He’s been deserted on Mars, with little supplies and equipment, and must find a way to survive. That’s the basic story behind the Matt Damon film The Martian, which uses a common problem in extraordinary circumstances to ramp up the tension.

The problem (among the many others the hero has to overcome) is one of ‘communication’, and it’s an issue that project managers also face.

While they may not be charting distant planets, project managers are responsible for getting the mission off the ground. And although they won’t need to send a message almost 34 million miles across the galaxy, connecting with stakeholders can sometimes feel as challenging.

According to a report by the Project Management Institute one in five projects fail due to poor communications. (In fact, the need for good communication is an issue that’s explored in the guide Mission Controlled: the 5-Step Guide to Planning Projects).

What can Project Managers learn from Nasa?

It’s unlikely that a blockbuster movie will be made about project managers exploring a project scope or navigating a work breakdown structure, but Nasa project managers are hard at work in real life. In the years ahead, project managers will be helping to pave the way for a manned mission to Mars, with Nasa hoping to have spaceboots on the ground in the 2030s.

The delivery of such an impressive feat will be helped with some words of wisdom from a former associate director of flight projects at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, Jerry Madden.

He distilled the knowledge he accumulated as one of Nasa’s project managers across a 37-year career into 128 rules. Although focused at Nasa’s very own project managers, there are nuggets of wisdom for project managers who work outside the space agency.

Below, we’ve picked out five rules that focus on communication (but you can see all 128 here).

Rule 24
Everyone does better if they can see the whole picture, so don’t hide any of it from anyone.

Rule 36
A puzzle is hard to discern from just one piece, so don’t be surprised if team members deprived of information reach the wrong conclusion.

Rule 38
The amount of reviews and reports are proportional to management’s understanding, i.e. the less management knows or understands the activities, the more it requires reviews and reports. It is necessary in this type of environment to make sure the data is presented so that the average person, slightly familiar with activities, can understand it. Keeping the data simple and clear never insults anyone’s intelligence.

Rule 53
Cooperative efforts require good communications and early warning systems. A project manager should try to keep his partners aware of what is going on and should be the one who tells them first of any rumour or actual changes in plan. The partners should be consulted before things are put in final form, even if they only have a small piece of the action. A project manager who blindsides his partners will be treated in kind and will be considered a person of no integrity.

Rule 57
Abbreviations are getting to be a pain… Use them sparingly in presentations unless your objective is to confuse.