Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
Projects go wrong and in our binary world projects either succeed or fail. There is a plethora of articles, opinions and reasons for such success and failure but why, and how, is this possible when we have more and more ‘qualified’ project managers?
When a project is still moving or hasn’t fallen apart it may be categorised as “it ain’t broke” and optimistic project managers may conclude “no need to fix it“. However, we all know that preventive maintenance will allow for successful operation and minimise breakdowns and avoid trouble, “a stitch in time saves nine“.
Projects are no different. It is very rare occurrence that a project will ‘fail’ overnight and most will only fail one day at a time. Proper and diligent monitoring and control should recognise the signs of impending breakdowns. However, if project proponents practice ‘good news’ or selective reporting in the belief that things will get better then trouble will inevitably result.
All projects will have some form of monitoring and control. But if breakdowns are only recognised after the fact it means that the progress reporting and the identification, realisation and remediation of risks that portend trouble or failure have become ‘rituals’. Following process and ‘ticking the boxes’ may satisfy a quality audit but if optimal decisions are not made in good time and ‘the buck is passed’ then we have satisfactory underperformance.
Project Maintenance – Oil or Glue?
Some of us will be familiar with a decision tree for engineers along the lines of:
If it should move but doesn’t…use WD40
If it shouldn’t move but does…use Duct Tape
People say that a project needs ‘oil in its engine’ in order to keep it going. Oil lubricates and protects the working parts of an engine; the ‘oil’ that lubricates a project is based upon the decisions that must be made.
Decisions allow progress to be made; decisions deal with issues and who needs to do what, when, and how and tough decisions are necessary when things go awry. Decisions must be made on the basis of ‘good’ information but if they are wrong they must be changed, just like bad oil in an engine. If decisions are based on rumours and ‘terminological inexactitudes’ then the ‘oil’ of a decision made in good-faith will quickly become epoxy and the project will grind to a halt.
Bad decisions will fragment a project; people may become despondent and morale will suffer. Project participants who are subjected to poor decisions work at crossed purposes rather than working in an integrated manner. The resultant confusion leads to communication breakdowns and one of the many roads to failure may be quickly found.
This is when a project needs ‘glue’. Glue keeps project players together so that a coherent approach is applied through effective and efficient communication. This is leadership, not necessarily from the project manager directly but via the entire ‘leadership team’. If a player can’t be glued then a replacement may be necessary!
But what happens when project decisions allowing project progress are less than optimal because of erroneous information and less than candid reporting? If such poor reporting is not challenged then project players will just ‘go with the flow’. Few people will comfortably admit or report their failures or failings but may, instead, revert to reporting in veiled terms of ‘politically correct’ speech. Or they may be ‘economic with the truth’ which only transmits innuendo rather than the cold, complete, candid truth.
Signs of failure are inevitably reported but ‘bad signs’ are masked in positive-comparative terms. For example “Better progress has been made this month” and “the Schedule Performance Index is improving” sound good, but compared with what? ‘Good news’ with a positive spin is inevitably more palatable than bad news to a management team who may be under pressure. An adverse reaction to such ‘positive information’ is unlikely but, nevertheless the seeds of complacency contained in the ‘good news’ have been sown and are germinating. Given the amount of projects that reportedly go wrong, why are ugly truths beautified and, more worryingly, accepted?
Is this vanity, sloth, or pride or just a plain fear of confronting problems? Call it what you will but ‘good news’ reporting becomes a ritual and managers become blind to the truth in a belief that their reporting processes work. Alternatively they may fail to realise that subordinates may not be comfortable signalling bad news. As a manager driving a project you need to listen to the engine and not just the passengers.
Spectacularly, in 1995, Barings Bank bankrupted after 223 years in business because of complacency. A senior director said “Barings went down because it didn’t exercise effective checks and balances“. In a contemporary statement another director stated “I had always assumed – I had no reasons to doubt – that our controls were in good shape and reflected management’s desire to run a very tight ship”. Barings was an extreme example of limited maintenance and lack of coherence but, nonetheless (and unfortunately) exemplifies what can well happen when complacency and satisfactory underperformance set in.
Projects, like everything, need maintenance which is typically proceduralised so that compliance may be assured. Being seen to be going through the motions of complying with processes and procedures is one thing, but ensuring that these tools are implemented properly is essential.
Project monitoring and control cannot be allowed to become a ritual whereby check-boxes are merely ticked and reporting is camouflaged and couched into digestible and acceptably tinted terms. If this occurs then projects will not be given the right exposure and failure may well be revealing its ugly head without anybody realising it.
A ritualistic approach to project management and just going through the motions will lead to satisfactory underperformance. Continued underperformance will inevitably lead to complacency and ultimately failure. For the failed project two rituals remain, an obituary which will hopefully include lessons learned so it’s not forgotten and its funeral; the once troubled project may then rest in peace.
UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.
Provision of incisive, focused and effective technical and managerial solutions for all project phases; identifying and dealing with troubled projects, and leadin