In 1960 Frances Kelsey was hired by the Federal Drug Administration for a small team of eleven physicians approving drugs. One of her first assignments was to review the application to approve thalidomide for use during pregnancy. Concerned about studies showing side effects, even though it had been approved in over 20 European and African countries, and also in the face of immense pressure from the manufacturer, Kelsey withheld approval and requested further tests. Researchers later discovered that thalidomide crossed the placental barrier and had caused serious birth defects in infants. Kelsey was given a presidential award for her heroism. As a result of her courage, drug trial reforms were introduced from then onwards, imposing stricter testing and proof of effectiveness prior to approval.
It is perhaps rare that the actions of one individual in a project can have quite such a life-enhancing effect. But there are other examples of one person’s convictions and determination winning over an entire administration. During the Apollo project a plan, proposed by Tom Dolan, for a "Lunar Orbit Rendezvous" was promoted by John Houbolt, described as a “voice in the wilderness”, and no doubt much worse, because he was one voice against many.
"Thousands of factors contributed to the ultimate success of Apollo, but no single factor could have been more vital than the concept of ‘LOR’. Without NASA's adoption of this stubbornly-held minority opinion, the United States may still have reached the Moon, but almost certainly it would not have been accomplished by the end of the decade." Sometimes, you have to be the crazy "lunatic", the death or glory woman or man.
The early 1990s was a particularly busy time for mergers and acquisitions. With a merger announced between a large French car company and a famous Swedish manufacturer, the writing was on the wall for a French civic bus project, due to the presence of a similar project in the Swedish part of the new group. However, the project manager refused to accept that this project to supply customers with a specially designed capability for wheelchairs and prams should be stopped. In fact, the entrance platform of the bus had been engineered to be at the same level as the pavement.
Not surprisingly, his obstinacy was given short shrift and he would not have been able to hold out for long. But suddenly the merger snapped, and the project manager was proclaimed as a hero. Project management can feel like all or nothing on occasions.