I am a firm believer that any situation in life or in business can be traced to an episode of either The Simpsons or Seinfeld. In The Simpsons season 2 episode “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” the patriarch of the Simpson family designs a car, which provides a surprisingly sophisticated look into project team dynamics. The episode presents three common problems project teams face with stakeholders: missing stakeholders, reticent stakeholders, and hostile stakeholders.
In the 1992 episode, Homer visits his long-lost half-brother Herb Powell, the owner of Powell Motors, a large automobile manufacturer in Detroit. Powell Motors has fallen on hard times, and the company’s recent models are not attractive to customers.
Herb believes that customer feedback is not reaching the hyper-educated design team at Powell Motors. The team is designing cars meant for car designers, not the average Joe like Homer Simpson.
End user representatives are missing stakeholders on the project, resulting in a product that has little consumer appeal. If Powell Motors had properly validated stakeholders on their project team to include end user representation, they could have avoided producing cars that few customers wanted to buy.
To fix the consumer appeal issue, Herb commissions Homer to help design a car to appeal to the common man, certainly a crucial step in producing more popular cars. At first, the design team does not value Homer’s input and his suggestions go unheeded. The project team does not provide an environment where all team members feel comfortable raising comments and concerns.
Without a feeling of empowerment for all stakeholders, the every-man input failed to impact the final product. The design team presents a car to Herb that is virtually identical to recent, failed automobiles. Perhaps the project lead could have taken Homer aside and explained that his input was valuable and badly needed. During meetings, leaders could have called on Homer to ensure he gave his input.
In a dramatic overreaction, Herb implores Homer to be more confident with his input. The next day, Homer walks confidently into the room and begins shouting at his project team. Homer overpowers all other team members and only accepts his ideas as correct.
When presented with a hostile stakeholder, analysts can again use a side conversation to voice concerns that the stakeholder is drowning out other team members. Hostile stakeholders are often hostile for a reason. Perhaps, like Homer, they were not given adequate voice in the past. Communication and understanding is the key to resolving hard feelings like these. A hostile stakeholder can be detrimental to a project, resulting in an overly specific solution without a broad range of inputs..
In the end, the team at Powell Motors did not overcome their stakeholder communication issues. The team places too much emphasis on Homer’s suggestions. Under direct order of the company president, the project team hesitantly puts Homer’s ideas into production. The result is a monstrosity.
The final product, dubbed “The Homer,” has three different horns that play “La Cucaracha,” child restraints and muzzles, bubble domes, and shag carpeting. The final sticker price is $82,000 ($138,770.53 in 2015 dollars). The car is so unpopular and expensive to produce that Herb’s company files for bankruptcy.
While this story may seem far-fetched, consider that the episode is loosely based on the real-life production of the Ford Edsel, which Peter Carlson of The Washington Post called “the car that launched a million punchlines.” According to Carlson, Ford Motor Company lost the equivalent of $2 billion in today’s dollars. Catastrophic project failures like the Ford Edsel or New Coke are relatively rare, but stakeholder validation and communication need improvement on all projects.