You can’t get there from here

It’s an old joke that is typically attributed to the people of the State of Maine in the US.  A visitor stops to ask an old timer for directions and says “I need to go to this place.”

The old-timer resident thinks for a moment and then says, “Oh sure.  That place.  I know that place.  You can’t get there from here.”

The joke almost always gets a laugh but I was reminded of it earlier this week as I was preparing for a talk I’ll be giving at the PMI Global Conference in San Diego this September.  I’m doing research of the writings of Buckminster Fuller whose thinking I have admired for years and who I think is particularly relevant to project managers.

In his book Critical Path, Fuller reminds us that the critical path schedule for the Apollo project to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth was about 2 million activities.  It’s an overwhelming project and the fact that it was accomplished in under a decade is a testament to the results that can come from a group of committed humans all working in concert.

Fuller goes on in the book to make the point that was more important a couple of pages later.  He says, “The critical path of the Apollo Project – one-half of whose two million or so tasks to be accomplished involved the development of technology that was non-existent at the outset of Apollo.”

That’s crazy.

It makes no sense.  Right?

We have no idea how to get from here to there but we are committing to do it anyway.  In fact, we have about a million tasks that we do know how to do that we are investing in right now with the faith that we as a team will overcome the challenge of inventing technology we haven’t invented yet in order to be successful.

Who would take on a project like that?  Yet when I read it and am reminded of everything that was accomplished in the Apollo mission I am not left overwhelmed, I’m left inspired.

In far too many projects I work on, we are plagued with only doing what is predictable.  Yet, when circumstances make that impossible, the innovativeness of man emerges.  It’s always there.  I am reminded of so many projects in which some challenge arose that was unforeseen and yet had to be overcome and ultimately it was overcome because there was no choice.  A nuclear refurbishment project over 20 years ago had a nuclear physicist explaining to me how he could “encourage” a rubber spacer to move on the other side of a metal wall by creating some field of energy on this side of the wall.  That one invention saved billions of dollars of investment and made the project a much safer place.

The old joke of the old-timer from Maine is funny because on its face it’s obvious that of course you can get there from here.  It’s just not obvious how.  As project managers, I think we need to keep our inventiveness muscles sharp with practice.

For information on Bucky Fuller, visit the Buckminster Fuller Institute.
For information on the Apollo project, visit NASA.gov.