A System Perspective on Project Management Part II -The Mega Project


As I write this I am helping to facilitate a workshop dealing with how to transition the US portion of the International Space Station (ISS) into the first National Laboratory in space.  We have 200 experts from all over the world working to figure out what the early experiments should be and how to implement them over the next 5 years.  Just the planning for this workshop has been quite a lesson in project planning and execution.  Chaired by Nobel Prize winner Baruch Blumberg and with a keynote address by J. Craig Venter of human genome fame it has been quite an interesting event.  It has caused me to think back on the lessons that I have learned over the last twenty three years I have been involved with the space station about managing mega-projects.  

For those of you who are not familiar with the ISS it is a permanently manned,16 nation collaboration that is in orbit overhead every 90 or so minutes.  It is over 300 ft. long and weighs over 400,000 lbs.  When construction is complete in 2010 it will weigh over 1 million lbs.

To say the least it is a very complex vehicle and by the time it is completed American taxpayers will have spent upwards of $100 billion to build and operate the ISS.  I have been involved with the ISS in its various incarnations since the early 1980’s.  There are some good and not so good project management lessons learned in this project.


1)      Don’t start vast projects with half vast resources.  When the ISS (it was called Space Station Freedom back then) was first announced by then President Reagan in 1984 the ISS was supposed to cost $8 billion.  As we can see it cost more, a lot more.  There have been so many redesigns over the first fifteen years that it is hard to keep them all straight and all these changes cost big money.  Having Congress in the loop holding the purse strings doesn’t help either.  So make sure you have a handle on the costs and that the value proposition is well defined and that you get alignment with the customer.  Which brings us to our next lesson learned;

2)      Spend 10% of the project budget making sure you understand problem, the key technologies involved, and have looked at all of the options before you dive into the detailed design.  Many studies have been done that show by the time 5% of the project budget has been spent 70% or more of the project cost will be locked in and not just the development cost but the life cycle cost.  So cutting this upfront study effort is a really bad idea but we do it all the time.  If there is a better example of penny wise and pound foolish I can’t think of it.

3)      Keep the team as small as possible.  Having been on several of these mega-projects they seem to grow magically.  People are attracted to the project like moths to a flame.  But be careful in that all of these people need to be managed and if left to their own devices they can be much more trouble than they are worth (more on this later).  You need to make sure that have the proper skills and technologies represented and some good systems thinkers who can see the “big picture” we talked about last time.  Even on an effort that could grow into a billion dollar program starting off with 8-12 really good people is much better than starting off with hundreds of confused or clueless people.  Be careful of people who are just there to stake out turf for later phases of the project.  They can sabotage your project (intentionally or unintentionally).

4)      Don’t bring on the design engineers too soon.  One of the worst things you can do in the early phases of a project is to bring on a bunch of detailed design engineers and then not give them clear direction and close supervision.  What will these bright and motivated folks do in a situation like this?  They will deign something.  Even if they don’t really understand what the problem is and even if they don’t have any requirements they will start designing something.  It is kind of like going to the symphony where there is no score and each musician just plays their favorite piece as loud as they can.  I don’t know about you but this isn’t something I want to go hear.

Well I have to go and facilitate the output of 15 working groups that are addressing how to implement this National Lab in space that has never been done before.  It will be interesting to see if what they come up with.  If you are interested in the workshop output and the potential for microgravity research you can take a look at our website www.alliancespace.net.   The results of this workshop should be posted shortly and there will be streaming video of the presentations.


More soon. 



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