People, Planet, Profits & Projects

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Richard Maltzman
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Recent Posts

We Do Declare

Inspiration from Multi-Nation Collaboration

Maybe We Should Write That Spot Down

Ten CO2 Risk Response Pathways


Half a Sextillion Nematodes - Part 2 of 2

In Part 1, we covered a story about research centered on identifying life on earth by geography, featuring the lowly (literally) nematode.

In this short Part 2, as promised, we’ll briefly discuss lessons learned for project management and more about the connection between AI and Earth.

One lesson learned was clarity of communication, and the potential for misunderstanding.  After one of his reports was summarized in a way that unintentionally, made it look like we could relax in our efforts on climate change, as long as we planted lots of trees.  This was not his intent, but Crowther and his team faced significant criticism for something they didn’t intend to do.  From the article:

Two months on, Crowther is chastened by the furore his paper created among scientists who thought its message might encourage the public to relax about curbing carbon emissions as long as they planted enough trees. “We certainly did our communications a little bit wrong, and we’ve learned from that,” he says. “I want to be extremely clear that cutting greenhouse-gas emissions is absolutely essential if we are going to have any chance to stop climate change.”

Another lesson is that Crowther and his team keep things fun and focus on building teams. From the article:

“…worktops are crowded with clusters of chopped tree parts. In the office that Crowther rejected in favour of a desk in the communal room, four staff hurl themselves around a ping-pong table, playing “the smashing game” — a chaotic version that incorporates walls, ceiling and floor. It is one of several that Crowther invented and prescribes are played daily to break up the mental effort, forge bonds and keep life fun. (see blog post main photo)”

…all of this for a good cause: to gain a baseline of life on earth – trees, worms, whatever.  Here’s a video that shows the good work of this team:

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: October 27, 2019 09:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

A Half-Sextillion Nematodes (Part 1 of 2)

Big Data.  Analytics.  It’s hot now, and for good reason.  The ability to apply machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to vast amounts of data to, for example, decide to put up an advert of a certain athletic shoe on your desktop, to decide whether a competitor may be worth acquiring, or to choose between investments.

And although money is important, AI can be applied to much, much more than money.  Think about the data of the Earth.  Well, yes, the planet Earth, but also literally, the earth - the soil - on which you are standing (or the building on which you are standing … is standing).

What’s under you?  Soil, roots, worms. 

There is a laboratory in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, led by a man named Thomas Crowther.  That laboratory has embarked on a project, which, in a way, is an accounting project.  The thing for which it is doing the accounting is, well, it’s the Earth.

Crowther’s lab is funded for 10+ years to collect individual observations (many, MANY of them) and use AI to reach conclusions about the count of trees, fungi, and, for example, nematode worms.

So far, his lab has concluded that there are 3 trillion trees and 0.4 sextillion nematode worms.  We'll come back to these little wigglers later.

Why do this?

Well, as project managers we know about baselines.  If we are to make improvements and/or to understand the changes taking place so that we can make corrections or note the effect of attempted corrections, we need that baseline.

All of this comes mainly from a cover story in the most recent edition of Nature magazine, in an article called, “The Everything Mapper”, by Aisling Irwin.  It’s  a fascinating story – partially because it’s a fascinating project.  The project has already realized benefits, and has some lessons learned for project managers.   For starters, when Crowther was getting started, he was at Yale and proposed the idea of using ground data from actual tree counts (satellite data can’t peer below the canopy).  To do this, he needed to get scientists from different institutions to collaborate and share their data.  He had to build a team from disparate organizations.  Sound familiar?  The professors around him though it was a ridiculous idea but he managed to do it, to the point where he had data representing an area the size of a US state.  Granted, the state was Rhode Island, but still – quite an accomplishment.

He then worked with data scientist Henry Glick to compare the ground-level counts with the satellite imagery to make informed decisions about how many trees there really were. 

The benefit realized was that the mapping done by Crowther and Glick (and others) was used to build the first global model of tree density – and the figure of “3 Trillion Trees”, which in turn changed the name of the UN’s “Billion Tree Campaign” to the “Trillion Tree Campaign”.  Their database continues to serve the Forest Biodiversity Initiative, which studies and manages the world's largest tree-level forest inventory database.  A snapshot of the status of the Trillion Tree Campaign is shown below.

Another outcome – an important one – is a conclusion that “tree planting is easily the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and could be the key to slowing global warming”.

This is a conclusion that obviously spawns many new projects, but that’s another story.

Let’s get back to nematodes for a bit.  They're usually tiny, around 50 micrometers thick and 1 millimeter long - but the nasty parasitic kinds (this is sort of sickening) can be up to 3 feet long.  They actually play an interesting role in solving climate change.  This recent article from Brigham Young University covers that aspect.  One thing of interest to note is that the biomass of the nematodes of the planet is almost equal to our weight.  That is, add up the weight of all the nematodes and you have 80% of the weight of the entire human population!  The relationship to carbon is summed up here:

“Knowing where these tiny worms live matters because nematodes play a critical role in the cycling of carbon and nutrients and heavily influence CO2 emissions. An important finding of the paper is that nematode abundance is strongly correlated with soil carbon (more carbon = more worms). Understanding the little organisms at a global level is critical if humans are going to understand and address climate change.”

Below is a figure from the Nature article summarizing the data from Crowther's research for trees, nematodes and fungi.

In Part 2, I will talk about more lessons learned for project management and more about the connection between AI and Earth.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: October 11, 2019 04:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

The Mitsunobu Reaction

For those of you who follow the Big Bang Theory, you know that they title each episode of the show with a theme name that sounds like a subject of a lecture at an MIT PhD-level course.  Examples of episode names are:

  • “The Codpiece Topology"
  • "The Barbarian Sublimation"
  • "The Griffin Equivalency"
  • "The Euclid Alternative"
  • "The Cooper–Nowitzki Theorem"
  • "The White Asparagus Triangulation"
  • “The Vartabedian Conundrum"

An article in Nature caught my attention, partially because it mentions (see the title) a chemical reaction with such a name.

This particular reaction has to do with the process of synthesizing pharmaceuticals.  The alcohols they use have to be activated by the addition of other chemicals in these industrial contexts.  The process to do that activation is called the Mitsunobu reaction.  This process requires two activating chemicals, one of which is explosive.  It also generates two byproducts, one of which is toxic.

You can find an explanation that is way, WAY beyond the scope of this blog here, and there is a diagram of the reaction below.

There’s also a video tutorial here:

The bottom line is that this is not exactly a sustainably oriented process.

Striving to improve the process (which is really the point of this blog post), scientists at the University of Nottingham, in the United Kingdom, including Ross Denton, used a compound called a phosphine oxide to start the reaction, instead.  This removes the explosive element from the process, and uses one of the byproducts to regenerate the original catalyst, and, leaves behind nothing but water as a final byproduct.

Through this new process, the phosphine oxide will allow for a much more environmentally-friendly process to produce pharmaceuticals and fertilizers.

Project managers should be on the lookout for process improvements such as this and for sustainability, in general, in their projects.  Sometimes a breakthrough like this is only a Big Bang theory away!


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: September 29, 2019 10:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Intermingling Risks

Today, I’m going to go a little bit ‘science-y’ on you, but it has a payoff in terms of understanding risks – and project, program, and portfolio managers must know how to deal with risk.   This post has its roots in a recent article from Nature magazine, “Climate change and overfishing increase neurotoxicant in marine predators” (Schartup et al).

Three billion people rely on seafood for nutrition, and billions of others have it as part of their diet. But this comes with a risk – consumption of methylmercury (MeHg). Mercury from natural and human-produced sources goes into the ocean, to the tune of 80%   Microorganisms convert this mercury (Hg) to MeHg, and in predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish, the MeHg concentrations are amplified a million times or more.  People are thus exposed to MeHg in high concentrations, and that is not good. MeHg causes neurocognitive in children, a problem that can persist into adulthood. This costs society, not only in the suffering of families but also in monetary terms – with the costs estimated to be over $20B.

So here’s the connection to project management.  Although “seafood” is not a project, nor is “fishing”, the increased presence of MeHg is clearly a threat.   Nations have responded to this threat with the Minamata Convention on Mercury, in 2017.

You can learn about the Minimata Convention here from the video below.

 Is your country a signatory?  Colombia just signed a few days ago.  Check that out here:

As project managers, we importantly check risk response to see if it is effective and/or if other actors or effects.  This is a critical process because risk is dynamic, and sometimes risk responses even generate new (secondary) threats.

Here, the scientists studying MeHg looked at the effects of overfishing and climate change on MeHg concentrations in fish.  What they found, using over 30 years of data analytics, showed that overfhishing of Atlantic Cod caused a 23% increase, and rising temperatures caused by climate change have caused a 56% increase in MeHg in Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (ABFT) (see Figure below – source is Nature Magazine, Volume 572, August 2019).

In the chart on the bottom right, you can see that MeHg levels have gone UP, despite the reduction in the amount of mercury in the ecosystem (that lower amount resulting from the Minamata Convention), and that those increases are in alignment with seawater temperature increases.

The bottom line is that ocean warming and fisheries management will be key factors in modulating the threat of MeHg in our diet.   It turns out that the quantity of this neurotoxicant is not limited only to the depositing of mercury in the oceans, it’s about the ocean “as a system” (See figure below) and the way that this system processes mercury, and how other effects – to which we contribute – change the concentrations.

This is only one example of how human activity can complicate and exacerbate other problems, and the takeaway for project managers is to understand how risks intermingle and interact.

Think of the risks in your project(s).  Have you stepped back and considered how they interact?


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: September 22, 2019 03:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Guest Post: The Power of Repeatable Processes

I'm so thrilled to present to you a guest post from Madeline Hendry.
See below for her bio.  For now: enjoy the story!


What is your “bread and butter” as a project manager? The type of project that you can do with your eyes closed, that you’re known for, that people are clamoring to hire you for?

Mine is events. I’ve worked on a lot of them over the years, and like you, after all this time, I’ve gotten pretty good at managing them from start to finish without too many hiccups. Sure, each event comes with its own unique challenges, but for the most part, they’re all generally the same under the covers.

Now think about the first time you managed a project like this. It probably wasn’t easy, and if your experience was anything like mine, you probably also experienced your fair share of “baptism by fire” that first time around. Lots of unexpected mishaps, lots of simultaneous fires to put out, lots of “no one told me that!”

But after that first project, you looked back and you learned. And you likely thought to yourself, “Wow - I don’t want that to happen again. What parameters can I put in place to prevent it from happening next time?”

After managing project after project, and asking yourself that same question over and over again, my bet is that you’ve worked out a lot of the kinks and streamlined many of the processes that might have been pretty rocky that first time around.

And now here you are - managing your “bread and butter” projects day in and day out without too many hiccups. A master of your craft!

Over time, you have maximized the efficiency of two precious resources: your effort and your time.

When I think of sustainability in a project management sense, I don’t think of “going green” -- I think of the scenario I just described - the long term success of repeatable processes over time.

Yes, of course sustainability also means making decisions that take into consideration the long term impact on the environment, etc. - but thoughtfully establishing repeatable processes that save time and energy on the “bones” of a project allows projects to a) develop more efficiently over time, and b) open more and more space for the innovation, strategic thinking and creative problem solving that each new project requires (because no two projects are the same, after all).

Let me give you an example. I used to work for a sports league, and I was on the team that managed all of the logistics surrounding in-arena entertainment for international games (i.e. shipping the mascots’ costumes, securing hotel rooms for the dance team, getting access badges for the crew, etc.). The games might have been in different arenas in different countries all over the world, but the “bones” of these events were essentially the same. So over time, I was able to establish various standard operating procedures that we followed for every event (same schedule format, same contact list, same travel forms, etc.).

For one event in particular, my team was really on their A-game. We had running these events down to a science, and because we weren’t spending as much time worrying about putting out logistical fires, we were able to come up with some pretty cool ideas for how to make the in-arena show the best yet. We were relaxed, we were excited, we were in sync, we were ready - there was a really special energy in the air.

Right before the game was about to begin, an electrical fire broke out in the arena and a chemical gas was automatically released to stop the flames from spreading. The fire was out, but the arena was filling with smoke and this chemical gas, and we were told that everyone had to evacuate - now.

Amidst the chaos (and smoke), I went back to our office and grabbed a few copies of the contact list - a document I had standardized to keep track of every single person we were responsible for during these events. I handed a contact list to each member of my team and we split up to go find people and get them out of the building ASAP.


Several minutes later, we were all standing outside the arena doing roll call with our contact lists to ensure that everyone had made it out. They had. The game was cancelled, but our team was safe. And we had our contact list to thank. Without the contact list, we would have been panicked, scrambling, trying to remember everyone’s names -- How many dancers were there? What about sound guys? Wait - wasn’t there a new production assistant that came on yesterday? What was her name?

Establishing the standard operating procedures surrounding that document, and putting in the extra effort to create it for the event had allowed our team to handle a potentially disastrous situation with ease. In that moment, we were able to make the best use of our time and our energy because we already had the “bones” of the event in place.

What repeatable processes have gotten you out of a pinch? What breakthroughs have you been able to make thanks to having standard operating procedures in place?


Madeline Hendry has over ten years of experience in project and event management, marketing operations and creative services production in the entertainment, sustainability & tech industries. She is passionate about process improvement, team collaboration, thoughtful development, and making meaningful and impactful change in her hometown of Philadelphia. Outside of work, Madeline enjoys playing squash, trying new beers, singing in a gospel choir, and spending time with friends and family.


Please let me know what you think of this post.  I'd like to encourage Madeline to do another post (or two), especially if it's popular here - and I know this is a tough crowd!


Rich Maltzman, PMP

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: September 20, 2019 09:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

"If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead."

- Johnny Carson