Mary Sue Saves The Project… Again

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Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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I know, I know, I’ve written quite a bit about how certain science fiction franchises, specifically Star Wars and Star Trek, appear to have some parallels with the Project Management universe, but this particular parallel is so strong that I can’t resist connecting the dots. Some fans of Star Trek: The Original Series began writing stories around the characters and settings of that television series since its cancellation in 1969 (if not before), and many of these stories made their way into “zines” (short for “magazines,” zines are amateur-published/posted periodicals). Unfortunately, most (if not the vast majority) of these contributors weren’t professional writers, or even particularly gifted amateurs, and it reflected in their prose in a variety of ways (poor character development, lack of respect for the pre-existing canon, wretched plot structure). One particular writing pathology that became noticeable as a trend was the introduction of extraordinarily young and talented characters whose exceptionalism strained credulity. Usually female, these characters came to be seen as little more than the authors’ projection of an idealized version of themselves into the Star Trek canon, and gained the nickname “Mary Sue.”[i]

Mary Sues tend to have the following characteristics in common:

  • They are young (often “the youngest to ever graduate Star Fleet Academy”),
  • attractive females, usually with some striking or unusual feature, like violet eyes or blazing red hair.
  • They have some sort of pre-existing relationship with one of the three main ST:TOS characters (Kirk, Spock, McCoy),
  • and are capable in the extreme, in their scholastic achievement, martial arts prowess, or technical insights.

While the existence of Mary Sues in a given story would invariably render that narrative less believable and the plot, well, amateurish, their preponderance actually led to a backlash due to the perceived damage they were doing to the existing Star Trek canon, challenging previously-accepted tenets of who the already-established characters were, and how they interacted with each other and their fictionalized, futuristic world.

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

I’ve noticed that the fare in PM-themed periodicals and seminars can be largely categorized in one of three ways:

  • genuine advancements in management science (which are golden but not as common as they should be),
  • yet another re-telling of the basics, almost always of Earned Value Management techniques, but also including Critical Path Methodology, scope management, or risk analysis,
  • a story about how a particular project was ground-breaking, high-profile, technically advanced, and, of course, completed successfully.

It’s this last category that tended to bore me the most, until I realized we in the Project Management world were experiencing our own version of the Mary Sue effect in Star Trek fan literature. Then this type of story moved from the merely boring and into the realm of positively irksome, and thence on to potentially damaging to the existing PM canon.

Think about it: when was the last time you read or saw any kind of presentation that detailed exactly how and why a project disaster occurred, and who specifically was to blame? I never have. In fact, I’ve attended a presentation (at a project management-themed conference, no less) that discussed one of the largest overrun and delayed projects in history, and the presenter only wanted to talk about how swell the concepts of Earned Value and Critical Path were.

Conversely, in presentations that address notable successful projects, it seems that many people were solely responsible for its victories, particularly the presenter. Could it be that we have our very own version of the Mary Sue effect in play? Consider the following table:

Mary Sue Characteristics

Specific Project-Themed Presentation

Young, but advanced

Project team is new to the technology, but very talented

Has some striking or unusual feature

Project takes place in an exotic location, or is profoundly unlike other projects in its genre

Has a pre-existing relationship with one of the three main TOS characters

Develops a profoundly unique relationship with the customer

Is capable in the extreme

Overcomes the project’s difficulties, which would have meant ruin for any other project team, don’t you know

In Star Trek fan literature, the backlash against stories that contain Mary Sues has become so widespread that many authors that indulge in that genre will avoid introducing any female character, for fear of having such an introduction tagged with the “Mary Sue” label, and automatically repelling potential consumers of the work. While this may be a bit extreme, it was, nevertheless, probably necessary to ensure that this particularly cheesy character device be avoided in the future. Similarly, I would be happy to initiate an analogous backlash against those specific-project presentations that employ a similar device to the Mary Sue. They don’t advance project management science much, if at all, while providing an avenue for the project teams’ (or individual presenters’) own aggrandizement.

And that, my friends, strains credulity, and ultimately damages the pre-existing canon. Particularly if said presenter has violet eyes, or blazing red hair.

 


[i] Retrieved from https://fanlore.org/wiki/Mary_Sue, 17 December 2017, 10:40 MST.

Posted on: December 18, 2017 10:34 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Loving this analogy :)

I guess Star Trek: Discovery and digital transformation projects are Mary Sues...

Thank you Michael for an interesting article and correlation between project management presentations and Mary Sue effect. I will be paying more attention to the next presentation to verify it, lol.

Good article and thanks for sharing.

Thanks for the great analogy! Clearly you’ve seen more Star Trek and PM presentations than I have. One thought though...I watch Star Trek for entertainment but PM presentations to learn. Both success and failure stories can generate lessons. It really depends on the presenter’s ability to connect the dots, infer useful conclusions, and being willing to honestly present what happened and why. So if you cut out Mary Sue stories and presenters avoid presenting failed projects, it might not leave much content!

Thanks for posting.

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