Spectacular Failure: Project Management Lessons from a Doomed Satellite Program

by Erin McCune on November 12, 2007

in Project Management

Sunday's New York Times features a lengthy discussion of the factors contributing to the spectacular failure of the government's $4 billion spy satellite program. The project was ultimately canceled in yet it is clear from the the various participants that are quoted in the article that the effort was doomed from the start.

What went wrong?

Project Failure #1: Unrealistic Budget & Schedule

From the outset the project budget was tight. The satellite agency set stringent spending caps for the project, imposed by Congress. When the project was initiated budget estimates were in the $2-3 billion range, yet by the time the effort was canceled in September 2005 cost estimates ran as high as $18 billion.

Yet no one said anything:

 “The F.I.A. contract was technically flawed and unexecutable the day it
was signed,” said Robert J. Hermann, who ran the National
Reconnaissance Office from 1979 to 1981 and in 1996 led the panel that
first recommended creation of a new satellite system. “Some top
official should have thrown his badge on the table and screamed, ‘We
can’t do this system at this price.’ No one did."

Project Failure #2: Wishful Thinking (Ignoring the Warning Signals)

Both Boeing and the satellite agency were guilty of wishful thinking. Boeing was eager to expand its capabilities beyond airplanes, and in its eagerness, committed to deliver technology it was unfamiliar with. The government, for its part, accepted Boeing's optimistic projections.

Moreover, the satellite agency aided in the deception as a result of a new policy that shifted the responsibility for monitoring progress to the contractors themselves, rather than the government.

Boeing’s point man on the job was Ed Nowinski, an engineer who had become a top government spy satellite expert during 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. “It was a perfect storm,” Mr. Nowinski said ruefully. But he acknowledged that Boeing frequently provided the government with positive reports on the troubled project.

“Look, we did report problems,” Mr. Nowinski said, “but it was certainly in my best interests to be very optimistic about what we could do.”

Avoiding Project Train Wrecks of Your Own

Here are some tips to help you avoid your own project train wreck:

  • This post suggests some tough diagnostic questions to ask yourself (and your team members).
  • This series of posts addresses common project failures (the two mentioned above and eight more) and suggests remedies.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole article in the The New York Times (its long, but very instructive):

Failure to Launch
In Death of Spy Satellite Program, Lofty Plans and Unrealistic Bids
The New York Times
Published: November 11, 2007

(Image courtesy of The New York Times)

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