Big Green Project, Big Green Brain

Kal Penn, host of the Big Brain Theory, with the cast of engineers, scientists, and project managers behind him.


Recently we shared with you a powerful video from @simransethi called “the Psychology of Sustainability“.  In it, Simran mentions “the green brain” – the part of the brain that is not concerned with running away from a sabre-toothed tiger, but is actually more interested in figuring out how to deal with that danger in the longer term, perhaps developing defense or camouflage, considering relocation, and in general thinking more sustainably.

And as you know, as authors of Green Project Management, we have set our minds to the long-term thinking for our peers in the naturally short-term mindset of project management.  Our mantra has been to think about the success – and footprint – of the steady-state operation of the project’s product, not the project’s product itself.

Moving from Sethram’s video to a very different form of video – reality TV – we find yet another connection to green and project management.  In this show, contestants are pitted together as teammates and against each other as individuals (you have to watch the show to “get” that idea) in creating some sort of solution to various mechanical/electrical/physical challenges given by the show’s host, Kal Penn.

Before going any further, we want to say that we are strangely and unexpectedly attracted to this show.

Perhaps this is because what happens on each episode is that a project unfolds in real time before your eyes.  You watch a team of 5 individuals work as a team even though they have a not-so-hidden agenda of their own for personal gain.  Sound like any projects you’ve ever worked on?

Be honest.

On the last episode (SPOILER ALERT!) the teams were assigned the task of turning waterfall energy into the productive use of lifting a team member up 28 feet in an “elevator” and then letting them down safely to the ground, using only the power from the waterfall.

We highly recommend that you watch this video before continuing:

Here are some of the interesting takeaways we found from this episode – some general project management gems, and some related to sustainability thinking in PM.

  • Linking enterprise objectives to project goals. One team (the winning one, it turns out) actually incorporated sustainability in the design, deciding to siphon off some of the water to run a small generator which in turn powered the laptop and control/display mechanism.  The judges questioned the wisdom of this, wondering if the extra complexity would challenge their design and build time but also saying that if they could pull it off, it would be very ‘elegant’.  The team dynamics here were excellent.  The leader (Eric) had already been a team leader and learned that he needed to find a combination management style between directive and supportive – he was a little too supportive and not directive enough in his prior team.  Here he found the right balance and the team came through for him, right up to their choice to wear bellhop outfits for their “elevator” challenge.  Alison went up – and came down safely in this teams’ project’s product.  And the project needed no external power – staying more true to the ‘enterprise objective’ of being renewable.
  • Project Procurement Management.  The other team used a buoy system (topped by a rubber ducky!) which was meant to use the repellent power of the buoy to lift the elevator.  Great idea, although it relied on the construction of a large watertight tower made of Plexiglas and welded aluminum.  And it even worked… at first.  Then, the “float” started to sink.  Why?  The team didn’t specify the correct type of foam insulation – they used open-cell instead of closed-cell foam, and it absorbed water, became heavy, and thus, suffocated the poor ducky, and left poor Amy on the ground floor (jumping up and down to try to gain any possible mechanical advantage).  So this was all about project procurement management.
  • Project HR Management. The team dynamics in the ‘buoy’ team were, to put it mildly, rough.  As mentioned before, hidden agendas and drama were prolific throughout, with team members asserting their expertise in areas they knew nothing about, team members following the leader in a passive-aggressive manner, and the leader  (Gui) who had a great idea, a really great idea, not making the most of his resources, even sending one of his four remaining team members home.  One of our favorite characters on the show, Tom, who is indeed a project manager, got the flu.  So this team was down one person for the latter half of the challenge.

We leave you with a recommendation to watch the show.  We further recommend that you watch it with a few metaphorical hats on.


  • Hat 1: Your general project management hat – what types of team dynamics, team leadership, tools, techniques, etc., do you notice?  What worked, what didn’t?
  • Hat 2: Your sustainability hat – how could long-term thinking be employed in a very, very, very short-term project like this?
  • Hat 3: Your bellhop hat – just have some fun watching it!

Set your TV to the Discovery Channel, and set your brain to Green.  Then, inspired, go manage some green projects!