Tag Archives: Success

Project Management and Innovation

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NASA puts on an outstanding training event every year for aspiring Project Managers.  About 1200 folks, both teachers and students, rendezvoused last week near the Kennedy Space Center for an intense two days of classes and panels on how to be a successful project manager.

The fundamentals of project management were firmly reinforced:  have a good plan, stick to requirements, control costs, provide schedule margin in high risk areas, etc.

It got me to thinking about how Project Management 101 could be seen as a barrier to innovation. 

When building something that has never been built before, innovation is critically important.   Innovation at all stages of a project is vital for the end product to be cost effective and carry out its intended function.  But what kind of innovation, and when, and how much?  There is the rub. 

In the barriers to innovation video that I referenced in an earlier blog post, one of the “evil supervisor” stops to innovative ideas was flatly state:  “there is no requirement for this”.   Anybody who has been to project management 101 knows that requirements creep has killed many a worthy project. 

Having a better idea, adding just one more function, tweaking the design through just one more iteration — all these things are wonderful, marvelous, the very lifebreath of a successful project — right up until the point where they kill the project by driving it way over budget, way behind schedule, or into an endless technology development cycle. 

Need a down to earth example?  Ok, but don’t spread this one around or it will get me in real trouble!  My wife came to me several  months ago with the requirement to replace the carpet in our dining room.  Well, the stuff is 20 years old and looks pretty ratty.  So I agreed; we decided on a budget, went shopping at the carpet store.  Our project was to replace the carpet, within a budget, certainly within a schedule (before next Thanksgiving!). 

Then a new requirement popped out:  before changing the carpet the walls should be painted.  Certainly makes sense; fresh paint was needed.  Nobody in their right mind replaces carpet first and paints later.  But adding this new requirement meant that the schedule  stretched out and the budget increased!  But there is more!  It only makes sense to replace the drapes, too.  One shouldn’t put old, dusty drapes back up when the paint is fresh and the carpet is new!  So another new requirement has been added, costs go up, schedule gets stretched out . . . and in the meantime the carpet we liked got discontinued by the factory.  Now, new carpet must be picked, at a higher price . . . .

Congress passed an act a number of years ago which decreed that a project more than a certain percentage over budget or behind schedule should be cancelled.  That is where we are with the dining room.  Got to descope the requirements and try again.

But on the other hand, without appropriate innovation and upgrades, projects may succeed in building something less than what we could.  Something that costs too much to operate, for example, or fails to have an important feature that wasn’t included because of an oversight.

Summarily dismissing any new idea because “there is no requirement for this” is clearly wrong.  Nobody gets the requirements perfectly right the first time,  no matter how hard you try.

So, the art of project management includes listening to proposed innovators and thoroughly evaluating their ideas.  Unfortunately a lot of good ideas get left in the trash.  Not because they were not good ideas, but because at some point, somebody has to draw the line and say this much is good enough; we can’t afford any more. 

That is a conversation that is hard to have.  But it is important.

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Akin’s laws of spacecraft design:

 #4. Your best design efforts will inevitably wind up being useless in the final design. Learn to live with the disappointment.

#13. Design is based on requirements. There’s no justification for designing something one bit “better” than the requirements dictate.

Yep, I think Dr. Akin is pretty smart.

Positive Mental Attitude

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“For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Shackleton and his men endured two winters in the Antarctic shipwrecked, alone, and without supplies — and they all survived.  When asked how they did it, the men all attributed survival to the attitude of the man they called “the boss.”

Some years ago I took a survival course; the instructor asked us all to guess what might be the most valuable tool to have in a survival situation.  Matches, compass, cell phone, water — all good guesses, but the right answer:  a positive mental attitude.

This is on my mind because about two weeks ago my home was visited by a category 2 hurricane.  We didn’t have it bad at all, a few trees down, fences damaged, power out — but compared to other folks we got by very lightly.  No water damage, no structural damage to our house, no injuries.  Lots of folks had worse and are still suffering.  My family had . . . inconvenience, disruption of normal life, cleanup, and minor repairs. 

But somewhere in all this, especially in the wee hours of  hot and humid airconditionless nights, the voices of despair start in.  Against all rational thought stress and fatigue cause melancholy.  Black thoughts descent and multiply. They suck the life and energy out of you. The good news is that when the day dawns and you count your blessings and feel the companionship of neighbors and friends it gets a lot better. 

Positive mental attitude, without it you are powerless. 

From what I have read, a lot of pioneers suffered bouts of despair and depression.  It is a hard thing to leave home and family and come to a new world of seemingly endless toil, challenges, and dangers.   There were many who couldn’t take it.  Those that did made a better life for all of us.

One of the secrets in Mission Control is that the Flight Director never lets the troops know how worried you are.  They know anyway but pretend not to.  Gene Kranz’s “Failure is Not and Option” is another way to say ‘have a positive mental attitude’.  There have been times when I found this hard to do.  After Columbia the 3 AM demons kept asking if it wasn’t all a waste and worthless.  All those critics who talk about space exploration being a distraction from the important issues got their whacks in during the middle of those dark nights.  It was enough to suck the life right out of you.  But when morning came, the realization of what is right and true and really important is easy to remember. 

If you are to succeed, you must have a positive mental attitude. Sports are the same, Yogi Berra’s famous quotation sums up what it takes to win at baseball:  “Half this game is 90% mental.”  Too true.  A friend and co-worker got sent to one of those fancy business school seminars to round out his education.  An instructor told the class: “Half way through any project, it looks like a failure.”  That also is true.

When I was a young parent leading a volunteer organization for the kids, we ran into a period when we were not having much success.  I blurted out my feelings in an email to all the parents and asked if we should disband the organization.  Within an hour, half the leaders sent me their resignations.  Lesson learned:  leaders must display a positive mental attitude at all times.  Throwing in the towel will guarantee failure.  A positive mental attitude will not guarantee success, but it goes in that direction.

Call me unsophisticated, but I was brought up on Edgar Guest’s poem “It couldn’t be done”.  If you haven’t read it, you need to.

Its important to remember that we are engaged in the greatest adventure of humankind; the noblest endeavor of our age.  It takes a strong mind to remember that the long view triumphs and the critic is soon forgotten.  I am not talking about a foolish pollyana attitude.  But real progress is being made every day.  And we just need to do pay attention to the details of business and keep making it work each day.  That takes positive mental attitude.

Samuel Johnson observed three hundred years ago: “Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.  Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.”  I like what Babe Ruth said even better:  “Its hard to beat someone who won’t quit.”

I’ll remember that sawing up branches after work this evening.  And tomorrow when we get back to the difficult business of expanding the space frontier.