to do with the real project. Because it was a sideshow, there was no reason to employ risk management. Besides, the system was working fine! Nobody considered the possible impact of the last-minute changes that were made.
In all of the articles and essays about risk management that I have ever read, there has never been a discussion of what happens when upper management, the people who can squash you like a bug, witness a failure. The focus is always on the successful outcome of the project, as measured in terms of the core project requirements. There was no requirement in this project to transport purple pajama-clad faux super heroes. It was unimportant to the project. However, this little sideshow had the potential for a huge impact on the project's life.
A wise project manager knows that you can deliver all of the project requirements on time and on budget, but if upper management comes to believe that you are a bozo, you will end up managing ice procurement in Antarctica. While this demo had little relevance to the overall project, it was highly visible. In fact, it was likely to be the only visibility the decision makers in the customer's company would have. They could probably have survived delivering three months late. They were not going to survive a pratfall in front of the CEO.
Because no explicit risk assessment was performed, the people involved easily confused probability and impact. For example, consider the decision to send all technicians home. There was a high probability that the technicians would be visible to the dignitaries when they toured the facility. So what? They were unlikely to be noticed. They would have blended in with the rest of the furniture.
There were several last-minute additions to the requirements of the demo. The assessment of the relevance and potential impact of these additions was made by those without the technical resources to make an informed decision. A full dress rehearsal could have identified these problems, but it was eliminated because of the inconvenience of obtaining the necessary materials. The project team had a false sense of confidence and a lack of appreciation for the risks that the changes they were considering would entail.
The project managers were overly enamored with the technology they were integrating. To them, it was almost magical. They knew that it would look really cool to the dignitaries. This enthusiasm caused them to overlook the technology's limitations and risks.
They ignored their instincts repeatedly. Their nervousness as the appointed date came closer should have been a clue to them that they were taking a huge personal risk, even if it wasn't a risk to the project itself. It should have served as a wake-up call to use the processes that were making the rest of the project so successful.
However, the biggest lesson concerns the risk of doing this little project at all. Everyone involved was wrapped up in how cool the technology was. No one thought about the possibility of screwing up in front of all of those dignitaries. The whole ceremony added absolutely nothing to the event. The building could have been just as easily turned over without the withering scrutiny of all of those executives turned on us. Captain Composite was the classic career limiting event.
First Law of Demos: If the demo goes well, they will never remember you. If the demo goes poorly, they will never forget.
Postscript: Time passes and heals all wounds. They finally got the system accepted by the customer. About six months after the Captain Composite fiasco, a new