If I was to say the name Felix Baumgartner to you eight weeks ago, you would probably have no idea who he was or what he was planning, and rightly so. The 43-year-old Austrian Daredevil had up until the 14th October forged a successful career as a professional Base Jumper. That he is now a world-famous name across the planet is testament not only to his sense of adventure and desire to break the world record for the highest ever skydive but also to the vision and unwavering support of his funders and investors, Red Bull. Watching Felix jump from his glorified Hot Air Balloon into the ether is now an image that will be engrained in the consciousness of all who watched it, just like that of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on to the lunar surface.
But from a project management perspective, can the project be truly classed as a success, or was it in reality a hugely expensive, if not glorious, failure?
Contrary to Wikipedia, Red Bull originally began planning for the free fall back in 2009. One of the major things that is interesting to note about the project from this period is that the original delivery date was in 2010 and the original budget dedicated to the project was in the region of $3m. Working from scratch, a team of designers and engineers were tasked with designing a suit, capsule and balloon system that would safely transport Felix to the 120,000 feet required for him to break the record. In true Project Management fashion, the setbacks were often huge and unexpected: as such, the project was delivered two years late and some $10m+ over budget!
One of the major problems the team faced from day one was the lack of precedent for a project of this nature having been delivered before. Additionally, a big issue factor involved in the project was the fact that Felix would be breaking the sound barrier on his jump, something that no human projectile had done previously. The major risk involved here was – to put it bluntly – that the sonic boom would kill Felix on his descent; therefore, a huge amount of time and effort was invested in developing a space suit sturdy enough to prevent this from happening. One of the major risks involved was that Felix would spin out of control, causing the blood to rush out of his head and giving him a blackout, which would almost certainly result in his death. Again, the team needed to develop a method of preventing this from happening and came up with a specially designed Drogue Shute that would act as a buffer and correct his spin whilst slowing him down. It’s interesting to note that one of the major workstreams on the project was never in fact used in a live setting!
All of this development work led to the project falling massively behind schedule: finally, in the mid-part of 2010, Red Bull decided to act to get the project back on track, installing their own Project Manager on site to take over the delivery. Unfortunately for him, he only lasted a month before resigning from his post as he found the team unworkable (perhaps he needs to work on his Stakeholder Engagement skills). The original Technical Director was re-installed and the team discovered a newfound vigour. Perhaps if Red Bull had been more hands-on from the start, their Project Manager would have stood more of a chance when he came on board, but obviously the team had been too ingrained and isolated in their working methods by that point.
In late 2010 the project hit a brick wall when a risk came to fruition that the design team hadn’t accounted for. Baumgartner, as I previously said, was a professional Base Jumper who tended to jump with minimal equipment to support him. When he was introduced to his pressurised space suit, this was obviously a massive culture shock to him in terms of how he would be able to manage his own jump technically. The problem he faced was that the suit only allowed minimal movement and meant that he couldn’t feel and respond to the air currents mid-flight. His problems with the suit culminated in the autumn of 2010, when a test jump almost ended fatally for Felix when he disconnected his main parachute as opposed to opening it. Luckily for him he opened his reserve just 2000 feet from the ground but this and his previous problems with his adaptation to the suit spooked him sufficiently to inspire his abandoning the project on safety grounds. Red Bull and the Design Team surely didn’t see this coming and paid the price for not having a backup plan in place for Baumgartner himself being a risk.
Instead of continuing with a reserve pilot, Red Bull dipped into their pockets again and invested in helping Felix overcome his uncertainties, even resorting at one point to sending him on a Hypnotherapy course to ease his concerns. Whatever they did to convince him to return eventually did work, as by October 2011 he was back on the project and Red Bull had a new delivery date of October 2012.
Fast forward 12 months and even the mission itself, given the huge amount of preparation that had been put in, was not without its problems. The first attempt at a flight had to be abandoned due to rising winds. This left the team with just one of their two balloons left to work with. They therefore had to get it right on October 14th or risk abandoning the project for another period of months in front of the world’s media whilst they made another balloon (had it come to be, that surely would have been a PR disaster for Red Bull, given the huge build up in the days leading up to the jump).
As you will know by now though, the take off was a success and Felix began ascending to the fabled 120,000 feet. Even on his journey up, the team were faced with unexpected issues, namely the Visor on Felix’s helmet misting up during breathing. It turns out that the issue was not a technical one in that the team were aware that this might happen and he was eventually convinced to continue with the ascent in the knowledge that the misting would evaporate on the descent when he reached warmer temperatures (it should be noted that this in fact didn’t happen and that is why Baumgartner ended up releasing his parachute early as he couldn’t see out of his helmet). So from the team’s perspective, the issue was not a technical one: again, it was Baumgartner and the discomfort he felt as a result. It should be said that as a character Baumgartner is an extremely risk-averse individual, which might seem strange given his profession. However, without a healthy respect for risk, he would surely not have been in the position to take on this challenge in the first place!
So eventually the balloon had reached its final destination 24 miles above the planet. Few people at that point knew what had gone into the project, nor the setbacks that the team and Red Bull had faced when Felix stepped out of his capsule and jumped into the history books. Instead, they just looked on in awe at was a momentous feat of human endurance and willingness to push boundaries. And that is surely why this project will be remembered as a resounding success, even taking into account the setbacks. Eight million people watched the jump online alone, along with 40 TV networks across 50 countries. Red Bull could never have dreamt of a better advert for their products, even though their name and logo was emblazoned over the entire presentation of the jump. It is estimated that Red Bull is now worth approximately £5bn, putting into context the £7m budget deficit on the project and time slippage. The immediate benefits to the company should be obvious then, but in terms of long-term benefits the project should also prove to be a success. It is thought that the data from the project will help in the development of future high performance, high altitude parachute systems, as well as the development of emergency evacuation systems for vehicles such as spacecraft in years to come.
So there we have it: a project that was technically a failure in terms of time and budget, but one in which ended up being a success due to its benefits. I’m sure a lot of our PM readers out there can relate to that.