Interview with John Furlong, CEO of Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games By Roving allPM Reporter, George Bridges, PMP
George Bridges: Mr. Furlong, on behalf of International Institute for Learning and the AllPM.com website and staff, I want to thank you for this interview. How are you today?
John Furlong: I am good, thank you.
George Bridges: Good. I had the opportunity to look at some of your presentations online, and I am very excited and thankful to have the opportunity to have this interview with you.
Furlong: Ok, thank you for having me.
George Bridges: Good. I had the opportunity to participate in the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta as a volunteer in the security area. I spent two weeks down there working at the Olympic stadium.
John Furlong: Oh, congratulations.
George Bridges: Yes, it was quite an experience, so thank you very much for joining me. Our topic for this Newsletter is about Mega Projects. We want to explore the concept of particularly large projects, and the risks and challenges that go along with managing such projects. Our allPM.com Publisher, Judy Umlas, heard your outstanding speech at the last PMI Global Congress in 2011, so, we thought it would be good to interview you.
George Bridges: Mr. Furlong, could you please provide us with an overview of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games project scope and explain why it can be considered as a mega project?
John Furlong: Well, the 2010 Olympic Winter Games is quite a very large undertaking. First of all, the Olympic Games is the biggest peacetime event in the world. So it's the biggest project in the world. In 2010, the Olympic Games of Vancouver were one of the biggest projects staged on the earth and it was in our possession. Typically, the Olympic Games is a project that is laid down gently on a city or a region and the world gathers to celebrate. There is a human experience which takes place when you deliver the Olympic Games.
George Bridges: Can you explain the vision of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games and tell us why you think it was different from past Winter Olympics Games?
John Furlong: The Vancouver games had a completely different vision than Olympic Games before in that the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games set out to be a nation builder. The goal was to use the Olympic Games of Vancouver to inspire a country; to allow every Canadian to participate; be engaged and be involved so that, at the time that the games were delivered, every Canadian felt the unique personal connection that they were part of us and that they weren’t just spectators. But in fact, they were living this event and helping Canada achieve the success that it ultimately did.
George Bridges: This was quite a considerable dream and very large project, or I should say mega project. When and how did you get involved?
John Furlong: The project is massive and, when I think back to the project itself, I was the first person hired to run the project, obviously as a CEO. I was hired in February 2004 and, at the moment of execution, we were fifty thousand people. So the mobilization is extraordinary and, of course, the demobilization is even faster, because, fifteen minutes after the games are over, you are down to a couple of hundred people.
George Bridges: With you being the first to be brought on board, can you tell us what makes this project unique and different from any other mega project?
John Furlong: the project has elements that no other project on the planet has. It is incredibly complicated, the financing of it is complex, and the projects are time sensitive. But, with an Olympic Games, there is absolutely no forgiveness at all for delays. You have to deliver the project at a precise time, because the world turns on the television set at a precise moment on the day that the games begin and you have to be ready! So the games have a lot of high drama in the preparation and they are set up, obviously, to be able to overcome all of the major issues and stuff that occur. In the winter, of course, you have the added dimension of the games being delivered in extreme weather conditions; you are dealing with complexities that are not so easy to navigate. For example, we had come into the Olympic period thinking that we would have conditions - very, very specific conditions - that you would expect in a winter. History said we would have these weather conditions. However, the month before the games, most conditions weren’t there, and we had to go and invent them. It’s a massive, massive project. It's a project that would absolutely fail if it was not driven by a very powerful view.
George Bridges: I understand there were a lot of challenges when you didn’t have a snow, and there was the tragic accident at the beginning of the Games. What are the main challenges you encountered and how did you overcome them?
John Furlong: First of all, the Olympic Games are planned meticulously. In an effort to be properly prepared for delivering the biggest events in the world, organizing committees typically put themselves through an incredible ordeal. There is the rigorous exercise of testing and retesting. As we went into the games period, we had reaped a lot of havoc on ourselves in order to be properly prepared for the kinds of things that would happen when four hundred thousand people converge on your city. So we had numerous steps and events from states and international tournaments. We did a lot of on-the-ground testing to be sure that, on a given day if something happened at the games, we had the resources and the resilience and the know-how and all the confidence to overcome it. So, for example, the games rely very much on technology; about $400,000,000 (four hundred million dollars) is invested in technological support for the Olympics. Technology is very complex. Therefore, in the build-up period, we regularly ran technology events where we tried to cause ourselves a lot of mischief. So we tried to see exactly how our organization would work under pressure if we had technology failure, if we had utility failure and so on.
George Bridges: John, how did the committee prepare for the known and unknown challenges of delivering an Olympics?
John Furlong: In many ways, we compare the organizing committee to a heavyweight boxer who was preparing to fight for the world championship. In order to prepare, they get into the ring and they spur hundreds of rounds in order to confront all of the possibilities that they may face on the day of big fight. In a way, this is what organizing committees do. They put themselves a little bit in harm’s way so that they can be prepared on the day of the big games. Now, in our case, as we ran into the games period, a number of significant events took place.
George Bridges: One of the major challenges you faced was the weather. To do a winter Olympic you need snow. How did you address your weather related issues and risks?
John Furlong: Number one, 19 years of history that we have analyzed with respect to weather, didn’t hold up. We had also put technology weather stations in the mountains that provided us with data that suggested we had all of the snow we would need - in fact, more than we would need. So on the opening of 2010 in January, we looked up on Cypress Mountain and saw that history was the wrong indicator. It was almost like God looking down on us and saying “Anyone can do the Winter Olympics with snow; try doing one without snow!” Consequently, we had to go looking for snow. Then because we were a fairly well organized organization, we had gathered snow in November. We got to the top of Cypress Mountain and we had to put it under tarp, in the event that we need some, thinking we never would. Then, as soon as we realized that we were racing against time, we pulled the snow out. We tried to give ourselves a decent base on the mountain to build on. Then a warm wind came in from the Pacific and broke that snow up. It literally almost evaporated and slid off the hill. So we were dealing with massive challenge. When we talk about snow problems with the Olympics, you can think they are talking about small volumes. Not so; they are talking about enough snow to cover a mountain. So it's a very significant challenge.
We had two problems: we needed to find snow and we needed to find a way to protect it. So our team sat down to come up with a plan. In all of the planning that we had done, we came up with a creative solution. That solution was to find ourselves thousands of bales of hay to lay down on the courses as the base to build walls on the side of the courses so that the snow could not slide over the side of the venues. We went off to find snow to cover that the hills so that when you look up on that hill, you saw this beautiful, white, pristine playing facility upon which the athletes could have a full Olympic experience.
When we went looking for the snow that was compatible with our requirements, we found it in a place a hundred and ten kilometers from Vancouver. Again, this is Canada. And when you talk a hundred and ten kilometers, it doesn’t sound that really far, but it's a bit like going from Switzerland to Austria to get snow. We found that snow and the volumes we needed, and realized that in order to succeed, we had to get permission to harvest that snow. We had to find the equipment, the manpower and logistics to move the snow. It was a huge undertaking to move the snow to the bottom of Cypress Mountain and then push it up the hill, which is much harder than pushing it down the hill.
The human challenge was extraordinary. As an organizing committee we faced the possibility of being the only organization in history to not deliver an Olympic event. That was a compelling force that we were dealing with. Then we put the human engine together. We found the equipment and started to move that snow. We worked 24/7 and we succeeded. Now we had to do all kinds of things on top of that to keep the snow so that we could deliver all of the events of the games.
George Bridges: Why do you think you and your team were able to pull this off, in the face of all of this adversity?
John Furlong: We pulled it off, not so much - I think - because we had had all of this skill and ability and had predicted this. But rather, we had become tough enough, we had become resilient enough, we had developed a confidence that it was a bringing–it-on type of attitude that existed inside the project on how we prepared. We delivered because we had a spine.
So that was one challenge. Then, on the opening day of the games, there was an athlete that was killed in an accident. If you could imagine you were building a bridge or if you were building a rail line and there was a death as a result of an accident, the human impact would put the project in serious jeopardy. So in our case, it really shook the organization. It was a terrible human thing that happened that was completely unexpected. Nobody could get their mind around the concept of such a thing happening. The biggest concern I had was, because we had assembled a human organization that had a very big heart, could we actually survive this and still deliver the expected experience to the country and the world?
George Bridges: Mr. Furlong, how did you handle these challenges as a leader and what was your leadership style?
John Furlong: I had to completely change my approach and the role I was going to play with my team to deliver the games.
So that adversity, as much as it was painful for us to deal with and, in the end the suffering was intense, it actually, in many ways, made us a stronger organization. I think the world’s appreciation for us, as Canadians, on the project and the quality of the event, grew to be exponentially positive.
That was something we hadn’t anticipated. Overall the project had the strength to deal with that kind of adversity. It was grounded in good things, but I come back to the very first thing I said. The vision and values we had held us together. There was a real belief in the organization that we were doing noble things, that the world was watching, and we darn well had to succeed.
George Bridges: Did you realize your vision for bringing the nation together for this Olympics?
John Furlong: I don’t think, in our history, there has ever been an event quite like this one. The Prime Minister, on the day after the games, made a very significant statement to the global media conference when he said: “Mark my words, that as historians write about Canada’s glowing strengths in the twenty first century, they began in Vancouver with the staging of the twenty first Winter Olympic Games.” I think the feeling around the world was that Canada had done an extraordinary thing. It wasn’t just delivering the games, but delivered it in the face of massive headwinds and showed what the Canadians spirit was about. The project revealed that. There was so much in this project that could benefit the country. All of it caused our country to have a certain glow at the end of it. People looked at us and said, “How on Earth did they pull that off?”
George Bridges: This was a project with high rewards and very high negative consequences if not executed properly. Not everyone can do this type of work. Do you have any advice to the project managers who are starting a mega project and what factors will be key to their success?
John Furlong: I am more convinced today than I was then because, when you start a big project like this, you can be naïve in terms of how it might unfold. I do believe that with big projects, especially projects that are intended to leave lasting legacies, you have to have a vision, a belief of what this project can do, and that belief has to be pretty significant. If you want to mobilize and inspire and overcome and get momentum going, you have to look at it and ask yourself ‘In the whole scheme of things does this project really matter?’ The bigger the project the more likely you are to run into challenges that you haven’t anticipated. Whatever the project is, whether it's building the biggest bridge in the world or a rail line through the mountains, you really need to communicate the essence of what you are doing so that that you can build momentum. Momentum is a very important thing in a project. People working on these big projects need to see that they are involved in something that really matters. We can’t always have that but I think you can have a vision that will give them something to search for.
George Bridges: If you could choose your next big project what would it be?
John Furlong: For me, personally, I don’t think I could take on a project unless it had some kind of human quality to it. We all want to do work that matters; in which you can really see the profound impact it's going to have on people. Almost every project, everywhere, affects people, and I think it's in trying to come to grips with the human advantage that you benefit by doing such a thing. I think it's very difficult to mobilize and succeed and achieve and overcome unless people really believe in it. Therefore, I would only take on a project that is a logical extension of the work that was performed in Vancouver.
George Bridges: In working as a CEO and your leadership experience, what are your thoughts on project management and mentorship? Do you believe in mentorship and is that something necessary for young professionals and project managers?
John Furlong: I do and in the Olympic movement it's very common. For example, Vancouver had an obligation coming out of the Olympics to assist the British and the Russians with their projects.
To lead a project can be a lonely experience. On one level, it is exhilarating and exciting and so many projects can have wonderful headlines. They become the talk of the country but, at the same time, they are lonely. The stakes are high and the consequences of failure are severe. You always want to communicate and share with people who have been through these projects before and who can at least bring you face to face with the possibilities there are for success. So that you can, at all times, feel that, at the end, there is a possibility for a great outcome. I relied heavily on CEO’s and Presidents of previous committees. I would often talk to them about the challenges they were facing and how we would overcome them. Our project had so many dimensions to it. You always want to know that you can have a discussion with people who have been there before and who can help you to see what the art of the possible is.
George Bridges: You mention having people you could talk to during your project. When did you start building your network? Is it important to build your network long before you start something as large as the Winter Olympics?
John Furlong: Absolutely, I discovered the great lessons for me about mobilizing this was to not become overwhelmed by the end but by the beginning of the Games. To try to get your mind around this, remember these projects are built one inch at a time, not a mile at a time. By thinking about it, by an inch at a time, you have to try to organize yourself so that you can bite off the project in pieces that human beings can work with and accept. You have to organize yourself in such a way that your team is not overwhelmed.
George Bridges: How did you organize and prepare yourself for such a big challenge?
John Furlong: If you sat at the start of the Olympics and said that in six years you have to accomplish all of these things, what you would be likely to do is get back into bed. You cannot be overwhelmed, i Instead you should realize that everything is achieved in small bites. Keep your mind focused on the immediate, while obviously keeping an eye focused on the grand scope of what you have to do. Do not let that enormity overwhelm you, so that your confidence stays intact. I tried with this project to keep us focused on the here and now and realize, if we met our short term goals, that ultimately we would achieve our long term goals. You can do this if we don’t lose time in the beginning.
The second thing I came to believe was that, with these big projects, particularly the week you lose at the beginning becomes a month at the end. When you are years away from completion, you can become casual and complacent about the time you have. The purpose should always be to not let time get away from you; it's the only friend you have with some of these projects. I tried to make sure that time was always our friend and that we always had the capacity to solve issues because time had never become a chronic issue for us.
For example, our goal was to finish our projects two years before the games. When we looked back over history and realized how many organizations that got into trouble and were finishing those projects weeks before the games, I wanted us to have much more breathing room. My thinking was, if you do have adversity or if the economy thanks or something terrible happens, we still had a chance to remedy the situation and achieve our goals. However, with Olympic projects and big projects quite often delays occur because the beginnings are too slow.
George Bridges: The concept of the student syndrome of waiting until the last minute is not advisable for a mega project?
John Furlong: You have to keep in mind that, because it has the word Olympic in front of it, it has a global glow to it and so everyone is talking about you, you are on television every day and people are watching you. The reputation of the project is evolved day over day, so when something happens to you or there is a challenge or you make a mistake, it gets magnified globally. The difficulty is that if you don’t appreciate that, your project can become so overwhelmed by public opinion that you fall apart.
In Olympic history, most CEO’s don’t survive. I am the one of very few who did survive. The project is so big that the public confidence is diminished in the project when there is an issue or failure and the only solution to move forward is to change the leadership. You have to be aware that this happens in a lot of large projects. You want to take advantage of the beginning and not so much at the end. We had to be finish on time because there is no forgiveness on the dates. But when I look back, I would say the smartest things we did upfront was to get a shovel in the ground after we were awarded the games. We wanted to get the project sort of really grounded so that people around us knew what we were doing, why we were doing it and could appreciate what the long term of directives were. We went off and people respected us more because we got in front of it, we didn’t wait and we weren’t scared.
George Bridges: I noticed that, in any type of global project with a global audience, that you have to manage the expectations properly. How did you manage expectations and communication of this mega project?
John Furlong: With project managers, our communication can be a little too cute. I discovered with our project we don’t give the public enough credit for appreciating the significant issues we face. What we did to build public confidence was to be honest and honorable and to talk about our issues in a very public way. We shared with the public what we were up against, what we were doing. We made it clear that these are massive undertakings and what the public needs to know that we were giving them our best. We let them know that we are applying every measure that you can think of to succeed. The public interest in the project was being respected. I thought that if the public respected us, supported us and thought we were worth supporting that at the end, then they would ultimately become the difference maker with the games; their participation and support at the end would really make the project something very special. And that’s what happened. There is nothing worse than trying to bring a project to close when the public thinks that you are not up to the challenge.
George Bridges: I want to thank you very much for this interview, I have learned a lot about how to manage a global project and we appreciate you sharing your lessons learned for this mega project.
I have some real quick short answer questions for the end. What is your favorite management book?
John Furlong: Well there are a couple of books that I have pulled out time and again. The one book that I have read often is “Good To Great.” I realize - and this is maybe a different way of answering - that people that run big projects need to come to grips with the concept of teamwork and teamwork is not telling people what to do but it's building a unique culture where the project is being guided by people who understand how to be on a real team. So I have spent a lot of my career trying to understand what that really means, trying to understand why teams become dysfunctional, what causes teams to go off the rails. I have read a lot of material about dynasties, athletic dynasties where an organization became so spectacular but they would over time fade out or fail. I tried to find people to lead our project to who knew how to be honest and how to harvest the quality of teamwork.
George Bridges: Okay, what's your favorite movie?
John Furlong: Oh my favorite movie of all time was “Chariots of Fire,” that should be no surprise.
George Bridges: No, no and I want your favorite sport?
John Furlong: My favorite sport is soccer.
George Bridges: What's your favorite hobby?
Furlong: My favorite hobby is hiding in the back of the movie theater.
George Bridges: Okay, who is your favorite all time athlete?
John Furlong: My favorite, well actually it's interesting, a good question. One of the athletes I respect is Bill Russell, basketball player in the NBA. Because one time, I happened to meet face to face with him and I asked him a question and I said if you are giving a person advice about how to be great and wise, what would it be? He looked at me and said, now young fellow, always live your life with your nose parallel to the floor, meaning keep your head up and keep it focused on what's going on. Pretty good project management advice!
@ 2012 allPM
John Furlong is a visionary, a bestselling author, and a highly successful mega project manager. His keynote speeches inspire and challenge audiences globally; from the power of a meaningful vision, to how values based leadership is essential to creating innovative, engaged and robust organisational cultures. He was formerly the CEO of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games. He is the only CEO in Olympic history to have led from the earliest days of the bid all the way to the closing ceremonies. For more information, please visit his website: www.JohnFurlong.ca
About our PM Reporter:
George Bridges, PMP, is a senior Consultant for International Institute for Learning. He is a trainer and Senior Consultant for the Business Analysis Certification Program and the Project Management Certification Program for IIL. George has an extensive background in Systems Development and Operations Research. He has participated in analyzing and developing business systems for Major corporations such as Ford Motor Company, Unisys Corporations and later for a large Mid-West Church in the Detroit Area.