Project Management Dangerous to Mammals

MooseI haven’t quite put my finger on it, but something I’ve noticed about the human condition that retards our ability to be successful project managers. When we see someone else fail we can easily assume that it’s because they’re stupid, but when we ourselves fail it’s an honest mistake or just bad luck. “They” should have seen it coming, but “we” were understandably taken by surprise. It’s relatively easy to see where another project is about to hit the skids or should have avoided the long, slow slide into project hell, but we can be blind-sided as our own projects creep inexorably toward Dante’s Inferno.

Consider a couple of well-publicized project failures from the 1970’s. Scientists wishing to track the migratory behavior of moose engaged engineers to build a satellite receiver/transmitter that could be fitted around the neck of a moose. When the device was ready the scientists crept out of their camouflaged den, tranquilized the object of their scientific desires, then scurried back to their observation post. They patiently waited and watched, but the blip on the radar screen showed no movement. Moose had been known to be highly territorial, and yet the scientists were still a bit surprised at how very small their territory seemed to be. Finally they went to check on their reclusive hoofed mammal only to find that him dead. Apparently the transmitter weighed so much that the animal was unable to stand while wearing it. Aghast, the scientists went to the engineers exclaiming “You killed our moose!” to which they replied “What moose?” They were oblivious to the fact that their product was going on a moose’s neck. (Yes, this really happened . . . Ref: March 15, 1972 – The San Jose Mercury News)

That same week a whale wandered into the San Francisco Bay. With much media hoopla, different, but no less ill-fated, scientists laid their plans to track the whale, affectionately named Humphrey, as he was escorted from the Bay and encouraged to resume his oceanic travels. Cameras clicked and reporters vied for position on the dock as the tracking device was affixed to the whale’s back. The crowd cheered as Humphrey submerged . . . and immediately disappeared from the radar screen. The cause? The transmitter wasn’t waterproof. The indignant scientists accosted the engineers and proclaimed “You lost our whale!” to which, of course, the engineers retorted “What whale?” (Sorry to say, I am not making this stuff up! . . . Ref: March 14, 1972 – The San Francisco Chronicle) Well, you see how these things go. The most astonishing things can and do happen.

Want to get even scrappier? Check out all 5 “Scrappy Guides“, including August’s Scrappy Women in Business by me and 11 gal pals,  Scrappy General Management by Michael Horton, released in October, and Scrappy Business Contingency Planning by Michael Seese, released in November 2010.


1 thought on “Project Management Dangerous to Mammals”

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    Great stories. You’re right, we do quickly point out other’s apparent stupidity. Maybe because it is so easy to find examples of it. Have your ever watched “Engineering Disasters” on TV? Wow, there is a lot of stupidity out there to go around. Project managers are certainly no exception because they don’t know the right questions to ask and don’t talk eyeball-to-eyeball with the users when defining requirements. I’m convinced the communication problems will never go away but only can be reduced to some tolerable level.

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