Does your project feel like Salmon fishing in the Yemen?

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ has been a book and now it’s a film with the wonderful Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. I went to see it last night, with my bucket of popcorn and my mobile responsibly switched to silent; and sitting there I thought, does this remind you of anything?

Of course it does. It’s a vanity project with a strong sponsor but no business case; a project manager who has been cajoled into taking it on but who doesn’t believe in it at all (‘totally unrealistic’); a big-bang approach with major risks that no one has made any effort to manage (do farmed salmon have a homing instinct?- can we find that out without flying salmon-filled Chinooks out to Yemen? – yes we can!); appalling stakeholder management – bullying a senior stakeholder who takes revenge by creating damaging media exposure, and seemingly no attempt to work with local people’s concerns.

OK so it’s only a story; but if it does have a lot of similarities to projects that we have all known, let’s take the opportunity given by a project we are not emotionally wrapped-up in (even if you did want Ewan and Emily to get it together and even if you think the fish looked really cool leaping in the river) to think about how we start to fix projects like that.
What single thing would make the biggest difference to this project and many projects like it?
Purpose. Why have a salmon stream in the Yemen? What difference will it make? Who will see that difference? Why does that matter?

Without understanding its purpose a project runs the risks that it will:

1. Jump to a solution that is inappropriate. In the end Ewan suggests that they will succeed better next time if they start small. But everyone had jumped to the big dam project (bring on the top-flight Chinese engineers) which led to failure on such a spectacular scale.

2. Struggle to build a motivated team. This can be done to a certain extent in other ways (e.g. through personality leadership – displayed by the Sheikh; or focus on major deliverables) but the strongest teams are motivated by the real difference they are going to make.

3. Adopt an inappropriate approach. The Sheikh talks towards the end of the film about having wanted the project to be to the glory of god and to pull his people together. If these were clearly stated outcomes the project would have had religious and community leaders prominent in the project rather than armed guards, and built in tasks (e.g. blessings; community consultations) to achieve those outcomes.

4. Fail to carry the support of interested parties (Environment Agency heads; Yemenite locals; angling community), because the project is unable to explain in a convincing manner the benefits of completing the project. These interested parties then become saboteurs (literally sweeping away the project in this case).

5. Become a ‘so what?’ project. Something people leave off their CVs because afterwards because nobody knows why they did it.

6. Be cancelled when the first problems are hit; and if there really is no purpose, quite rightly too.

So was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen a vanity project? Yes; it probably was. But with a clear and communicated purpose it could have been so much more. And would Ewan and Emily have got it together? Maybe at the end of project party; salmon vol-au-vent anyone?

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