Innovation—Inside 4 of the 50 Most Influential Projects

Transcript

NARRATOR

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified with PMI, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s really ahead for the profession—and your career.

For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play music or PMI.org/podcast.

AUDIO MONTAGE

Man is about to launch himself on a trip to the moon with the expectation of landing there. 
Three. Two. One. Zero. All engine running. Liftoff! We have a liftoff! 
It has already been called a whole new Disney World. And now, here is Walt Disney. 
“Welcome to a little bit of Florida here in California. This is where the early planning is taking place for our so-called Disney World project.” 
Welcome to the worldwide Live Aid concert! As of this moment, we’re being seen in 60 nations throughout the world. We can be seen on 85 percent of all the television sets on the planet. We welcome you to a massive, totally unprecedented coming together of all the peoples of our world in support of our neighbors in Africa. 

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Hello. I’m Stephen Maye, and this is Projectified with PMI. I’m here with my co-host, Tegan Jones, and today we’re discussing some of the most influential projects of the past 50 years.

Over the past year, PMI spoke with experts across sectors to get their thoughts on what makes a project influential. And, based on their feedback, PMI put together a list of the top 50 projects that made a lasting impact on the world. Although some of these projects were not necessarily the most expensive or technologically challenging, their impact was profound. These projects defied convention, reshaped our expectations and redefined what we thought was possible.

TEGAN JONES

So, PMI put this list together to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and I think there are a lot of really impressive projects here. Of course, you’ll find some of the megaprojects that you would expect: the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, the Chernobyl cleanup, the construction of the Burj Khalifa. 

But there’s also a lot of things that you probably wouldn’t expect: So, Walt Disney World. Live Aid. And, of course, my favorite, the Atari. These projects really had their finger on the pulse. Their teams understood what people wanted—and they shifted global culture in a really major way. 

If you want to see what made the list, you can visit PMI.org/most-influential-projects. There you’ll find articles about all 50 projects, as well as top 10 lists that focus on specific regions and sectors. Plus, there’s some cool videos you can check out too. 

STEPHEN W. MAYE

I loved Atari, and I love the way the list spans space science, art and architecture, and even pop culture. For the action movie fans, you’ll remember the Burj Khalifa was prominently featured in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. And, of course, we’re going to take a closer look at a few of the projects on the list right now.

Sadly, the Hula-Hoop was developed in 1958, so it did not make the cut. But we will be speaking with people from the teams that managed the euro rollout, the Human Genome Project, the Panama Canal expansion and the development of Alexa. 

TEGAN JONES

Alexa is, of course, the virtual assistant that comes with the Amazon Echo. 
She started out as a very basic tool with only a few functions, but today she has a whole host of features that help people manage their lives—without being tethered to a smartphone.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

So Tegan, why do you think Amazon picked the name Alexa? I know Siri has a personal back story—I think it was the name the CEO of the company that originally developed Siri wanted to name his daughter, but then he had a son. So that’s kind of a cute back story. Do you think Alexa has a similar story?

TEGAN JONES

I don’t know. Let’s ask her. Alexa, where does your name come from?

ALEXA

My name Alexa comes from the library of Alexandria, which stored the knowledge of the ancient world.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

All right, that is pretty interesting—it’s like a Marvel hero back story. I wonder what else she knows about herself. Let’s try it. Alexa, what are you made of?

ALEXA

I’m plastic, metal and lots of ones and zeros.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Okay, I guess Amazon isn’t giving away any secrets today. Let’s try one more: Alexa, how many Alexas are there?

ALEXA

There are lots of people called Alexa, but there’s only one of me.

TEGAN JONES

I don’t know whether that’s cute or creepy! But Alexa has definitely come a long way since the project began in secret in 2011. 

You might remember that Apple rolled out Siri with the iPhone 4S in October of that year. But that didn’t stop Amazon. The company moved fast to come up with something that could compete.

Ahmed Bouzid, the former head of product on the Alexa team, gave us an insider’s take on why Jeff Bezos decided to get in on the voice technology game.

AHMED BOUZID

Legend has it that Jeff Bezos himself was inspired by the Star Trek computer interface, where the interaction was truly eyes-free, hands-free. Simply ask the question, and just like that, the computer responds to you with an answer, and you can have a conversation with the intelligence, which is a computer. 

I think Amazon saw that voice was not fully fulfilled within the smartphone, and Siri was not the first one. There were mobile apps before that. Voice was coming to the mainstream, but it was not fulfilling its promise.

TEGAN JONES

But Ahmed wasn’t on board from the very beginning. He said the Alexa team first approached him in 2012, but he didn’t join at that point—mainly because they wouldn’t tell him anything about the project! 

AHMED BOUZID

Couple of years later, they came back, and they were able to show me something concrete. And as soon as I saw the speaker, the Echo and the fact that you are interacting with it eyes-free, hands-free, I understood that this was an important moment in the evolution of voice. And I could see clearly it was going to take off, and I said to myself, I have to be part of this. This is a historical moment. I need to be part of it and contribute and so forth.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Alexa was officially born in November of 2014, and she had a pretty limited skill set at the start. But that was actually one of the ways Amazon was able to quickly become a leader in voice technology—by focusing on developing a minimum viable product. 

AHMED BOUZID

Amazon is famous for this focus on the user experience, customer obsession. What is the key thing that will either turn somebody on to the product or turn somebody off the product? Well, if somebody will adopt the product or not really hinges on the very basic thing, which is latency, and so if you ask Alexa a question and Alexa takes five seconds to get back to you, you’re not going to use it again.

I think the key, the key to success in this case really is that there was a principle that was religiously followed, which is look for the minimal viable product as opposed to get into solving big problems in their own sake. So there was a target vision: We need to get a performing Amazon Echo that allows people, anyone, to just ask a question and get an answer. That’s what we want.

We knew that there was a lot of unknown. And so the more bloated your product is, the more risks you’re taking in terms of delivering something where you wasted money, you wasted time. You deliver something that the customer may not be interested in. You deliver something too complex. When the Echo came out in 2014, I think it had like three or four features, no more than that. There was music and there was time and it was weather. Then you could also ask questions like, “What is the capital of Nebraska,” and so forth. Right? That was it.

And even though it was very limited in what it did, the reaction from those folks who were able to get their hands on an Echo in the invitation-only phase, which was towards the end of 2014, beginning 2015, I mean the reviews were like 4.9 over 5 from thousands and thousands of people. This is almost unheard of.

TEGAN JONES

Today Alexa has tens of thousands of skills that allow her to do everything from streaming music to reading the day’s headlines to controlling smart homes. And in the future, she’ll probably be able to do a whole lot more. Ahmed hopes that Alexa will change how we interact with technology entirely—and maybe even get us to do more interacting with each other. 

AHMED BOUZID

My hope is that we will see less dependence on smartphones. I’m becoming very sour on that interface. I have a son, and he’s going to go to college next year. And so he basically grew up with the smartphone, and I see how his childhood and his teenage years are very different from previous generations. Right? So there’s a lot of quick interactions, Snapchat and so forth, and it’s troubling to me and to other parents to have to see their children addicted really, addicted to these devices in a meaningful way. I’m hoping that one of the things as the new generation who is growing up with Alexa is they will go to the smartphone less to do things.

They’ll be able to ask questions, get answers, interact with something that allows them to be present in the physical world as opposed to in this virtual world. So I see the smart speaker hopefully reducing dependency on the screen, number one, and hopefully less distraction, less obsession. And number two, I think it will just increase the envelope of people who will be able to do things with an artificial intelligence by just speaking naturally and receiving answers naturally.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

I hope Ahmed is right about Alexa and about voice technology in general.
But either way, I enjoyed hearing what it took to roll out a successful product that relied on technology that was still very much in its infancy. 
It really drives home the value of taking that MVP approach—which many are talking about but few are fully realizing yet.

TEGAN JONES

It really does. But, of course, not every project team can work that way.
And our next project took a very different approach.

The rollout of the euro, by nature, required a structured, rigorous plan. Because the team had to introduce a new currency in 12 countries, basically overnight.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

It’s a fascinating story. When I teach strategic change management and transformation concepts, I often use the U.S. one-dollar coin as an exercise example. The U.S. has rolled it out about five times in recent history—and it has yet to achieve common circulation and usage. Imagine how much more complex to achieve a sweeping currency replacement like the euro. 

This international project was a massive undertaking that took roughly a decade to plan and execute. In fact, the introduction of the euro in 2002 was the largest currency changeover of all time.

EUROPEAN COMMISSION
We understand that we’re building something new in world history. We are changing the concept of nation states, and we are building a new protagonist in the world economic globalization. 

STEPHEN W. MAYE

We recently spoke with Antti Heinonen, the former director of banknotes at the European Central Bank, about how the project got started.  

ANTTI HEINONEN

We started to plan this common currency, or common banknotes and coins, in 1992. And the first thing was to consider what kind of decisions are to be made to produce and issue common banknotes. And on that basis, the plan was made. Then the major stakeholders like banks and retailers, security carriers, cash-operated industry, they were invited to participate in the logistical preparations. And this happened more than four years before the launch.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

The logistical challenges involved with swapping out all the cash in an entire country is enough to make anybody sweat. But when you think about what it would take to do that across 12 countries with 12 distinct cultures and innumerable subcultures, it’s really a staggering feat.

TEGAN JONES

Yeah, especially when you consider that the initial batch of currency included 15 billion banknotes and 52 billion coins. Banks, stores, ATMs, they all had to be fully stocked by New Year’s Eve 2001, so the euro could go into effect on January 1st, 2002. And that took some doing.  

Antti shared some of the exceptional steps the European Central Bank had to take to make that happen.

ANTTI HEINONEN

This euro cash changeover, it’s described as the greatest logistical exercise in European peacetime. And it was clear that a smooth cash changeover could only be achieved in a short period of time by systematic and coordinated interaction on the part of all leading actors.

First, in late ’90s when we were planning this, something like 70 percent of cash withdrawals from bank accounts in the euro area, they were taken from automated teller machines. And so that, it was very clear that these ATMs would have a decisive role in the cash changeover. We started the discussions with the banks and the ATM manufacturers three and a half years before the launch. We asked from these people, how long time they need to adapt all the machines in Europe in the area where the euro would be launched. And they said that they need several months because of a great geographical spread of machines and the capacity limitations like skilled technicians. 

Normally, central banks wouldn’t like to give the banknotes which they are planning to launch for testing too early because of counterfeiting threats and so on. But, these companies with which we were discussing, they said that they need the technical specifications as soon as possible. So we arranged that they received the technical specifications two and a half years before the launch. And before that, the normal time period was maybe two or four months. 

And thanks to this comprehensive planning, instead of several months, 90 percent of the ATMs were adapted by 2nd January 2002.

TEGAN JONES

You can imagine that this type of major change would create some serious disruption, but the reaction to the euro changeover was actually very positive. According to a 2002 EOS Gallup Europe survey, 67 percent of respondents were happy the euro was introduced. And that same survey found that nearly 90 percent of European citizens felt well informed about the switch. So the team did a really great job of managing expectations. 

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Especially in 2002—before we all had smartphones essentially glued to our hands—that’s an impressive achievement. I’ve worked in strategic change for a long time, and I think it’s still rare for an organization to score a 90 percent approval on the communication program. And Antti added that this smooth currency transition helped pave the way for a larger cultural transition, as well.

ANTTI HEINONEN

This euro cash changeover was part of the establishment of this economic and monetary union. So that in a way, it means a lot of other things than just banknotes and coins. But if we consider that currently we have 340 million people who have these euro banknotes and coins in daily use, and that they have become the most tangible symbol of European integration, I think that that’s one of the major long-term impacts. So that it’s not something virtual, it’s physical. When people cross the border in the euro area, they know that they can use the same banknotes and coins everywhere in the euro area. They understand the prices everywhere, so that in a way, I think that’s probably the most important long-term influence. 

TEGAN JONES

Today, the euro is the second-most popular currency in the world. And seven more countries have joined the eurozone since the initial rollout in 2002. So the project certainly has had a lasting legacy.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

It’s also been in the news that several African nations intend to roll out a common currency in the near future—I think they’re planning to call it the eco—so it’ll be interesting to see where they replicate strategies and tactics that have worked in Europe and where they take a different tack.

TEGAN JONES

Yeah, it’s really interesting to kind of take a look under the hood at these projects that have to coordinate with teams across borders and across cultures. And we’re going to get to do a little bit more of that in our next story.

The Human Genome Project, which launched in 1990, set out to sequence and map the genetic pairs that make up human DNA. This massive international research effort involved the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and labs in France, Germany, Japan and China.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

I was a little surprised to learn that the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health sponsored this project. They seemed like strange bedfellows to me. But when we spoke with Aristides Patrinos, who is the former director of biological and environmental research for the Department of Energy, he offered some great background on the project’s origin.

ARISTIDES PATRINOS

The Department of Energy is the successor agency of the Atomic Energy Commission. The Atomic Energy Commission was born during the dawn of the atomic era, shortly after the Second World War, and it was essentially launched primarily because of the nuclear weapon explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Now, through the results of the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the first applications of nuclear energy, despite all the promises that it had, it had obviously some deleterious effects as well. And it wasn’t just the fact that it killed a lot of people and created a lot of damage, but also there was concern that it also affected the genetic material in human beings, and the damage from radiation wouldn’t necessarily just influence and hurt the individual, but also successive generations.

And that was in fact the original incarnation of my office, the Office of Biological and Environmental Research. And its original mission was primarily to understand how ionizing radiation affects human biology. 

STEPHEN W. MAYE

So that’s how the Department of Energy got into biological research. But 40 years later, we still didn’t really understand much about human genetics. So when the Human Genome Project was launched, researchers knew they had to take a much broader approach.

ARISTIDES PATRINOS

The part that made it perhaps more challenging than anything else was the fact that it was a different kind of project than biologists were used to.

It’s referred to as discovery research, where in many ways you just collect a whole bunch of data with no specific objective in mind, but just simply with a wing and a prayer. Once you collect all this data and then you analyze it, something will come of it that is new, that’s novel and that would lead to discoveries, to better understandings of nature and so on.

TEGAN JONES

But, of course, the team had to work within a budget. It had 3 billion U.S. dollars to sequence the entire human genome within 15 years. And, while that might seem like a lot of money and a lot of time, it was actually very limiting. 

ARISTIDES PATRINOS

In order for it to have a successful plan, a well-defined plan, it had to be relatively straightforward in understanding. We knew roughly that there were 3 billion base pairs of human DNA.

We also know that the sequencing methods back then were very primitive and very expensive. It was something like 10 dollars per base pair of human DNA. Which, if you multiply the 3 billion base pairs, we’re talking already about 30 billion dollars, which maybe for the Department of Defense it isn’t such a big deal, but for scientific projects, it is a very big deal. 

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Over time, advances in technology brought the cost of sequencing work down, and the project team consolidated its efforts into five primary labs to cut costs as well. But Aristides says proactive project planning was absolutely necessary for the team to hit its target.

ARISTIDES PATRINOS

There are no alternatives to very rigorous planning. So even when something sounds inspirational and ends up successful, it’s backed up by a lot of very, very hard work by very many people. And the important part is the teaming approach that, if you are to embark on discovery-driven research, that teams are necessary. 

TEGAN JONES

In 2000, the team announced that it had created a working draft of the human genome. And in 2003, it finished an accurate and complete human genome sequence—two years ahead of schedule and under budget. 

ARISTIDES PATRINOS

We are now at the stage where for a few hundred bucks we can get a pretty good copy of your human genome, and that price keeps dropping almost daily. In essence, I can foresee the day when the patient walks into the doctor’s office, it’s a new patient, and the first thing they do, they take a saliva test and by the time the patient sees the physician, the physician has the whole view with a whole bunch of information that’s derived from the patient’s human genome.

TEGAN JONES

The impact of this project really can’t be overstated. Because of the human genome project, we’ve seen the development of gene therapy, the introduction of genetically modified food, the use of DNA evidence in criminal court—it really runs the gamut. 

STEPHEN W. MAYE

One of my favorite applications of this knowledge is from the fields of archaeology and migration studies. The new understanding provided through the Human Genome Project has created a virtual time machine—we’re observing human movement and civilization development across time and place. Humans have left a genetic footprint everywhere they’ve gone. And as that footprint changes, we can see where they—or we—went next. 

TEGAN JONES

That’s so cool. I actually minored in archaeology in college, so I’m a total geek for this kind of stuff. But it’s also cool because the project team started out with very little understanding of the influence their project would have on the world. 

But our last project set out to have a very specific impact. The expansion of the Panama Canal, which originally opened in 1914, had only one goal: keep the canal relevant in a world of bigger, broader container ships. 

PBS NEWSHOUR
The century-old Panama Canal is a vital lifeline for global trade—a shortcut connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and carrying a third of Asia-to-America’s trade. Tomorrow, the 50-mile canal officially opens a new era to widen the waterway for the world’s biggest cargo ships.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Yeah, the larger vessels were actually called post-Panamax ships, because they were just too big to use the canal. In 2007, the government of Panama realized it was now or never. 

TEGAN JONES

So it launched a 5.2 billion U.S. dollar expansion project to double the canal’s capacity. Ilya Marotta, the Panama Canal’s chief operating officer, shed some light on why this project was so important for the country.

ILYA MAROTTA

Panama’s location is key to world commerce. We are a shortcut. We have several ports in the Atlantic and the Pacific side, and 72 percent of the ships that transit the canal stop at one of those ports. So, it’s not only the canal transit, but the industry that’s developed around those ships that come through our canal. So it’s very important for the canal to remain competitive and getting bigger for the benefit of the country.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

The business case was clear. And the team knew it would need reinforcements to complete the project on time.

ILYA MAROTTA 

We have never built a project of this size. So, we hired a program management firm to assist us in the execution of the project, and we did it as an embedded team.

We made sure that we had a very well-defined project manager for each phase of the project; we had dry excavation projects, we had dredging projects, we had the locks construction. So, it was really good to have a very well-defined team with very specific responsibilities, which also assists us in the risk management of the project.

TEGAN JONES

With a project this large, problems were inevitable. But that clear structure, partnered with strong leadership and a culture of accountability, kept team members on task. 

ILYA MAROTTA 

You have to have a lot of people skills because people are who’s going to move the project forward. So, listening skills, negotiating skills are very, very important. You have to be very analytical and be able to look at all the different sides of a story to make the right decisions.

Read people, read situations. Because sometimes people don’t want to bring up problems to the manager, try to resolve them. So, you need to be able to grasp what’s happening in the project. It’s very important that you get involved out in the field, not just remain in an office.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Since the expansion opened in 2016, it has made a sizable economic impact.
In 2018, for instance, the canal brought in 3 billion U.S. dollars in revenue.
It was hard work, but Ilya is rightfully proud of her team’s legacy.

ILYA MAROTTA 

I think people will look at how the Panama Canal expansion project was built, as far as the program management structure, to replicate some of the stuff we did. We invested a lot of time in planning. We planned this project for five years before we started into execution, so the time that was devoted to planning was key to the success of it. 

It showed the world that a small, small country like Panama can make a project of this size successfully. I think it shows that we are avant-garde in the sense that we saw we wanted to remain a key player in world commerce, and we moved forward with something like this, which is very ambitious for the size of our country.

NARRATOR

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