Friday, 9 March 2012

Ewoks vs Na'vi: planning and leadership is important.

Another in my series of "you can make any points about management you like with pretty much any moview you like". Spoilers for both RoTJ and Avatar follow...

So I saw Avatar at the BFI's IMAX yesterday, somewhat belatedly. I've been thinking about the Ewoks' successes lately and it made me consider just how ineffective the Na'vi are in comparison.

1. The Na'vi suffer from poor leadership
Jakesully is taken into the tribe near the beginning of the film with almost zero justification. Neither of the two tribal bosses appear to make any sort of cost/benefit analysis to bringing Sully in. Furthermore, they know from previous lessons that the humans are violent and restless and so they really shouldn't trust him. Tsu'Tey, the warrior who is the heir to the tribal throne, is entirely correct in his first assessment of Sully. However, the Na'vi eventually elect (unofficially) Sully as their leader, despite him having little leadership or management experience, just a big shiny dragon.

I guess there are two lessons here: one is, as a leader, to consider obviously-risky moves very carefully, and the other is how you select people to be leaders. It's not enough to promote your best programmer or callcentre operator to team leader, because leadership skill is orthogonal to the skill of doing the coalface work. As we will see, putting Sully in charge almost led the Na'vi to disaster, and certainly resulted in far more excess deaths than necessary.

2. Sully's poor plan
Sully gives a moderately impassioned speech having tamed a big dragon. He rounds up thousands of Na'vi and then launches a full-frontal charge on the technologically superior humans with no on-the-ground leadership. The charge quickly turns into a rout and many hundred Na'vi must have died in that rout. Compare this with the Ewoks' success in quickly routing the Empire's finest at the end of RoTJ -- the Ewoks are well prepared and well led even as they are technologically impaired. Furthermore, the Ewoks clearly have sergeants on the ground -- you see one of them directing the initial volley of arrows and another at the catapults. The Na'vi are just a leaderless mass of light cavalry.

3. Be prepared
The Na'vi's most important site was in no way fortified, but even with a day of effort, considering that they live in a world of floating mountains, they could surely have rigged up some sort of traps that would have caused the humans' aerial craft serious problems. Huge boulders dropped from height, vines to entangle the chopper blades, dust clouds to obscure vision and muck up the air-breathing engines, and so on. The Ewoks' earthworks and lumber weapons were tremendously effective against a superior force, mostly by clever application of large masses.

4. Consider the alternatives
None of the Na'vi seriously considered simply abandonning the hometree. Considering how much death and destruction was wrought by its fall, and the subsequent horror of war with the humans, simply relocating seems to me to have been a sensible option. It certainly would have bought time to improve the Na'vi's weapons!

5. Companies react to bad publicity
Sully rounded up the other Na'vi for the war, but armed only with bows and arrows, theirs was a hopeless cause. If they had instead focussed on getting the signal off-world then RDA could likely have been shamed into better working practices. At the very least, human sympathizers could have funded an arms drop to the Na'vi. Yes, it's a six-year round trip, but many rebel groups in current geopolitics have been fighting for at least that long. Just last week, Tesco altered its working practices to pay people on workfare with them.

No comments: