Nope. That's not a typo. I'm going to talk about the Wood Wide Web, not the WWW you've come to know online.
In fact, you may never have heard of the Wood Wide Web - perhaps because you haven't been able to see the forest for the trees.
Yep, this blog post is a bit different from the rest. It’s about lessons we can learn about stakeholders, sustainability, and communications – all key project management concepts – from, of all things, a combination of beagles, fungi, trees, and little critters called springtails.
The inspiration for this post came from Radiolab, my favorite podcast. If you don’t listen to this podcast and you have even a remote interest in science and/or comedy, you are missing out.
Check it out here: http://www.radiolab.org/series/podcasts/
The particular episode that caught my attention was called “From Tree to Shining Tree”. The story begins with a beagle (Jigs) that falls into a waste pit while their family is camping. The beagle happens to belong to Suzanne Simard, a Forestry Professor at the University of British Columbia. During the rescue, the digging to reach the dog exposed a network of roots of the rainforest (yes, British Columbia has a temperate rainforest!). This stimulated Susanne to research how trees may share nutrients in this underground network of roots.
The story gets more complicated and intricate when the research indicates that the roots are further intertwined and interconnected by the mycelium (root structure) of fungi – a webwork of threads that looks like a combination of vermicelli and neurons (see photo below) but in which the threads are hollow – meaning that the white lines are actually fine capillary tubes. These tubes carry nutrients – minerals, for example, between trees – even between different species of trees.
Photo Credit: Nigel Cattlin/Alamy
This is amazing because trees of different species usually compete for sunshine and nutrients. But here, the trees were collaborating. The trees were, in fact, healthier when they were mixed rather than homogeneous.
The trees – and this threading - are acting like a giant telecom network, with hubs, represented by the older trees. This network actually has been given a nickname – the Wood Wide Web.
The fungus that makes up this capillary threads has been associated for eons with plants in a very symbiotic relationship. The tree gets nutrients from the fungus. The fungus gets sugar from the trees. And here’s where it gets weird – almost science-fiction weird. The fungus gets these minerals from the soil, of course, but also from animals, including, in some cases, live animals – particularly a hexapod called a springtail. And the fungus has also developed a way to paralyze springtails and draw nitrogen from them. In some cases, they do this (here’s the sci-fi part) while the springtails are still alive.
Yeah. We know. That’s creepy. And cruel.
Much of this discovery is new – the relationships between the fungus and the trees, the idea that the nitrogen from springtails was getting into the trees… this is all discovered within only the last few years.
You really should have a look at this TED (see below) talk by none other than beagle-owner Suzanne Simard.
The TED talk ends with some very strong messages about ecological sustainability that – of course – are also important to heed.
So what are the messages for project managers?
Check out these links for more information on this fascinating natural phenomenon that has great lessons for us as project managers.
The Long Haul
As project managers, we think more “in the moment” than most professionals. We want our projects to meet objectives. We want to come in under budget, on time, and we want to get on to the next project. Pronto.
That thinking may lead, however, to some very poor decision making. In prior posts here on People, Planet, Profits and Projects, we have discussed how thinking about the outcome and the steady-state operation of the project’s product can not only prevent ecological, social, and economic ‘sustainability’ mistakes, it better connects the project to the organizational strategy, mission, vision and values. Of course, we have to hope that those values are good values. That’s not so clear with recent news about emissions control ‘cheating’.
What we’ve seen in the past week or two in the automotive industry illustrates the danger of this sort of short-term-thinking whether you are a project manager or not.
Let’s start with VW. To bring you up to speed (pun intended), we provide this summary, taken mainly from this excellent story by BBC.
In September, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars being sold in America had a "defeat device" - or software - in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results. The German car giant has since admitted cheating emissions tests in the US.
The EPA's findings cover 482,000 cars in the US only, including the VW-manufactured Audi A3, and the VW models Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat. But VW has admitted that about 11 million cars worldwide, including eight million in Europe, are fitted with the so-called "defeat device".
The EPA has said that the engines had computer software that could sense test scenarios by monitoring speed, engine operation, air pressure and even the position of the steering wheel.
When the cars were operating under controlled laboratory conditions - which typically involve putting them on a stationary test rig - the device appears to have put the vehicle into a sort of safety mode in which the engine ran below normal power and performance. Once on the road, the engines switched out of this test mode.
The result? The engines emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US. And it may go beyond dollars and chemicals. MIT recently did a study which shows that the carbon monoxide released may cause 60 premature deaths.
And the background on Chrysler Fiat?
For this, we provide you with a summary drawn from a recent article from USA Today:
U.S. regulators accused Fiat Chrysler Automobiles of violating emissions standards in more than 100,000 diesel vehicles, spawning concerns that the company could become ensnared in a scandal like the one that engulfed Volkswagen Group.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that Fiat Chrysler illegally installed software on about 104,000 pickups and sport-utility vehicles that spewed harmful pollutants while failing to disclose the technology.
The allegations involve the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee and light-duty Ram 1500 pickup trucks with 3-liter diesel engines.
The EPA said the automaker installed eight different undisclosed software programs on the vehicles, collectively causing them to spew harmful nitrous oxide emissions, which can exacerbate respiratory conditions.
So here’s a question. Is it only these two companies or is there some kind of endemic problem with the industry? According to this article from Forbes, the US government thinks it may indeed be wider than these two companies:
Federal investigators have confirmed that they’re pondering the same possibility. If a design defect affects two major manufacturers, why not a third or fourth or fifth? Fiat Chrysler may not be the only company that needs to engage in some strategic soul-searching at this particular moment in time.
Finally, the sheer enormity of the Volkswagen case should directly impact Chrysler and the treatment it can expect as the inquiry goes forward. Even compared to the mega-settlements of recent years, VW’s financial cost is staggering. At $4.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties, with another $15.7 billion to settle car owner suits, it’s one of the most expensive scandals ever.
But it’s not just about penalties. “At its core this case is not merely one large scandal but three,” says Pete Anderson, a former DOJ environmental crimes prosecutor who now leads the White Collar/Compliance group at Beveridge & Diamond. “It involved serious violations of the Clean Air Act, multiple lies and cover-ups, and the fraudulent sale of automobiles. The other aggravating facts that give this case such shock value are the calculated means of the deceptions and the significant financial gains that motivated the crimes.”
So let’s come back to projects and project management. If this is indeed a ‘culture’ thing, in which it becomes permissible to make decisions which are short-term oriented, as I’m sure you’d agree these decisions were, what can we – we who are known as short-term thinkers – what can we do?
Here are some suggestions:
In short, consider that your project is not making a short jaunt to the market, but rather is in it for the long haul – or there may be a significant price to pay. And pay, and pay.