3 Toxic Traps of Fyre Fest - and How Project Managers Can Avoid Them

  • February 13, 2019

Perhaps you’ve heard of Fyre Fest. Whether you watched the drama roll out live on social media in April 2017 or caught one of the two documentaries on the event that premiered on Hulu and Netflix last month—you know what a project management dumpster fire looks like (both figuratively and literally).

No idea what we’re talking about? Here’s the gist:

Fyre Festival was a luxury music festival organized by Billy McFarland, CEO of Fyre Media Inc, and rapper Ja Rule. Festival-goers were promised a unique VIP experience: get flown to a private island in the Bahamas—on a private Boeing jet—for a weekend of music and art with luxury accommodations, chartered yachts, morning yoga, and first-class culinary experiences brought to you by celebrity chef Stephen Starr.

How did it go? This photo barely sums up the actual Fyre experience:

If this is how patrons were treated, just imagine how employees were treated (hint: not well).

How did we get here? Without a doubt the real clincher for Fyre’s epic failure was the dastardly CEO. But here’s the thing: there were other major project management failures that contributed to the festival's demise. Expert-level project managers always have tricks up their sleeves to turn these toxic dynamics around and get projects back on track.

It’s too late now to save Fyre Fest—that one’s definitely earned its eternal place within the Project Management Hall of Shame. However, it’s not too late to learn the wily stratagems that will save YOUR next project from going the way of disaster! We’re learning from the latest and greatest of Berrett-Koehler’s project management authors to identify the top three project management failures that lead to the demise of the Fyre Festival—and how to combat them.

Toxic trap #1: A team with overactive strengths

Do projects go wrong because key skills are missing from the team? That can happen, but even wonderful skills can be overused and are actually more likely to cause a problem. Fyre was a promotional masterpiece. The marketing team locked in key social media influencers and top models, including Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Hailey Baldwin. The festival went viral, and logistical chaos ensued.

The main problem? They were promoting an experience they couldn’t deliver.

The marketing team for Fyre Fest clearly had extremely effective marketing strategies and reached the right people, so much so that tickets sold out within hours. And, in the age of social media and viral posts, in no time at all, they were deep underwater, sputtering and choking on impossible-to-keep promises.

Ruth Pearce, in her book Be a Project Motivator, shares research on character strengths, what happens when you overuse them, and how a project manager can get the team back on track. Here, Fyre Fest’s team overused the character trait of perseverance. According to Pearce, overuse of perseverance can lead to the following negative outcomes:

  • Sticking to a plan even when it no longer makes sense
  • Being unwilling to adjust plans and goals
  • Forgetting to use judgment and prudence to sanity-check the situation and ensure that a plan adjustment is not necessary
  • Not consulting others to gain perspective

Once the character strength that has gone haywire is identified, a seasoned project manager can redirect the strength and get things back under control. For a team that is persevering to the point of madness, Pearce recommends:

  • Suggesting adjustments
  • Coaxing people to shift perspectives
  • Asking probing questions that can help people reach new conclusions on their own
  • Bringing in outside perspectives.

If you watched either of the documentaries, you'd know that the Fyre Fest team tried desperately to convince McFarland and the leadership that what was once an aspirational plan was now leading them to a full-blown disaster. Which leads us to our next trap—what do you do when you have a leader who doesn’t listen to his or her team or the project manager?

Toxic trap #2: A leader with out-of-control wishful thinking

The employees of Fyre Fest knew that they were being asked to do the impossible, but when they voiced their concerns to the CEO, he dismissed their objections by abusing the tired saying, “Don’t bring me problems—bring me solutions!” Obviously, this was a leadership mistake—but a wise project manager knows how to handle, a-hem, difficult leaders.

In The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up, author Dana Brownlee explains the psychology of classic bad boss types, including the wishful thinker type. “Once the wishful thinker has made a fantasy request, the first order of business is bringing them back to reality. While you may think they’re crazy, you certainly don’t want to say that. Instead of focusing on ‘changing their mind,’ begin quantifying the impact of their request so that instead of whining about why you can’t do it, you’re articulating clear, quantifiable concerns and risks,” she writes.

“I can’t do it,” comes across as demotivated or unhelpful. But “Yes, I will do it, however, here are the consequences of your request,” grabs the wishful thinker in the iron pincers of reality. How would the CEO have reacted to a calm, methodically detailed request for an enormous budget to handle the lawsuits that would result from his demands?

The more insidious side of the wishful thinker could be described as the scammer, who is aware that he or she can’t deliver a promise and has no intention to, nor fears the consequences. In this case, Dana recommends that if you recognize that your boss is abusive—not just a wishful thinker—you should quit or get the protection of the law, because normal tactics don't work on abusive people.

With a methodical approach to managing up and holding leaders accountable, project managers have a better chance of forecasting the logistics and real-life demands of outrageous requests.

Toxic trap #3: Relying on misinformation to make decisions

When project contributors feel pressure to look good and make things happen, they frequently give their project managers misleading information. Whether it’s falling prey to optimism bias by promising unrealistic results, blaming other teammates instead of taking responsibility for their own missteps, or—as we witnessed with Fyre Fest—failing to perform a critical path analysis before making scheduling commitments, misinformation happens. All of these were clearly problems within the Fyre Fest team—but a skeptical project manager could have looked at the misinformation with a critical eye and sorted out fact from fiction.

Not that it’s easy. In his book, The Complete Project Manager, Randall Englund shares a well-known joke in the project management field about the difficulty of creating accurate reports based on misleading information from project contributors. The joke goes like this: “What is the difference between a project manager and a used car salesman?” Answer: “The used car salesman always KNOWS when he is lying.”

But there are ways that you can be a detective and find out whether someone is lying or spreading misinformation, perhaps even unintentionally, when the person tells his/her boss, “The milestone will be complete by Tuesday.” Of all these skills, listening is probably the most important. Englund suggests that to foster involvement with your team members, listen to them constantly, either in informal settings, like coffee breaks, or more formal ones, such as planned project meetings. If you take what your project contributors say at face value, you’re probably missing vital undercurrents. Plug yourself into the undercurrents of your workplace’s chats, and you won’t be hit with any nasty surprises.

So what have we learned from watching this experience unfold?

At the end of the day, even a wise project manager can only do so much in the face of a boss who has no remorse about lying, cheating, and stealing—which is what made Fyre Fest such a debacle. However, there is still a silver lining: effective project managers are empowered to intervene and mitigate disasters. By managing up and leveraging strengths for the good of the team, keeping idealistic leaders in check, and holding leaders and project contributors accountable when there’s a pervasiveness of dishonesty and misinformation, project managers possess the tools to ensure that leaders are actually selling the tasty steak and not just the sizzle. Which, we can all agree, is far better than sad bread and cheese. 

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