What defines project success? On “time and budget”, or “to specification and quality requirements”, maybe all of these? No, we are missing some less tangible, but critical components; how do people feel about the project once it is done.
On May 12 the PMI-SAC Awards for the best projects and the best project managers will be held in Calgary and Captain James Lovell, Commander of Apollo 13 will be giving the keynote “Apollo 13 – A Successful Failure”. This year I am a judge for the awards ceremony and in reviewing the applicants I have been thinking about what constitutes a successful project which prompted the recollection of some famous projects...
Let’s consider Apollo 13. The third manned mission by NASA intended to land on the moon that experienced electrical problems 2 days after liftoff. An explosion occurred resulting in the loss of oxygen and power and the "Houston, we've had a problem" quote from Lovell (that is widely misquoted as, "Houston, we have a problem".)
The crew shut down the Command Module and used the Lunar Module as a "lifeboat" during the return trip to earth. Despite great hardship caused by limited electrical power, extreme cold, and a shortage of water, the crew returned safely to Earth and while missing the main moon-based scope, it was a very successful rescue, allowing future missions. “A Successful Failure”
(The 1997 film not the original ship). This film was six months late, massively over budget and finished with a bloated 194-minute running time. Seemingly not a good performance given the original schedule, budget and scope requirements. Yet the film turned into an enormous critical and commercial success, winning eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and became the highest-grossing film of all time.
Ernest Shackleton lead the entire crew of his ship Endurance to safety after being trapped in the Antarctic ice, journeying to Elephant Island, and then leading an escape party to South Georgia. The epic journeys and perils of spending nearly two years unsupported in the Antarctic with no loss of life and many acts of selflessness established Shackleton as a cult figure and role model for leadership.
Yet, upon his return to England in 1917 he was vilified for deserting the country during a time of war and hiding out at the South Pole. Controversy surrounded his career and he died in debt, largely unrecognized for his heroic leadership. Only later did people come to recognize the extent of his deeds and the obstacles he and his crew overcame.
The parallels with the Apollo story are striking, an exploration mission turned into a survival and rescue mission. A legacy of persistence, hope and fortitude.
Iridium Satellite Network
In the mid to late 1990’s Iridium LLC pulled off an amazing technical project. Through investment capital from companies like Motorola this private company raised over $5 billion, developed and placed 66 satellites in orbit, created handsets and produced the worlds first commercial satellite telephone system with world wide coverage. This massive project with huge technical risk was delivered on time and pretty much to budget, with a high quality product that worked exceptionally well.
Yet the company did not do so well. In 1998 with Iridium phones costing $3,000 and international calling rates of $7 a minute, the company had only 15,000 customers before going bankrupt.
Several failed bail-out plans were proposed, it looked like one idea to dispose of the satellites by crashing them into the atmosphere where they would burn up on reentry might go ahead. Eventually a buyer was found and for $25 million (about half a penny for every dollar it originally cost) a consortium purchased and turned around the network through lower costs and higher user numbers.
Was this a success for failure? It was not a great success for the original Iridium company who did all the hard work, pulled off an amazing engineering project and then sold it for half a penny for every dollar it originally cost. Yet it was technically successful and created a useful and lasting legacy.
Sydney Opera House
This world recognized landmark and iconic tourist attraction seems like a shining example of success. Yet it too was a failure by the narrow viewpoint of on budget and schedule. In 1956 the construction was estimated to take about five years at a cost of A$7 million. It was eventually completed 17 years later at a cost of A$102 million.
So, almost 15 times the estimated budget and 12 years late, but look at it, what a landmark, an architectural statement and asset for Sydney and Australia in general. A true lasting legacy.
Two elements emerge from these examples. There is a bigger picture view beyond the immediate project and the act of leaving a legacy.
The Bigger Picture
The Iridium satellite phone system failed commercially despite being on time and budget because the bigger picture business plan failed. The Titanic movie was late and over budget, but went on to become amazingly successful. Often the true evaluation of a project is only available well after the project has finished.
Leaving a Legacy
A common thread through these stories is that leaving a legacy is an important component of project success that is overlooked by analytical measures of budget, time, scope or quality. Of course legacies can be good or bad, a legacy of unmaintainable code or disgruntled customers is not what we are aiming for. Instead a legacy of doing the right thing (Apollo, Shackelton) or creating something highly valued (Sydney Opera House, Titanic, etc) means a lot to people.
Stephen Covey reminds us that all people have basic similar longings:
To Live – enjoy life (to feed the body)
To Love – find partners (to feed the heart)
To Learn – new skills (to feed the mind)
To Leave a Legacy – a lasting reminder (to feed the soul)
Leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, and A Leader's Legacy talk about the importance of leaving a legacy for aligning vision and encouraging high performance. Great performance comes from the team view of some better state.
I am looking forward to Captain James Lovell’s keynote on “Apollo 13 – A Successful Failure” the story contains strong elements of the Bigger Picture and Leaving a Legacy messages. These elements are often overlooked while seeking “on budget, on schedule, to scope and to quality” results. If you are in Calgary why not come along? There are still a few seats available.