Lessons Learned From the Virgin Lands Project
Let's try to conduct an on-the-spot "lessons learned" exercise on this case study. If there ever was a project manager of the "Virgin Lands" endeavor, what mistakes and miscalculation did he make? The goal of the project in question as worded by the Soviet Gosplan (Ministry of Planning) was to "harvest 20 million tons of grain by ploughing at least 43 million hectares of 'virgin lands'. Do this in several areas of the country including Kazakhstan."
If we follow this definition, then the manager of the project, real or imaginary, did not commit any major mistakes. Indeed 33 million hectares were ploughed and more than sixty million tons of wheat was harvested. Who can blame the project manager who had been told in no uncertain terms: "Take these resources, move them to Kazakh steppes, plough a lot of land and harvest even more grain"?
Subsequent transportation was the responsibility of other government bodies, namely the Ministry of Transportation. Calculation of economic feasibility of such a venture was definitely not within the scope of the Virgin Lands project manager's responsibilities. Finally, even if he had known about the ecological impact of his project, he wouldn't have enough authority to question Nikita Khrushchev's authority.
So, who is to blame for this fiasco? Who should have forecasted the high cost of the final product? Who should have initiated several other parallel projects including silo buildings and preparations of additional freight trains? Who should have studied the historical meteorological data and made proper conclusions? Who should have foreseen the ecological impact of the "Virgin Land" project? Who should have assessed the overall value of the project, as well as the balance of the auxiliary projects required to support the original one and calculated the strategic impacts?
In the context of the Soviet Union it was obviously the government, the executives of the country if you will. However the purpose of this case study is not to lay blame on a specific group of people, but to ask a more interesting question:
"If these were not project management mistakes, then what kind of mistakes were they?"
The answer to this question lies in the area of portfolio management - the art and science of assessment, selection and management of the projects in order to maximize their benefit to the organization or, in this case, the country.