Their high-blown fantasy and improbable outcomes notwithstanding, James Bond films are strangely relevant to project management. They demonstrate the benefits of proper planning with clear implementation strategies and regular and effective monitoring. Further, the films emphasize the importance of networks and partnerships.
James Bond is a character created by the British novelist Ian Fleming in 1953. He is supposedly an English super-spy who works for MI6, and is referred to as 007 since he was the seventh agent to be given a ‘license to kill’. In 1962 ‘Dr. No’ was the first of the Bond novels – actually the sixth in the series – to be made into a film and the ensuing series of James Bond films has continued for over fifty years. The most recent of the 23 films that now constitute the genre is the 2015 blockbuster ‘Spectre’, in which Bond is played by Daniel Craig. Craig is the sixth actor to play the role and was preceded by Sean Connery (1962–71), George Lazenby (1969), Roger Moore (1973–85), Timothy Dalton (1987–89) and Pierce Brosnan (1995–2002).
Undoubtedly, the 'James Bond' brand has proved remarkably successful, surviving so long in the cut-throat business of commercial filming. Beyond surviving, the brand has been immensely profitable and the films have received Oscars and other international awards. Given that each individual Bond film is conceptualized as a project, this brief paper explores the lessons to be learned from these films that are relevant to some of the common elements of traditional project management, namely: preparation; planning and development; implementation; networking and partnerships; preparing a plan B; and monitoring. These are discussed below.
Purportedly the preparation for each James Bond escapade is done by MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. MI6 maps out the plan, the costs and all the inputs needed, including the selection of the best project manager for the job. There are both similarities and dissimilarities in real life projects: during the preparation of a traditional project, the sponsors recruit a consultant to collect all the necessary information and to interview stakeholders before making an analysis and preparing a project document that includes the inputs and the expected outcomes. After project approval, the sponsors begin to mobilize the inputs needed to roll out the project.
Unlike traditional projects, all Bond films involve the same activity, espionage; accordingly preparation and planning are limited to key people to avoid the leakage of sensitive and dangerous information. According to Ross (2012), MI6 normally holds several internal meetings to get all the details straight. Similarly, traditional projects hold multiple meetings with all stakeholders and consultants involved in the project's preparation to make everyone aware of their hopes and expectations.
2. Planning and development
Once the project is approved, the sponsors or donors look both for qualified people to implement the project and for any other necessary inputs. The people thus identified, including the project manager, are briefed by the sponsoring agency before starting the job. During these briefings each party should make clear their expectations and responsibilities. Thus too with our hero, James Bond: as observed by Ross (2012), once Bond has accepted the assignment he is normally briefed in MI6 and told the background of the situation, given profiles of the people involved and a direction in which to begin his investigation. In addition, he is notified about contacts who might help him with useful local information or materials for his assignment and given the gadgets and tools necessary for his work.
The preparation of the planning process in all the James Bond films is thorough, focused and complete before the mission begins. In return MI6 gets an assurance from Bond that he will complete his assignment as briefed. This sound preparatory process encourages Bond not only to perform to the best of his ability, but even to go beyond the call of duty in seeing that his assignment is successfully completed.
The sorts of projects with which we are concerned, however, in the more mundane conditions of African development, do not unfold in quite such an orderly and predictable manner. There are exceptions, of course, like the programme for the eradication of river blindness (onchocersiasis) in West Africa, which was completed in 2002, fully 28 years after its launch, having proceeded throughout that period in accordance with its well-laid plans and careful implementation. Many other projects in Africa have much more mixed results, however. In Africa, even if projects are well planned, many will fail – collapsing dramatically, or slowly fizzling out – during implementation. Watching the planners at MI6 and the implementation strategies of their implementing agency, Agent 007, at work, however, shows us that proper planning of any project must be accompanied by systematic follow-up of every step of the process until its completion.
According to Albert Hirschman (1967), the implementation of any project is full of surprises and unknowns that sometimes bring it to paralysis. In most Bond films our hero comes across many unexpected villains or strange situations and has to use ingenious strategies to overcome them. For example, in the film Goldfinger (1969), the eponymous and villainous mastermind is supposed to kill Bond. Bond, however, refuses to believe that he can ever simply die (Deshpande 2012). To extricate himself from his situation, Bond lies to Goldfinger that MI6 knows about the underground `Operation Grand Slam`, which results in Goldfinger sparing Bond’s life.
Similarly, project managers should be innovative and come up with suggestions as to how to tackle any challenges facing the project, such as political interference, regardless of how unpopular they may be. This was the case with Bond in his dealings with Goldfinger. Also, in ‘License to Kill’ (1989), Bond’s friend is fed to sharks by the villain, the drug lord Franz Sanchez, resulting in his losing a leg. Subsequently, Bond is denied permission to pursue Sanchez and resigns from MI6 (Sauder 2013), so that he can find Sanchez and catch and kill him. In this case Bond’s attitude is unacceptable: no matter how bad the situation that they face, project managers should not allow personal bias to cloud their judgement in their work.
4. Networking and partnerships
Another lesson we may learn from James Bond films relates to networking and partnerships. Bond understands the importance of networking, especially using local contacts to accomplish his assignment. For instance, ‘License to Kill’ (1989), reminds us that project management should prepare itself for any eventualities. Lauder (2013) acknowledges that, in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997), despite initial disdain by the Chinese spy, Wai Lin, Bond persists with her and they finally join forces, on board Carver's junk, and kill all his nasty team. Thus, too, in more conventional projects such as agricultural production, it is essential to make common cause with those around you, to identify people who will help you to make good contacts, to market your produce and to get good information – all to help you increase sales.
The Bond films themselves have been able to attract strong partners for years: big companies contribute huge amounts to advertise their products in James Bond movies. These include Heineken beer (Skyfall); Tom Ford suits (Casino Royale); Omega watches (Goldfinger); Rolex (Dr. No); cashmere turtle-necks (Casino Royale); Belvedere Vodka (Spectre); Bollinger’s champagne (Live and Let Die); Aston Martin (Goldfinger and other films), Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles (Spectre and Skyfall); Sony phones (Spectre); Chesterfield King-size cigarettes (Live and Let Die, Goldfinger and Thunderball); Vodka Martini (Diamonds are Forever) and others.
By an interesting parallel, in many African countries, certain traditional products in various sectors (health, transport, agriculture and education) have benefited from the exposure they have receive in projects and have then attracted co-financing from various partnerships such as donors, international non-profit foundations, the private sector, philanthropists and others. Clearly, as demonstrated by the adventures of James Bond and the success of his products – the books, the films, and even the products which they feature – no project, however well-planned and well-funded, will succeed without proper networking. In addition, strong partnerships are critical to any well-planned project, even if the level of partnership funding available to our more modest, traditional projects cannot match the seemingly inexhaustible funds available to the spendthrift Mr. Bond.
5. Plan B
A common problem in implementing projects is the failure to provide an inbuilt 'Plan B’. By contrast, in the Bond films contingency plans are a sine qua non and feature prominently. Before Bond leaves on a mission he is given several gadgets just in case he is faced with a particular risk. These may include items such a specially prepared car, unusual guns, pens, watches, briefcases or even a hang-glider. Managers of traditional projects are unlikely to be equipped with laser-firing wristwatches or emergency hang-gliders, and their contingency budgets will be much less generous than those available to James Bond. Yet, at the appropriate scale, a Plan B is just as indispensable to them: for example, the Plan B will come into play when there is a serious financial shortfall – especially from external sources. With a Plan B a project can downsize instead of folding up, can cut out low-priority activity.
According to Idowu (2012), Plan B strategies are also found in Bond films: there the hero and his team have developed the ability to not only plan ahead but also to be able to detect when the situation is not going to plan and to take the necessary corrective measures. This is another very useful approach for all projects to adopt. It will enhance efficiency and make the project more cost-effective, and its benefits will become apparent during the regular monitoring process.
One of the most important components of any process of project implementation is monitoring. And yet, when we review current and past projects, we will find that this area is often one of the weakest as it is the first to suffer when budget allocations are insufficient and expertise is lacking. As Martin Luther King said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”. This is a major challenge where traditional projects in Africa are concerned. MI6 is not so short-sighted, however: its backroom experts are continuously monitoring Bond’s movements, detecting whenever the mission is not going according to plan and making the necessary adjustments. Monitoring should not be regarded as a low priority during implementation of projects: the Bond films are instructive in this regard.
In conclusion, their high-blown fantasy and improbable outcomes notwithstanding, James Bond films are strangely relevant to today‘s life, especially as they relate to project management. The villains and the intricate plots are akin to the challenges that face all traditional projects during implementation. These include: political interference; corruption (especially in the procurement of equipment); nepotism; unnecessary delays; mismanagement; tribalism and others, which singly or in combination have hindered the implementation of projects temporarily or even permanently.
James Bond films demonstrate the benefit of the proper planning of projects with clear implementation strategies and regular and effective monitoring. Further, the films emphasize the importance of networks and partnerships during project implementation. Bond makes friends not only with beautiful young women –friends and foes in about equal measure – and also with the local inhabitants of his exotic locations (as we see, for example, in ‘Dr No’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, among other films), but also forms valuable partnerships during his assignments. Two heads are indeed better than one or – with apologies to John Donne – no man is an island.
Further, the villains in James Bond films, after various plot twists, always meet a sticky end: they are eliminated .The 'villains' in traditional projects, such as corruption and tribalism, are not so easy to eliminate: the humble implementers of projects do not have the arsenal of gadgets available to Bond, or the near supernatural support of MI6. Instead, what they need is strong political will from the top leadership – only then will the project survive and flourish.
As grimly reported by Reuters on 12 March 2016, many countries are losing vast proportions of their state budgets – in Kenya’s case, as much as one third – to corruption each year. As demonstrated in all James Bond films, one way to stop this vice is for governments vigorously to pursue people involved in graft, to capture them and to punish them, thereby sending strong warnings to any likely defrauders. If the leadership of tiny Singapore was able to battle against corruption in government ministries and government funded programmes and win, then other, better resourced, countries can do the same. There is no doubt that the lessons from James Bond films, regardless of their flights of fancy, remain relevant to project management and hold useful lessons for all in the development world.
* Ambassador John O. Kakonge is Senior Consultant and Adviser in Sustainable Development.
- Albert, Hirschman, A (1967). Development Projects observed, Brookings institution, http://www.brookings.edu/research/books/2014/development-projects-observed
- Deshpande, A (2012). Career lessons you can learn from James Bond. Themuse.com/advice/4-career-lessons-you-can-learn-from-James-Bond.
- Hicks, T (2015). How does James Bond franchise endure against all odds?
- Reuters (2016). Third of Kenya budget lost to corruption, Business Daily, 11 March 2016.
- Ross, J (2012). What I bring to UX from – James Bond. http://johnnyholland.org/series/what-i-bring-to-ux/
- Sander, L (2013). Project management lessons from James Bond. http://blog.consulting101book.com/12-project-management-lessons-from-james-bond/
- Idawu, B (2012). Bond life: 5 lessons we can learn from James Bond, http://www.elysium-uk.com/site/aspire/bond-life-5-lessons-we-can-learn-from-james-bond/
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