Doug Toppin's Blog

My thoughts on technology and other stuff

Everything I Need to Know About Leadership I Learned From How the Movie "Aliens" Was Made?

I recently have been watching a documentary called “The Making of Aliens” (regarding the excellent movie) and had a few striking observations on it. The documentary consists of interviews with cast and crew members made at the time the movie was made in 1986 and again some years later. The fascinating aspect that I realized was how it was an example of approaches to team management in challenging circumstances including schedule, budget, geographic location, dynamic environment, staff and shared vision among the leadership. The director was James Cameron with Gale Hurd as a producer (to whom he was married to at the time). The shooting was done in England with a mostly English crew which complicated various aspects including geographic and cultural. Cameron is known to be a potentially difficult director but his results cannot be argued with. Some of the observations made during the movie that are leadership related include: - “he invited us to the dailies which we liked and motived us to work later/longer” (special effects technician), the implications of this are that involving the entire team in observing the results of the work can be very motivating, I have seen this myself in situations where software developers never get to see or utilize the final working system, this significantly reduces both their future motivation as well as not giving them the benefit of learning what impact that the decisions they made had on the final system - the tea/food cart only came for 15 minutes a day so if you missed it you might not eat or get tea (an apparently very real expectation of the crew), this caused many/all of the crew to stop work when it appeared which Cameron was not prepared for causing schedule impacts, an implication of this might be that having food/coffee/tea available in the work environment might enable team members to get something when they have the time rather than all going at once, this would likely improve time efficiency in general, companies that provide stocked kitchens might be an example of this now, the cost of it might be difficult to justify but it might have a bigger improvement on the work environment that I had previously thought, note that this also might indicate the if your team is culturally different you should be familiar with (likely important) aspects of that difference, this is not an uncommon situation today - Cameron shot some of the scenes in reverse to make them more believable or to reduce complexity which some of the cast and crew had not experienced, they did not see the reason or value until they saw the result in the dailies or in the final movie, this might be an example of a leader first having a vision and carrying it through even when others do not appreciate or recognize it (tenacity?) - an aspect of planning for movie making that I had not realized the implications of was that you have to plan and contract for special effects equipment (costumes, sets, props for example), during the movie you might discover that what you got does not match your needs at the time or is not up to the quality that you expected, this reflects both on the necessity of reasonable advance planning as well as the ability to deal with whatever occurs at the time without giving up or being unwilling to modify your plans even when the situation warrants (agility) - the director of photography did not agree with Cameron’s direction and insisted on either being able to be creative and light shots as he wanted or else he would leave, Cameron replaced him with another DP which worked very well, this is reflection on shared vision or else willingness to follow the team leadership, if there is a conflict here it is best to resolve it early rather than allowing continued conflict to increase cost or schedule and decrease the final product, during graduate school (UVA MS in the Management of Information Technology program) we studied a case where a team leader disagreed with the approach to a project but remained (and was allowed to remain) on the project but did not fully support or threw in roadblocks during the project, this resulted in a much longer schedule and higher cost, in this situation it is best for everyone to recognize the conflict and either fully support the plan or move to another project or else the project leader to replace the individual (Cameron appears to have no difficulty with that) If you are interested in techniques of leadership (or if you like the Alien movies) I strongly recommend watching this doc. I am also interested in getting any opinions or feedback from anyone else on this subject so please comment to pass them along to me (comments are moderated and any email address that you provide will not be published).