The Promise of the Waxworm

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Richard Maltzman
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Hey, Moth-Eyes!

There's a recent story in the news about waxworms.  Several outlets covered it but I like this coverage from ABC (Australia). 

I love how the story opens:

“Scientist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini picked parasitic wax worms from the honeycomb of her beehives and left them sitting in a plastic bag.

When she returned to the bag, it was riddled with holes and many of the worms had escaped.

It was that chance discovery that led her to collaborate with scientists at the University of Cambridge in England to unearth the possibility of using worms to munch through the world's plastic problem.”

Why do I like this opening so much? 

---It expresses the idea of a threat becoming an opportunity

---It shows the value of science

---It has a promise to solve a problem for the planet

Let’s take these one by one.

Threats and Opportunities

PMI defines risk as “an uncertain event, which, it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on project objectives”.  In this case, we have a threat, which Bertocchini was treating (or responding to) by removing and bagging the worms.  The risk response had a secondary risk, which in this case was an opportunity.  Usually, a secondary risk is a threat.  For example, if you think of an air bag as a response to the threat of vehicle impact, you would not expect (but must consider) that the air bag could also have a negative result.  That’s what happened with Takata airbags (from a story in Consumer Reports):

“At the heart of the problem is the airbag’s inflator, a metal cartridge loaded with propellant wafers, which in some cases has ignited with explosive force. If the inflator housing ruptures in a crash, metal shards from the airbag can be sprayed throughout the passenger cabin—a potentially disastrous outcome from a supposedly life-saving device”

So: the risk response generates a new risk - in this case clearly a threat.


The Value of Science

We’ve just witnessed The March For Science around the globe.  The need for people to understand what science brings to the table.  I think most project managers know and appreciate the value of science, and would tend not to be ‘deniers’ of the facts that scientists provide, so I won’t dwell on this – but it is worth mentioning.

The Promise of the Waxworm

I know – this sounds like the name of a horrifically drippy romance novel or perhaps a Dan Brown thriller.  But in this case it’s about the breaking down of polyethylene and a chance to solve a problem of concern to all of us.  From the story:

People around the world use about 1 trillion plastic bags each year, the study said, and more than 45 million tonnes of polyethylene plastics are produced annually.  "The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut," said Cambridge University's Paolo Bombelli said.  "If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable."

As project managers we must be aware of risks in both forms – threat and opportunity – as well as the idea of secondary risk.  And, I would also argue that when it comes to any of these concepts, the focus should be on the long term, your project’s realizations of benefits, not only the specific and direct objectives of the project. 

Next time you launch a project, think about the waxworm!

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: April 28, 2017 09:28 PM | Permalink

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