Prometheus and Catastrophic Project Management Failure

(This post contains spoilers for Prometheus.)

When I say I expect science-fiction to be realistic, it’s probably worth defining what I mean. I’m willing to overlook the existence of AI robots and starships in a film set 70 years in the future. I’m willing to overlook inappropriate design decisions in the space ships and user-interfaces. But I expect the characters to behave like people. Characters should be consistent and make sense to a reasonable cinema-goer.

Which is what annoyed me about Prometheus. You’re sending a space-ship two years and unthinkable distances from Earth to contact an alien civilisation. I expect the team chosen to show the basic competency one would expect from people at the top of their field. The film’s plot was entirely dependent on the incompetence of the characters.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at some of the disasterous errors made by the Prometheus crew. Seriously – I wouldn’t cross the road with these people, let alone contact alien races. Look on this as a helpful project review.

Lack of clearly defined goals Setting aside the differing agendas, nobody had a clearly defined aim. While it’s valid for metaphysical concerns to inspire your project, you need to define a goal so that everyone can share it and evaluate decisions against it. It’s also hard to tell whether your mission has succeeded unless you know what you’re trying to do.

No contingency planning Most projects have undecidables, even without encountering alien races. You should probably have some idea what you might do when certain things go wrong (biological contamination being an obvious one). Rather than sleep the two years before arriving on the planet, I’d have had some of the crew watching science fiction movies and working out what they would have done in those scenarios, and then producing appropriate processes.

Process not present or ignored Which is the next thing: clearly defined processes are a life-saver in stressful situations. Checking in code or handing over between teams can be difficult under pressure, so strict processes are used to maintain good standards. And one would expect clear processes about handling potential xeno-biological contamination – not to simply allow the crew to wander off for sexy-time.

No chain of command or teambuilding The team had no clear idea who was in charge. And having such an important team meeting one another for the first time in another solar system is insane. Everyone needs to be comfortable working together before going to meet alien races.

No data collection or analysis The crew woke up shortly before landing on the planet. This is a place that has been waiting millenia – there is no harm orbiting a few times collecting data. Or maybe sending the mapping probes into the caves before a full team follows. Take your time to gather information and think about the next step rather than blundering forward because you’re stressed or excited.

Undefined roles Several of the team didn’t know what they were doing there – why was the geologist in the first team when he didn’t need to be (he also seemed somewhat enthusiastic about rocks – you think he’d have been more excited about the structure of the caves). And those who did have a role were ignored. A security expert is employed for a reason – if he says you’re taking guns then no-one else should overrule him except a clear superior. Domain experts should have authority over their domain.

Quite frankly, the crew of the Prometheus were a shabbily organised embarrassment to the human race. It is a good thing that real life companies run more efficiently than this.

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4 thoughts on “Prometheus and Catastrophic Project Management Failure”

  1. Or “most” real life companies.
    Alien (the original) was also a series of avoidable bad decisions. Sad to say, but a lot of “structures” do play host to a lot (generally not all) of these – human instinct is strong.
    Dunno if I’ll go and see the film though…

  2. I can’t remember Alien much, but ISTR the crew in that were just a regular crew so I’d expect them to be a little less competent. Prometheus was a “trillion dollar project” so you might expect a little more.
    The film is a waste of time, really. And there’s probably an interesting critique to be made about the organisation that produced it.

  3. The thing that didn’t hang together was that it was meant to be an expensive corporate mission – for which you’d think a corporation would have invested wisely in recruitment. As opposed to a ragtag self-assembled crew who you might forgive their flaws and infighting, and be behind them a little more in their fight to protect this expression of humanity (as with the crew in Alien).
    But maybe it was all a clever analogy – that even with a trillion dollars behind a project it is still victim to the same potential failings as an low budget indie flick. Something the film proved conclusively. 🙂

  4. Enjoyed this post. The film was a mess in so many ways and the lack of direction for the team contributed to a lack of structure, coherence and suspense in the plot. In Aliens there was a chain of command, there was a series of steps to perform and there were systems in place. And when these went awry it created drama. There was order for the chaos to stem from. It was frustrating how Prometheus was missing that.
    I think the ‘revelation’ that the old man is still alive and intends to ‘meet his maker’ before he dies is supposed to expose the scientific research mission as a sham. It’s the only ulterior motive (and actual aim), however foolish, that felt convincing to me. He is the authority figure, the top of the chain of command when he finally emerges. But WHY he required a crew consisting of scientists in the first place feels unexplained (other than for luck, or something).
    Let’s all now look forward to how great Bladerunner 2 will be.

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