Did you watch Seven Samurai, one of the best films of all times? If not, or if you forgot what the film was about, let me suggest that you take a look at it, but also as a story of leadership and project management in extreme conditions.
The film was made in 1954 by legendary Akira Kurosawa. Please check the description here. I watched it several times, and always had great feelings and a lot of inspiration to learn. This what follows is my unique point of view on the “Seven Samurai”-inspired project methodology.
In Seven-Samurai project, you will find the following entities:
Project background and setting: Village in a mountain
Client’s objective: Defend the village from 40 bandits and deter them from further attacks
Client’s interest: Protect the harvest
Conflicting interests: they want to achieve success, but also to save money. Some client representatives propose “easier” way – surrender the harvest to the bandits, but some oppose to this, since it may be more than a harvest at stake.
Hidden agenda: A villiger Rikichi wants the revenge to the bandits and to get back his wife. He is hiding his motivation and wants to divert the project for his own goal. Of course, this is a clear risk for the project, which remains uncovered.
Client skills: The client doesn’t have any skills to protect themselves, but they are willing to participate in the project and learn up to some level.
Oldest samurai – Shimada Ganbei. He demonstrated his courage, honesty and skills, and the client immediately wants to hire him. Ganbei participates in the other team members selection. And he trusts even in those members whom he didn’t choose personally. One recruited member is his personal friend, but he doesn’t make him second in command. Another recruited team member (Gorobei) is very skilled, so he makes him the second in command and they work out the Defence Plan together. Ganbei is listening to the members’ suggestions, so the decision to take an action and attack the bandits’ fortress is proposed by the team. Ganbei also participates in the fighting. He is expert in swordsmanship, but he takes care that his technical skills don’t dominate.
7 members (samurai) whose motivation is various. Team members are told that they are supposed to fight for the good cause, and not money and status. Some members (Katsuhiro and Kikuchiyo) join the team because of the leader’s skills and charisma and Kyuzo joins because he sees the professional development opportunity to refine his skills. But they have their own weaknesses, which are source of risks. Katsuhiro is youngest and has no experience. Kikuchiyo’s lack of discipline and desire for women. The way how to compensate for these weaknesses is through the team. The team members are great professionals and quickly build trust among themselves, since they know that their lives depend on each others’ support. There is no conflict among them and nobody is challenging the authority of the leader (Ganbei).
Each team member actually acts as a Stream Leader: each has his sector (stream), each is a leader of a group of villagers, responsible to involve the villagers in the project implementation. Each samurai (project member) also works with the villagers (client) on their own Business-as-Usual activities (harvesting), since there is a strong dependency with the project objectives.
- Information gathering and analysis
- Meeting with the director (old man)
- Visit the site and all critical points
- Preparation of a map
- Situation assessment (Ganbei evaluates the situation together with Gorobei)
- But risks identification missed to identify an internal weakness (Rikichi’s hidden agenda)
- Ganbei makes a plan together with Gorobei
- Presents the plan to the project team
- Prepares and visualize the battle strategy
- Defines the scope in sense of delimiting the zone that the project team can protect. The client’s wish is one thing (the whole village), but what the project team can achieve is another (only a defendable zone).
- Manage the client’s expectations, since some houses can’t be protected “The choice is tough, but we can’t do everything”
- Obtain the buy-in from the project sponsor (Oldman)
- When the risk of villagers abandon and turn against the project, Ganbei reinforce the discipline and takes strong stance: “Only by protecting the others you can save yourself. If you want only to save your own individual property, you will destroy and yourself and the others.”
- Definition of the battle strategy according to the best practices:
- Kill the scouts
- Weaken the enemy
- Separate the attackers and execute them one by one
- Use all force to fight the enemy in a controlled environment (encircled, in a closed space where they can’t use their advantages)
3. Team motivation
Banner that unites the project team and the client, made by Heihachi. The banner is opened when the first innocent victim has fallen, to guide and encourage the team encountering real problems.
Leader is monitoring the performance and problems at each of samurai’s (Stream Leader) sector. His responsibility is to move the resources to critical areas, and if needed, help, personally. Samurai let villagers drink alcohol before the battle, but they don’t drink. Project leader let people rest and prepare for the main battle.
- “We are afraid of dying. But they are also afraid of dying”
- Every samurai giving his example and leading in the battle
Ganbei takes responsibility for the coordination, running and supervising, also communicating with the team, but Katsushiro is helping in coordination, running all the time within different sectors. During the battle, project team leader is fully responsible for the battle and is not going to talk with the client representative (Oldman). The actions must be as precise and fast as possible, and everybody agrees to this. So, all of them are running, including the leader.
- Bandits send their scouts to the village, Kikuchiyo makes noise and the samurai are noticed. This is a major problem for the project. The project team gathers and decides together how to deal with the problem (kill the scouts). Ganbei approves the decision and the structure of the problem management team.
- Kikuchiyo is killed. He felt guilty and responsible for the death of Gorobei, so he reacted hastely and decided to pursue the leader of the bandits with no prepared strategy in mind, and was killed.
Clear measurement of the project progress
There is a project dashboard, and each dead bandit is crossed out on the dashboard.
Stated project objective has been achieved. Looking in restrospect, what were the project success factors?
- Experience of the Samurai Leader
- Good experience with this approach on the side of client’s leadership (Oldman)
- Project champions on both sides actively working for the project
- Sense of urgency on the side of client
- Intelligence about bandits’ their strength, fortress location and used weapons
- Presence of non-monetary motivation on the side of samurai
- Weak position of bandits who are getting hungry and exhausted
So, from client’s point of view, the project is a great success. But from the performing organisation point of view, the project can be considered as a failure, since the objectives were achieved at the price of four killed samurai! Still, the remaining samurai left a legacy for the future generations: an incredible story of heroism and exceptional, virtuous reputation. And this is what samurai actually lived for.
Indeed, we can learn a lot about leadership from this film !