Project Management

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Richard Maltzman
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Gyres and Legos and Zeros, Oh My!

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Gyres and Legos and Zeros, Oh My!

OK, so let’s start with that goofy title.  It’s supposed to be a reference to that scene (clip below) from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz


You probably know what Legos(TM) are (if not, ask a parent, child or grandparent).  And there is zero uncertainty around the fact that you know what a zero is.  But do you know that the presence or absence of a zero (and not in salary) could actually be an inspiration to a project team?  It can.  Read on.



You may not know what a gyre is.  The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines a gyre as a large system of swirling ocean currents. Increasingly, however, it also refers to the garbage patch as a vortex of plastic waste and debris broken down into small particles in the ocean.

 One of the largest such gyres is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

I have previously blogged about Ocean Cleanup, the brainchild of Boyan Slat.  This program has grown and continues to expand.


Have a look at the video below.  Really.  It's 16 minutes long.  Knowing that some of you won't watch it,  I’ve also curated some of the key points for project leaders to take away.  Much of it has to do with an agile approach to projects and the way teams work best together.  There’s also some great nuggets in here about how stakeholders that could easily be opponents were made to be collaborators.


In the video you can see the relief on team members’ faces in that they now have a chance to meet face-to-face again.  They take advantage of this by using Legos to model the new System 03.  This is a large upgrade over Systems 001 and 002.  That is not to say that these systes have not been effective.  They have removed so far 55 tons of plastics from the Pacific. 

Note that System 03 has one fewer zero.  Which brings us to the next piece, which is: Zeros.


When Ocean Cleanup started, the program directors thought that it would take hundreds of these systems to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  So, three ‘places’ were held for the digits 001 through perhaps 472 or whatever the number of Systems it would take.  With the radical redesign of System 03, it was determined that TENS, not hundreds of systems could handle the cleanup.  So, for the simple numerical reason – but also as a motivator and a ‘totem’ of the project, one zero was removed.  Do not underestimate the power of project ‘totems’ like this.

Other takeaways

As you watch the video, please notice some of the other project leadership ideas that this team has adapted, some which come from an agile mindset, some from predictive PM.  They have done a great job of applying my three-word solution to the completely non-existent ‘versus’ situation when it comes to which methodology is best: Use What Works.

As we saw with the Legos, the team used modeling – in that case physical modelling. However, they also make significant use of mathematical modeling which reportedly has been quite accurate in predicting where and when to launch the System 02 missions. 

They use what I call "careful KPIs", and a ‘balanced scorecard’ (although they don’t use that term).  The KPI (key performance indicator) is cost per kg of plastic removed.  They want to clean the ocean, but they want to do it in a fiscally responsible way.  As for the balanced scorecard, they are quite aware that their efforts have  an impact of their own – the vessels burn fuel, they do intercept some wildlife, and they are not ignoring it – in fact they use that in the measurement of their success, not just the tons of plastics they are removing.

When the team encounters a problem (such as plastic escaping over the floating boundaries of the collection system) they use a ‘lockup meeting’ in which the team all gets together to brainstorm and cannot leave until they have a solution.  They even make references to ‘locking the door and throwing away the key’.

In general note how they have become a 'learning organization' and are allowing themselves to try-and-fail, try-and-fail, so that they can try-and-succeed.

One of the most poignant segments of the video is a visit to the firm which is making the collection nets.  The firm is a fishing company.  Normally they are making nets to catch fish.  It turns out that much of what is collected by the Ocean Cleanup is from the fishing industry.  So the two groups might naturally be at odds.  But each actually stands to gain from the other.  The Ocean Cleanup team gets expertise and manufacturing capability for their nets.  The fishing firm gets cleaner, ‘greener’ fish and as the interviewee says in the video, a chance to move from being ‘a part of the problem to being part of the solution’.

I found this 16-minute video to be inspiring and informative, in particular for project managers who want to become project leaders.

What did you think?

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: August 09, 2022 03:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Project Managers - still we persist...

Categories: ocean cleanup

A while ago I posted about an ambitious initiative to clean up the ocean’s plastic pollution.  It is led by a young Dutch innovator named Boyan Slat.  If you forgot that post or want a refresher, here’s an excellent video describing the initiative.

  Like any project, and perhaps even more, due to its level of innovation and ambition, it is prone to uncertainty.  And indeed, this project has hit a snag.

From this story published by NBC news:

An ambitious project to clean up a vast tide of ocean pollution has been sidelined. The project's 2,000-foot-long screen — which was already failing to capture plastic while stationed more than 1,000 miles off the coast of California — broke apart just before New Year's under the constant wind and waves of the Pacific Ocean.

USA Today also reported on the failure here:

...and also here:

What does a project manager do when there is a setback?  Do we quit?  Perhaps.  The PMBOK® Guide and general good practice tells us to re-evaluate our projects to see if we have reached a “kill point”.  But that’s not what’s happening with this project, perhaps because the stakes (and the levels of plastic in the ocean) are so high.  Nope, we're not quitting.  Like "The Little Engine That Could", in this case, the project team chooses to persevere - to try again... to be agile and creative... and to persist.

“Of course there is slight disappointment, because we hoped to stay out there a bit longer to do more experiments and to….solve the [plastic] retention issue,” Slat said. “But there is no talk whatsoever about discouragement.

What has to happen?  More development.  In a very odd way, this is a form of Agile, isn’t it?  Listen to the inventor again:

 “This is one of the classic structural engineering challenges,” Slat said. “You saw it first with the railroads, then with airlines and now with this first cleanup system. It’s very hard to predict. It’s very hard to model. So this is all very educational.”

In other words: design, deploy a prototype, fail, modify, re-design, deploy, fail a little less, learn each time, rinse and repeat until: success.

Despite the failure, I applaud the effort and find the attitude and focus very refreshing – and something from which we can all take a lesson.

I will be following up with two other ocean cleanup stories over the next weeks.  One involves an initiative to manually collect the plastic washing up on shorelines and turn the waste into bracelets.  The other is a story of an effort similar to Slat’s OceanCleanup system from Israeli company Soda Stream.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: February 09, 2019 12:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

"If you think you've hit a false note, sing loud. When in doubt, sing loud."

- Robert Merrill