair amount of television (well, technically, streaming video on apps) and recently, I watched (and really enjoyed) 24: Japan – the Japanese remake of the American 24 franchise. It was really good and as I watched through the 24 episodes, I started to notice that there are things that we can learn from the show about managing projects. That brings us to this post – written half-seriously and half in jest.
Quick Background to 24:JAPAN
24:JAPAN is the Asahi TV Japanese remake of the popular American 24 series. It is a show in which events happen in real time and over the duration of a single day – 24 hours from midnight to midnight. The show is also available on the Disney+ streaming service which provides a description in English.
I would summarise the plot as follows: Events happen on the day of the Japanese general election when it is hoped that Japan will elect its first female prime minister. However, a very well-planned plot is underway to assassinate her. An agent in the Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU), well-known to play fast and loose with the rules in the pursuit of the truth, is leading the team to stop the assassination. It has a traditional drama ending in the sense that the good guys win.
As always, there is a lot more information on the 24:JAPAN Wikipedia page if you want to find out more.
Note: Much though I would like to, I don’t know if I can use any of the images from the show, so I have left that out till I figure out how. If you know, please let me know.
Lessons for Project Managers and Programmers
So, what can we learn from this TV drama? Here are 10 lessons from 24: JAPAN for project managers and programmers. Each item is explained in its own section with a simple plot link – if you have seen the show, you might be able to pick up the reference. I will try not to have any spoilers. Where applicable, I also point out the flip side in following the advice from the show (e.g., we are not all funded like mafias in TV shows are).
1 – You need (at least one) Plan B
If the mission that you are doing is critical, then you need to plan not just for the happy case – you need to think of Plan B. For programmers, this might mean starting a low-grade evaluation of an alternative technology that could provide [at least some of the] capability that your project needs, in case you are unable to achieve everything you need. It could also mean deciding that falling back to buying/ licensing a solution from someone else might be a sensible trade-off to provide a solution while you implement your own. For project managers, it’s important to be aware of the pieces that plug in together and to actively consider which parts are critical and need to have a Plan B for the success of the project. This might mean not just having one Plan B – but might mean having multiple Plan B arrangements for different parts so that the parts that succeed plug in with the Plan B arrangements for the parts that failed.
Plot Link: The bad guys had a lot of Plan B arrangements that enabled them to keep progressing in their mission even as plans were exposed and foiled. Very specifically, the agility demonstrated by Andre at the special facility.
On the flip side: Plans B (Plan Bs?) are expensive to put in to place and execute. So, unless you have mafia-level budgets (and/ or the mission is super critical), you will need to prioritise which Plans B make sense and when to activate them (from the beginning, on-demand when Plan A fails, or a combination by putting some things in place early and getting deeper into Plan B later).
2 – One motivated person opposed to your mission can damage your plans
Well, that’s the whole story of these shows, right? One person destroys the best made plans. Well, that can happen to your project also. If there is one motivated person with leverage who is opposed to the mission that you are aiming for, that can cause many problems as you execute. This could be a person who is deliberately malicious, or someone who refuses to align with the team, or just someone who has not been brought onto the same page. Whatever the cause, as a project manager, you would be well advised to closely look for people who are opposed to the progress and to guide them back to alignment.
Plot Link: The whole show!
3 – A lot can happen in 24 hours
That’s the whole point of the 24 family – a lot can happy in 24 hours. If your project is under pressure and the team is willing to pull together, a lot can be done and a lot can be achieved. It’s not sustainable to do this forever but a committed and well-functioning team can push through many challenges.
Plot Link: The whole show!
On the flip side: Of course, this assumes that every one is somehow wide awake through all of this (and you need infinite supplies of beverages and snacks)
4 – Smooth talkers for Stakeholders
When a project is in crisis, you need someone with authority who can take on the role of communicating with the stakeholders. In this, it really helps if you have a smooth talker who can help the stakeholders understand what is going on, how the project is progressing, and how it will result in their needs being met. This can help clear the working team to charge towards the success of the mission without being distracted by the stakeholders who are obviously worried about whether their needs are being missed or if the project is spiralling towards failure.
Plot Link: Onitsuka talks to Rikka at critical points about Shido Genba.
On the flip side: This can buy you time but sooner or later, if this is not true, it will be exposed.
5 – Even a well-planned activity can be effectively replanned under pressure
Imagine that you have spent six months planning an activity in great detail but find out at the last minute that one of the pre-requisites has not been executed successfully. How long do you think it would take to re-plan for successful execution? We see in 24: JAPAN, that a focussed 20 minute re-planning atcivity might be able to provide a solution so that you can make progress. Under pressure, with motivated stakeholders, and with access to detailed data, you can think of alternatives that could help you progress. The long time spent planning the original Plan A gives a lot of inputs to guide the rapid re-planning.
Plot Link: At the facility, Andre plans an alternative in 20 minutes.
On the flip side: Similar to Plan B, a hastily re-planned activity comes at a cost. In a drama show, the cost might be something like more people being killed or having to blow up facilities rather than taking them peacefully. In a real project, this cost could be an inefficient solution, more resources/ servers, some burnout in the team as they try to put things together, and so on. Again, it’s the time for engineering trade-offs and you will need to decide what makes sense but this can help you get back on track.
6 – It helps to know someone at the top
Most of the time, you might do well to work through your hierarchy and team to move things forward. However, some times, it helps to be able to go further to the top to get extraordinary clearance, counsel or support. Of course, in companies with flatter hierarchies, this might be something that is easier to achieve but it certainly helps if you are able to reach out further to the top to get buy-in for an unconventional approach, or to clear blockers that might take too long through the normal channels.
Plot Link: Shido Genba reaches out to Urara.
On the flip side: if you are in a place with a very strict hierarchy, it can be disconcerting for people being bypassed unless they understand that this is really been done in the interest of the project. Tread carefully!
7 – Loose coupling, tight coupling
Programmers often hear about loosely coupled systems and tightly coupled systems, or about having lots of dependencies that make upgrades and changes difficult. This is also nicely illustrated in the show where the bad guys seem to have no qualms about disposing of people and plans, while the good guys have things that are holding them back. This loose coupling in the plans of the bad guys lends them greater flexibility in changing plans and making changes. This also applies to a particular issue with software developers – emotional attachment. In the show, the good guys often have emotional attachments (e.g., family members who need money or are being held hostage) – software developers are similar. Many have emotional attachment to code that they have written and would spend hours and hours trying to find and fix problems rather than admit that it might be time to rewrite it or change it.
Plot Link: The bad guys keep killing people who you would have thought were important to their plans.
On the flip side: This is often a tough issue for software developers to deal with.
8 – Unbelievable successes can also be quickly forgotten
Even massively difficult things (like blowing up an aeroplane and escaping from it) will eventually get forgotten, and rather quickly. You will realise this in the second 12 hours of the show that you have forgotten completely about these kinds of achievements. This happens in projects also – it’s possible that you did something unbelievable at some point in the project, but don’t be surprised if that gets forgotten as priorities change. As contributors, it’s important to not have an ego about things that went spectacularly well. As project managers, it is helpful to remember who did well and to acknowledge it – it might motivate them further.
Plot Link: Someone blew up a plane and jumped out of it!
9 – Honesty can turn problems into opportunities
Every now and then, there are problems, and in the show, these were problems from the past that come back to haunt you. You can try to run from these problems or sweep them under the carpet but sometimes, it helps to be honest and take ownership of these problems. Being honest with your team and stakeholders is a way to get everyone onto the same page, and to build the conviction to fight together to overcome the problems.
Plot Link: The story of Urara.
10 – At least, the key people must know the full picture
There are some people who are really smart, motivated and committed. It’s important that these people are aware of the full picture so that they can help to piece things together more quickly and pitch in, as and where needed. This saves time and prevents them from spending time trying to put things together. Get them on your side and let them help you.
Plot Link: Milo (the person)
On the flip side: Not everyone appreciates being given all the information or the time that it takes to keep everyone updated on everything. It can also take time to figure out who works better with the full picture and who does not.
So, that’s the list of things that I picked up from 24: JAPAN as lessons that project managers and programmers could learn. It was actually fun writing this post – I am not sure if I can/ will do this for other drama series but it at least justifies all the binge-watching I do.
If you found it useful or would like to add more links, feel free to share the post (you can tag me as @onghu on Twitter) or leave a comment below.