You’ve got one heck of a big, sprawling project to manage, even if you’re not a member of Marvel Comics’ S.H.I.E.L.D., trying to protect the world. Perhaps you can use some mentoring from the new Marvel Comics-based movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and from last year’s Avengers movie.

(Plot spoilers are inevitable. You’ve been warned.)

1. Big projects can be all-too-easily co-opted for somebody else’s agenda.

Whether you are building a trio of helicarriers (think “navy aircraft carriers that fly”) that interact with spy satellites for pro-active anti-terrorism, or you are re-engineering the aging Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, it’s important to make sure that your project stays on course for its goal.

This means that your project needs to start with clear goals, and that periodically you review progress to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. You also need to make sure that whoever “owns” the project isn’t trying to redefine its goals mid-way in to meet their own hidden agenda (perhaps as a member of Evil Villain nemesis organization HYDRA, or just another corporate department).

2. Don’t count out senior team members, who often can learn new tricks… and may know some old-school ones that can save the day.

Sometimes the young team members assume that innovation only comes from young people. But even if gray-haired team members have been frozen in ice for the past decade or two (which is what happened to Steve Rogers, mid-way through World War II – see the previous Captain America movie), they have skills and knowledge that’s relevant today. Those old-timers may have been learning and implementing projects like yours longer than you’ve been in the work force.

3. Respect team members’ unique abilities.

Not everybody may have super-soldier class abilities. Every team needs people to contribute different strengths. Natasha Romanoff – the Black Widow – has serious interrogation chops. Imagine having her query your project stakeholders for their thoughts, the way she did early in the Avengers movie. Others are good at hitting the target (Hawkeye), or debugging (Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man).

Look for skills that complement existing team members instead of asking everyone to “fit in” by duplicating abilities. Some team members are great at figuring out how things fit together, or good at identifying what’s missing. Some excel at contingency planning. Welcome all of them and embrace the diversity.

4. Don’t count on all your organization’s heavy hitters to be available.

Sometimes you can’t get the attention of the people you need most. Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, or the Hulk, not to mention Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, were (in)conveniently not available during Captain America: The Winter Soldier to help fight the Hydra. Top problem solvers and project-doers you counted on in the past may not be available, whether to brainstorm around a sudden roadblock in materials availability, or to address unexpected additional expenses.

Identify the skills and how much of them you’ll need early on, so you can provision people to match what you need… and have time to look for other staff to fill in your skills roster.

5. Be prepared for personnel changes.

In the film after a high-bullet-count car chase, SHIELD leader Nick Fury is taken out of action, leaving Captain America and the Black Widow without a mission leader.

While the odds are that your project leader won’t be subjected to deadly car ambushes (unless your staff meetings are even more brutal than mine), other things can happen. Staff might be re-assigned, abruptly change jobs, given additional tasks that prevent them from devoting time for your project, or become unavailable due to personal events.

While it’s the project leader’s responsibility for keeping track of the big picture, you can help by being ready to explain and advocate for your piece of it, present the status, bring them up to speed… and possibly by you yourself assuming additional responsibilities.

6. Complex projects often have a single-point-of-failure that can be exploited. Try to avoid creating them.

Clearly, whoever was in charge of designing SHIELD’s new Helicarrier-and-spy-satellite initiative hadn’t watched the first Star Wars movie (“Episode 4″), which demonstrated why it’s a bad idea to have a single-point-of-failure, like the thermal exhaust port in the Death Star. All that Cap, Widow, and Falcon had to do was remove a small circuit board from each helicarrier’s server rack.

Don’t let your project be that vulnerable. Make your plans assuming that things may go wrong, and build in contingencies. For an event you organize, be ready for the registration desks to work with pen and paper, and to accept cash. If you engineer an access road or tunnel, make sure it is safely closed off or filled in.

What other project management lessons did you get from the movie? Share them with me in the comments.

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