In parts 1 and 2 of this special series on ‘plastic risk management’, I tied together the concept of project risk management and the identification and analysis of the threat of plastic pollution in the ocean, including and especially the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This post is going to be short and sweet because I want you to watch the embedded videos which really tell the story. I will even resist the blogger's temptation to review Parts 1 and 2; instead, I will point you to this excellent video:
A possible solution (risk response!) has been proposed and has been taken to reality by an organization called OceanCleanup, founded by young Dutch inventor Boyan Slat.
In just a couple of weeks, this company’s risk response will be launched. In an amazing video, Boyan Slat takes you through the entire Risk ID to Risk Response journey in quite an audio-visual-sensory way, and in a gigantic room that will make any of you who do presentations salivate. If you get nothing else out of these posts, have a look at the style and persuasiveness (and scope) of this presentation!
From this talk comes the actual launch of “System 001”. This is the risk response!
I have not a lot to add; see this for what it is: a project. Note the passion, the "connectedness" of the mission to the project’s outcome, the way the project is promoted, and the discipline which must’ve been invoked to get to this launch.
This is a newsworthy project, so keep your eyes and ears open for the press coverage of this event on 8-September. Here at projectmanagement.com and in particular at People, Planet, Profits & Projects we try to stay current, so YOU can stay current (excuse the pun).
In Part 1 of this post, I presented the problem – the threat – of not one, but several giant plastic garbage patches in Earth’s oceans and what that means to sea life (and land life, for example, human project managers). Taking a project management approach, I provided information on the threat so we could understand the impact and begin to identify risk responses. That post closed with research from Professor Jenna Jemback of the University of Georgia and a challenge from me to you to count the number of plastic items you touched in a particular period after reading the post.
First, let me thank those of you who responded (quite a few!). Typically, the number was over 50 in just a few hours, one of you even counted 20 touched plastic items on your way to your car after reading the article!
So you literally can sense this threat, perhaps in a very tactile way you hadn’t before.
Let’s switch gears now, and do what we do best as project managers, look at solving the problem – even turning the threat into an opportunity - or a whole portfolio of opportunities.
In the remaining parts of this post I’ll talk about how industry has responded (Part 2) and will save the best for last in Part 3, which will probably make you smile because it is about a tremendous project to solve the problem – so you may actually smile twice - once for the project itself and once for the potential results it seems capable of providing.
In this short Part 2, however, I will talk in general about the way industry has the chance to step up and help solve the problem but also do that in a way that generates revenue and pays off for investors.
They say: “follow the money” to help trace corruption – or solve problems. Here (thankfully) we are focused on solving problems. So I begin Part 2 with a report that – well, I’ll let the abstract of the report tell you about itself:
The goal of this report is to show how private capital can play a meaningful role in tackling the issues of plastic pollution across the world’s ocean. Numerous investment opportunities are highlighted across the risk/return spectrum where investors can gain a return on investment, while also having a meaningful impact on the problem of ocean plastics
In the foreword of the report, we also find this:
This is a challenge of global proportions, but, if there is good news, it is that the worst effects of ocean plastics can still be avoided with strategic, timely and coordinated actions. There is still time, and there is ample opportunity, for diverse funders to make a series of well-orchestrated, high-impact investments that will meaningfully shift the trajectory our ocean is currently following.
Do you see the connection to project management? “Strategic, timely, and coordinated actions” – hello, project managers, this is our ‘thang’, isn’t it? Overseeing “well-orchestrated, high-impact investments” – isn’t that the signature work of our profession? It sure is!
Here are the opportunities covered in the report:
Opportunities From Source Through Use
Opportunities With Post-Consumer Plastics
The report is huge, is full of opportunities, and mentions the word “project” dozens of times.
So let’s just pick one – Waste to Energy (WTE) and take a look at the opportunities. Below is a video from the American Chemistry Council and although it starts with a bit on recycling plastics, it moves quickly to an illustration of the many ways that non-recyclable plastics can be converted to energy in such ways as gasification.
Again, this is just one of the many branches pointed to in the report, and from this, you can learn much more by going to:
American Chemistry site on Plastics
Materials Recovery For the Future (MRFF)
But take a look at the entire report, too:
The best is yet to come – in Part 3 we will look at something really special – a project to go right after the problem and collect the waste that is already “out there’ in the oceans.
That's in part 3... coming soon!
I approach this three part (!!!) post from the PMI® viewpoint about risk.
Risk, as you likely know, can be described as negative risk, the risk we usually think of, called threat, and positive risk, called opportunity. When I started this story it was very depressing – because I thought of it only as a threat. But a deeper dive (excuse the pun) led me to the conclusion that there was both threat and opportunity here. In fact, I’ll treat this as a three-part series. Part 1 will focus on risk identification, Part 2 on threat and opportunity analysis, and Part 3 on risk response – and the initiation of a huge project that will capture your imagination and tickle your project management fancy.
So – all that said, let’s start with Part 1: Risk Identification. What’s the risk, and why was it so depressing at first?
Here’s a challenge for you, dear reader. Consciously note and identify the number of plastic items you touch over the next 24 hours. In fact, let’s make this a bit interactive. I request that you respond to this post with that count of touches and items. Log it on a piece of note paper, remembering that the pen you use is also likely made of plastic. Plastic is everywhere. You’re reading this post while touching a plastic bezel of a device or with your hands resting on a plastic keyboard and/or mouse, and looking at a plastic monitor, perhaps snacking on pretzels in a plastic bag (watch those crumbs!). So the risk I’m talking about is indeed – plastic.
Many of you have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. For those not familiar with the situation, first of all, the word “patch” makes it sound way too small. It’s actually (currently) twice the size of Texas. And – ask anyone in Texas, Texas is BIG. Below is an image from a recent article in New Scientist magazine:
This is not just about litter – the plastic affects a much larger food chain – including us. And it’s not just this patch, where the plastic happens to concentrate. Remember your project management training – a risk is not a risk unless it has an effect on project objectives. In this case, for sake of argument, the “project” is continuing good quality of life on this planet. From the below, you can see that this definitely qualifies as a risk. Research suggests that not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution. Here is one small sample regarding fish, from research on the effect of plastics on sea life:
“Fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, which can cause intestinal injury and death and transfers plastic up the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals. A recent study found that a quarter of fish at markets in California contained plastic in their guts, mostly in the form of plastic microfibers.”
Where’s the plastic coming from? In other words, what’s the cause – the source of this risk?
Professor Jambeck has collaborated on a technical article recently published in Science magazine which details this:
Science magazine article - Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768.full
From the abstract:
By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, we estimated the mass of land-based plastic waste entering the ocean. We calculate that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. Population size and the quality of waste management systems largely determine which countries contribute the greatest mass of uncaptured waste available to become plastic marine debris. Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025. The plastic garbage patch may even be much bigger than we thought, according to this recent article. And, oh, by the way, this is not the only mass of debris. Each of Earth’s gyres (click on the link and/or see below) also contain vast amounts of plastic.
So, the problem is huge, and it’s growing, but we have identified the threat and we have a much better handle on its size. In Part 2 of this three-part post, I’ll talk more about the risk analysis and move towards a risk response.
But before you leave... remember my challenge to you. Track the plastic items that you touch over the next 24 hours (or whatever period you can bear doing this) and respond to this post with your numbers and if you're willing, a table showing the number and the items.
Photo courtesy of Pensthorpe National park - http://www.pensthorpe.com/animal/barnacle-goose/
Today’s tongue-twister (say that title five times fast!) is brought to you by Branta leucopsis. This is a species of bird commonly known as the barnacle goose (see photo). And although this will be about geese and migration and climate, it will have a project management angle.
These days, the weather in parts of the journey north is warmer than it used to be and the birds seem to realize that they're running late. They start to speed up — a lot.
A journey that usually takes the barnacle geese a month now takes about a week, the researchers found. It's a marathon: "They fly nearly nonstop from the wintering areas to their breeding grounds," Bart Nolet (a researcher from the University of Amsterdam) says.
Even though they make up time on the way (crashing the schedule!), the exhausted geese can't lay eggs right away because they need time to forage and recover — some 10 more days.
That means the goslings are no longer able to enjoy that tasty and nutritious "food peak," as Nolet put it. Instead, "when the eggs hatch, the food is already deteriorating in quality, and what we found (in this research project) is that goslings survive less well in such an early year than they do normally."
This is where that ‘fixed start date’ comes in. The trigger for this their departure – the dependency, if you will, is not temperature, but light and length of days, says the research. The distance between their North Sea residence and the breeding grounds in the Arctic, after all, is more than 3000 miles (see figure below). The geese, unlike project managers, with excellent information systems with the latest compiled data, information, and knowledge, don’t have any idea of the weather 3000 miles away, they only have the current and very local information on which to make their decisions.
Generally, climate change is likely to create this kind of mismatch for animals that migrate long distances. It's harder for them to adjust, Nolet says, when they spend part of the year in a totally different climate
This is another example of how changes to the climate remind us of the need to aim at reductions in the causes and to be more aware of the effects and the surprising relationship of climate change to projects, project management, and project management wisdom.
Many project managers are left-brain thinkers. We’re analytical. We’re get-r-done type folk. Give me the facts, man, and I’ll deliver your project, we say. Or, if we’re the one presenting the facts, we expect that they’ll deliver action by our project team contributors.
The science of the human brain, however, indicates that as humans, we take many ‘mental shortcuts’. Our decisions are not always rational.
A recent article in Scientific American has one of the most interesting titles of an article – at least in that esteemed journal: “The Science of Anti-Science Thinking”. The subtitle also caught my attention: “Convincing people who doubt the validity of climate change and evolution to change their beliefs requires overcoming a set of ingrained cognitive biases”.
The article starts with a porpoise. Porpoises live in the ocean. They look like a fish. Until fairly recently, most people thought they were a fish. But scientific evidence proved that they are a mammal, and that is now a fact.
When science – or at least technological advancement based on science – yields the automobile, the laser, the smartphone, or a cure for a disease, the advance is welcomed. But when science tells us something that disturbs the prevailing thought or challenges a societal norm, or, in projects, “that’s not the way we do things around here” – watch out. The human mind can slip quickly into mental shortcuts and biases.
In the article, which I highly recommend reading, there are some excellent examples and compelling evidence. But let me focus on the hurdles to accepting facts, since that (accepting facts) is what we need for good project management.
The brain is an organ. Organs use lots of energy and as a living thing, we try to reduce the energy we use – that’s instinct. On top of this, these days, we’re presented with an overload of information to process. So we take mental shortcuts – heuristics – rules of thumb – to cut down our processing time. One example in the article is the “Authority Heuristic”. In an experiment by psychiatrist Charles Hofling, nurses in a hospital received a phone call from a person identifying himself as a doctor, and directing the on-duty nurse to give their patient a double dose of a drug called Astroten to a patient, even though the label on the bottle boldly limited the dosage, and even though the hospital had a policy requiring handwritten prescriptions for such changes. 95% of the nurses obeyed the unknown “doctor” without raising any questions. See this link for more detail: https://www.simplypsychology.org/hofling-obedience.html. Other research in this area comes from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, summarized well in the video below. It’s just a few minutes. Have a look.
These nurses, I think you’d agree, were using “System 1” thinking.
Even if you have the time to go to System 2 (slower, more disciplined) thinking, there is the chance that we won’t process information impartially. We will “mix in” our beliefs and give higher priority to the patterns we have seen more often and the ways in which we’ve always thought.
Now let’s assume you have surpassed the hurdles of shortcuts (System 1 thinking) and confirmation bias, there is still something else that may prevent scientific fact from getting through. And that is “social pressure”. Group consensus is a strong thing. You’ve probably even seen it in your projects. “Everyone knows that Vendor XYZ is the best in the business”, says the ‘common wisdom’. Do the facts bear it out? If you don't think social pressure can make a difference, take a journey back in time and watch this old video from an American TV show called Candid Camera. It's about something called "The Asch Paradigm". You'll get a kick out of it.
All three of these hurdles get in the way of conveying real, factual information.
I bring this up for two reasons – first, to help readers understand why they may be pushing back on research showing that climate change is real and caused by humans, but even if you want to bypass that element, I also bring it up because as project managers need to work based on facts, and that as a PM you will often find yourself in the role of the conveyor of facts and faced with an audience or a functional manager who is taking mental shortcuts or is suffering from confirmation bias. At a minimum, you need to be aware of how information flows into, around, and back out of the human brain to accomplish your project objectives.
So: think fast, think slow, and consider the facts – including the facts about your own thinking!