Eden at 10 – What a disused clay mine taught us about good leadership of people and projects

'Eden Project is 10' logo
'Eden Project is 10' logo

When you think of the Eden Project you think of plants. So the book about ‘Eden‘ by it’s founder, Tim Smit, is going to be about plants.

In fact, there are hardly any plants in ‘Eden’. There’s no room for them because on every page there are portraits and portrayals of the people who worked to bring us the Eden Project. There really are loads of them and their story is fascinating.

Harnessing people to a dream

We think of the Eden Project as being built of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene but it is in fact made from people. The people in ‘Eden’ swarm like a bivouac of worker ants, linking up to nurture and protect something truly unique and valuable, and at the centre of it all – holding the concept – is Tim Smit.

The Eden Project is about plants but the reason is people. It was launched to be an educational and social enterprise that would demand public attention on a superb scale. But such ambition does not deliver itself easily. ‘Eden’ captures and emphasises the depth of enterprise, teamwork and leadership that went into the realisation of an attraction that over 10 million people have travelled to experience, and which to all intents and purposes had its genesis in a Cornish pub.

Tim Smit uses the opportunity of ‘Eden’ to reel off his thanks to as many of the characters as he can who mucked in along the way. He gives each the stage and tells us about what they did, how they did it in their own unique way and how none of the Eden Project would have been possible without them. But the book is not just an extended acknowledgements page; it is a great story with as many vivid twists and turns and suspenses and feel-good endings as any classic of fiction.

Many times it very nearly never came off; there were floods, funding shortages, fall outs and problems with access through farmer’s fields that all threatened to kill off the world’s largest conservatories. But they pulled together and they filled that pit in the earth with breathtaking architecture and the most wonderful collection of plants this side of the natural world.

When it finally opened in 2001 the public quickly took the Eden Project to their heart. So perfect is the visitor’s experience that few could appreciate the scale of the graft involved in getting the doors open and in keeping them that way.

I went to find out more about that hardwork not long after Eden’s opening when I was a summering reporter on a website for UK’s student masses. We had a regular series on interesting people doing interesting jobs, which was designed to prepare and excite our readership for the important next steps after uni. Believing Eden would be the prime for this purpose, I persuaded the editor to let me go to interview the people who worked there, she agreed and I had an amazing day. I met with a biologist, an educator and a communications manager each of whom did a different sort of job but was full of the same pride for the place; and that pride was being converted into passionate productivity for the benefit of the travelling masses. It was inspirational but I fear that my naive efforts to give their account fell short.

That is why Tim Smit’s book is so important. I was given a copy not long after I visited. It did what I and other reporters could never hope to do: he explains a dream as only the dreamer can. It’s a masterclass in maverick leadership and thanks be that he thought to share it with us.

Now the book has been reissued to mark the Eden Project’s 10th Anniversary and I highly recommend it to you (the 2001 edition at least, I haven’t had a chance to read the anniversary edition). I’d also urge you to visit if you haven’t done so already. I’m desperate to go back and take my wife and little boy along who have yet to experience it. I think a lot will have changed as those young gardens, crops and jungles will have matured into something completely new.

The Other P in the Eden Project

One final word on the Eden Project. It’s the other P in ‘Eden’ besides the people and the plants. It’s the P in the title: project.

The Eden Project was a huge undertaking. Built in less than 5 years on a budget of over £140 million, with a high profile and a significant amount of risk. In many ways a ‘nightmare’ project but it was also hugely successful.

In ‘Eden’ Tim Smit describes an enterprise that comes across as the ultimate in swashbuckling projects. All over the shop at times but kept on a irresistible course through the dedication of the project’s managers. Or should that be projects’ managers because there were after all many projects underway concurrently: conceptualisation, planning, construction, horticulture, education and marketing. Each of these is a project in its own right. In fact, we might be better to view each as a programme, itself assembled of a series of smaller projects.

For each of those projects there is an appropriate method for controlling it. Some will require the rigidity of ‘waterfall’ processes like PRINCE2, while in other cases the best approach is the fluid, iterative approach of something like Agile. Horses for courses and all that.

The reason I mention this is that when I started rereading ‘Eden’ there also blew up a flurry of argument over which project management methodology ought to be applied to government ICT. It all kicked off with an an article by corporate IT lawyer Alistair Maughan who argued strongly that Agile development is an evangelical fad ill-suited to government. In retaliation, Agile fans (like the precociously talented team at Rewired State) rose up in defence and in doing so trash-talked the likes of PRINCE2 as viable methodologies. Reading these statements while also consuming ‘Eden’, it was clear that in fact we need both, otherwise government platforms and networks or Eden Projects just don’t get done.

The point being missed in the debate is that it is the quality of the people in the project manager roles – their temperament, problem solving and resourcefulness – which matters more than the methodologies they eventually choose to apply.

It’s a point Tim Smit makes in ‘Eden’. Initially, he says, he found the project managers as needlessly bureaucratic but soon he realised he was being an idiot (that’s a quote by the way) and came to this conclusion:

It is the PM who liaises with constructors and keeps the job to programme, or if it is slipping tells the client why. In short, the project management team form the logistical and administrative hub of the client’s operation. If like we were, you are operating in partnership with many others, their job is crucial in keeping everyone truthfully informed. Fact: you cannot be successful with poor administration, because once you lose control of the order of events the reminder of the team cannot do their job. Alexander the Great needed a good project manager.

Well said, sir.

Happy Birthday Eden Project!

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