Projects to Celebrate in 2016
2016 was difficult. Many of us will be delighted to kick it to the curb. But at a time of year when retrospectives can easily descend into the maudlin or morose (especially this year), we decided to shine a light on the accomplishments of the year, and the hopes and expectations for the next one.
Einstein's Genius Was Confirmed (Gravitational Waves)
Albert Einstein's 1916 paper predicting gravitational waves was almost as old as the previous Cubs championship, but after various mathematical demonstrations and observational proofs, it was generally accepted as sound science. It was also generally accepted that detecting gravitational waves directly was a long shot at best. Which was why it was so startling when the CalTech/MIT LIGO facilities in Louisiana and Washington state detected gravitational waves almost as soon as they were turned on. Though the event itself took place in September 2015, the researchers took six months to review the results and confirm their findings before making the formal announcement in February.
Just keeping the secret for that long is a project management achievement. It's hard to overstate how amazing this discovery is. But the true epic scope of it becomes apparent when you read up on the city-sized instruments (well, very small town sized) used to make the discovery. The LIGO Interferometers are deceptively simple-looking miles-long tunnels with finely tuned mirrors and lasers configured to detect almost imperceptibly tiny vibrations. The team responsible for these measurements had to be sure they were measuring extraterrestrial vibrations caused by the universe, and not activity from local residents or seismology. That's an extraordinary feat of risk management.
Skeptics said it wasn't possible to fly around the world in a solar-powered airplane. André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard took their inspiration from another intrepid pilot: "Never tell me the odds." In July, the Solar Impulse 2 became the first solar-powered plane to circumnavigate the globe, flying over 40,000 km without using a drop of fuel. The ambitious journey actually started in March of 2015, but was delayed when the aircraft's batteries were damaged on the Japan-Hawaii leg of the flight. Rather than quit or restart, the team spent months raising funds and building new batteries before concluding its historic trip. It might seem like a stunt, but this record-setting accomplishment demonstrates that safe solar-powered flight is possible in at least some capacity, which is encouraging to anyone concerned about the impact of air travel on global sustainability efforts. To say nothing of the sheer, inspiring determination it required to finish.
Conservation Efforts Pay Off
There was decidedly mixed news for animal lovers in 2016, but at least the rebound of China's giant panda population is some cause to rejoice. The iconic animals were once so endangered that the wild population was estimated at barely 1,000. They are not out of the woods yet; climate change is a real and imminent threat to the bamboo forests these charming creatures depend on. But this momentary recovery and reprieve is still a victory. Captive breeding programs have had only limited success, so the real heroes of this story are the Chinese project managers who have supervised nationwide conservation and replanting programs for bamboo forests. There are hundreds of other species in dire need of assistance, so there's plenty more for animal-loving project managers to handle. But for now, we'll enjoy the momentary victory.
The Rosetta mission (Comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko)
The European Space Agency accomplished something amazing when their Rosetta spacecraft landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in September. Launched in 2004, the ambitious little orbiter managed a 10-year journey to intercept and orbit a chunk of space rock just 4 km in diameter -- roughly akin to finding a needle in a needlestack. Not content to orbit and take pictures, the European Space Agency (ESA) sent a lander named Philae down to the comet in 2014, then landed Rosetta itself in order to wrest the maximum possible scientific benefit out of the mission. Scientists will be pouring over the resulting data for years to come. The Rosetta project team has every reason to be proud of this project.
The Cubs Won It All
Any article we linked to on the Chicago Cubs' phenomenal (in every sense of the word), emotional, historic championship run would be inadequate to recapture the moment, so we won't even bother. For one brief shining moment even those of us who root for other teams were Cubs fans -- except, of course, for those from Cleveland.
What does this have to do with project management? Just ask Cubs president Theo Epstein. It was talent, not management, that won the game, but it takes management to find the talent and keep it together. And lest we be tempted to say that anyone could have done it with that team, remember that Epstein pulled off virtually the same feat in Boston a few years ago, with a Red Sox franchise that at the time hadn't won it all in 86 years. Clearly he knows something about putting together a team.
We won't rehash all the tired baseball-to-management parallels here; that was undoubtedly done to death in October. It was still a victory worth remembering. (As if we could forget Kurt Bryant's ebullient grin while he threw that final out.)
The James Webb Telescope Was Completed
Years in the making, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is almost complete. The telescope element of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was finished this year, representing two full decades of collaboration by thousands of people from over 17 countries and multiple organizations, including NASA, ESA, the Canadian Space Agency, JPL, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and many others. Unlike many organizations, NASA publicly acknowledges their project managers, and the team managing the JWST effort could justifiably be called project management superstars, even though they will never be famous. In 2017, the JWST will be moved to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for testing, with integration and launch scheduled for 2018. This is a world-class effort worth looking forward to and learning from.
The Rise of Renewable Energy
For four days last May, Portugal hit the ultimate zero-emissions milestone by running the entire country on renewable energy sources -- mainly wind power and hydroelectric energy. Not to be outdone, India turned on the Kamuthi Solar Power Project in November, which was built in just 8 months and generates over 600 megawatts of power, blankets 4 square miles of land, and is expected to power 150,000 homes in the second most populous nation on Earth. Massive projects like these are becoming more and more common, and represent both challenges and opportunities for project managers in 2017 and beyond.
Companies and Countries Collaborating on Carbon
Despite continued skepticism from some quarters, US energy-related carbon dioxide emissions from January to June dropped to their lowest levels on record since 1991. There are a variety of factors at work here, including reduced coal use and increased renewables, as well as (ironically) milder weather. But whatever the cause it was a win for anyone concerned about the effects of climate change, and a major boost to the Paris climate accords. And regardless of the politics, hundreds of corporations are now on board, with even Big Oil looking for sustainable solutions to future energy needs. Behind each of these countless projects big and small is a project team dedicated to solving one problem at a time, and then the next one, and the next. This is the kind of small-scale, large-impact work that will propel us forward in the coming decades. The future is carried on the shoulders of average people, not titans.
While it was probably never called out in the news or discussed at dinner parties, project management played a huge role in each of these successes, and is uniquely poised to make an impact on the world going forward. Governments come and go but business is forever, and the groups that collaborate to solve everyday problems are the ones who end up leaving the most indelible mark on the world.