Several critical items related to NASA's next-generation James Webb Space Telescope currently are being tested in the thermal vacuum test chamber at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
This image shows the Optical Telescope Element Simulator, or OSIM, wrapped in a silver blanket on a platform, being lowered into the Space Environment Simulator vacuum chamber via crane to be tested to withstand the cold temperatures of space.
Photo Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn (Click image for full size.)
What is the greatest risk to a project? What is the most likely culprit to a failed societal grand challenge? How do we understand and address the increasing complexity of missions?
Based on observation and reading, one would guess that project risk is captured within the boundaries of technology, cost, and time. Certainly this is how the professional project manager is schooled. Project management defines itself as a profession that equips its practitioners with the competence to rationally manage critical risks within the technical, schedule, and cost domains. Our bodies of knowledge focus extensive coverage on these areas, as does the typical training devoted to project management.
Yet it seems increasingly obvious that the most likely cause for project death is the social dimension.
Let us look into the complexities that a project will encounter. Technical complexity points to the significant interdependencies among technologies and the rapid developments that result from innovation. Project teams have a relatively sophisticated set of tools and training to deal with this. Organizational complexity is about the interaction and performance of the larger project team – this includes partners and suppliers throughout the chain. Strategic complexity resides in the area of socio-political context, primarily concerning stakeholders and funding. It is in these latter two areas where the world of projects has seen the greatest change. Today there are many people in a variety of positions who determine whether a program lives or dies. However, the field of project management largely ignores all but the technical and cost factors.
Today projects experience dramatic and constant change due to social and political demands – compromised cost estimates resulting from the need to win buy-in, complicated partnerships, challenges with external budgetary and political stakeholders, and changes in popular support.
Steven Weinberg warns of the demise of big science projects largely due to these factors.1 He points to the increasing challenges of large programs such as the Superconducting Super Collider, James Webb Space Telescope, International Space Station and concludes that “Big Science” is entering a period of crisis. These challenges go far beyond science however; they impact any large project that relies on public and political support that lasts over decades.
It seems that we have entered a world that will place premium competence on the skills of social, strategic, and political sophistication. It is not enough to sell a project and assume it will survive to maturity. It is also not enough to only address with competence issues of technical, cost, and schedule implementation.
Instead projects—it will not matter whether they are science, human exploration, construction, or the Olympic Games as long as they need sustained political and societal support—will need to be built around people. Grand challenges will need to have a strong social network of people committed to the conception, design, development, implementation and conclusion. What will really be needed for complex, grand projects to succeed will be people who will not allow an agreed-upon project to fail.
Organizations, leaders and teams that are in the business of creating and delivering large-scale projects will need to recognize that social risk has become the biggest risk to project success. The social risks point to the need for generating and maintaining a large community of people who follow and like a mission. The social risks include the need to find knowledge and expertise that is distributed around the world and is multidisciplinary in composition. The social risks also include the need for effective communications to inform and educate a diverse stakeholder community. This will call for a widespread effort to transform projects from linear and limited communities to networks of advocates involving internal team members and broader audiences of external stakeholders.
The importance of social risk will lead to the need for project managers to have competency in social media. In my next column I will continue this conversation, with a focus on social media and the project manager.
1“The Crisis of Big Science,” New York Review of Books, May 10, 2012.