Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
Just Do It!; “He who hesitates is lost”; and “Strike while the iron is hot” are all expressions used with impunity when a project is about to start as we are encouraged to ‘get on with it’ as nothing can go wrong, go wrong?, wrong!
After all, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step‘ and projects have to start sooner or later. But what happens when project planning is incomplete and project participants are caught up in that unfortunate project dilemma of ‘wild enthusiasm’ as they carry on with a sense of urgency while conveniently disregarding risk.
There are many other sayings that promote a sense of urgency and which are used to instill action and suggesting that risks should be taken. “A ship in a harbour is safe but that’s not what ships are for” goes a saying and, similarly, projects are planned to be completed not just planned. But, globally, how many major infrastructure projects end up in delay or cost increases to the extent which would have precluded their selection in the first place. The subsequent ‘outcry’ from public and politicians then leads to one or more investigative committees who apportion reason and blame but, inevitably, add to the escalating costs and delays.
Risk is inherent in any venture or project and at some stage planning must stop and execution must start. Time spent planning is never wasted but planning must happen and plans may be developed during execution. “Execution’ depends on the definition of the party or parties doing the work; and who the project owner is.
Execution – a Matter of Perspective
For some owners of infrastructure projects, they believe execution starts after the feasibility study has been completed and they have established a budget, time frame and a completion date. Oftentimes, and in hindsight, those budgets were based upon rose-tinted predictions while time frames were ambitious and the complete scope was misunderstood. Then there’s the announcement which can be linked to political or corporate agenda or economic prediction. The start date may be arbitrary, it’s not as if we always need to wait for planetary alignment, and people rush to meet this self-imposed deadline as we can’t afford to be late starting! Can we?
This start, often proclaimed with pomp and ceremony, can be a date set in stone, after all deadlines are important. However, if a project finishes late there is a ‘soft’ or unplanned phased opening to put a positive spin on things. It’s also then that we may realise that we rushed at the start only to wait in frustration for the end.
As part of the ‘planning’, effort is expended in writing specifications and establishing requirements for the technical, managerial and administrative aspects of the project. A plethora of management plans may look good and satisfy an oversight committee’s audit for a ‘properly managed project’. But will there be a real execution ‘plan’ or merely a checklist of deliverables based upon previous project ‘experience’ without any lessons learned and a less than judicious application of ‘cut and paste’. Issuing these documents is a project in itself and quantity may well make up for quality in a hope that everything aspect of the project will be addressed and as much risk as possible is transferred away from the owner. When the documents are ready all that’s left is an announcement that the tender documents can be collected: ‘let the games begin’.
Bidding – a Matter of Competition
The bidders collect the documents for the requisite product or service. Inevitably they are only given a short time to understand the project and are expected to formulate an understanding of their role as well as plan and price the resources and effort required to deliver their scope; or at least the scope as they understand it! Then there’s that moving deadline as the owner changes his requirements, or his documents require clarification, or there’s just a change of mind.
This is competitive bidding and to ‘win’ the job the tenderer needs to consider the competition. ‘Winning’ may make for a moment of glory as the victor celebrates a contract award. But if the organisation fails to make or profit or cover their losses such ‘victory’ will come at a cost.
However, it’s not only the tenderers who are in competition. The Owner, on receiving the offers, must consider the eternal triangle of cost, time and quality and that it’s difficult to have something that is altogether ‘good and cheap and fast’. If the Owner is constrained by price then Benjamin Franklin’s 200 year-old warning will ring true; “the bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”
Performance – a Matter of Risk and Reality
Notwithstanding any management definitions, once a contract is awarded the obligation is about performance of that contract. The contracting parties will have their own expectations as to the project outcome and project stakeholders will have their perceptions and predictions as to the outcome. However, everybody will need to deal with the reality of actual performance and success, or failure or however the outcome is described. Performance is about managing risk and the planning must consider the presumption that not everything will go according to plan.
“Failing to plan is planning to fail’ but, as Robert Burns wrote over two hundred years ago, even the best plans can go wrong: The best laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy
Similarly plans without action are merely dreams and seeking ‘perfection’ merely delays a project’s start while we are paralysed by risk analyses and doubt. Risk is a reality and Murphy’s Law is a truism but, fortunately plans and mitigation can be put in place for most things. However, time is a commodity that cannot be bought or stored and the timely application of decisions makes the difference between an acceptable conclusion and failure.
Conclusion – a Matter of Opinion
Projects go wrong despite claims of ‘meticulous planning’. Public projects are investigated under the guise of ‘enquiries’ or ‘hearings’ while private entities have witch-hunts; politically incorrect perhaps but the bitter truth. Inevitably failure is attributed to ‘optimism’, a failure to plan for foreseeable risks, coupled with a lack of understanding. Also, inevitably that all so important ‘person to blame’ is picked out from a line-up of potential scapegoats.
Our projects continue to fail despite this 21st century ‘Information Age’ because we suffer from optimism. Optimism is a failing as well as a gift and, despite millennia of mistakes and repetition and a modern-day belief in risk management rather than fate, we continue to fail to learn.
Perhaps we need to curb wild enthusiasm and encourage pragmatism when dealing with reality. When our project owners announce with a fanfare the timely start of a project and that the games have begun they should also consider that gladiatorial cry of ‘those of us who are about to die, salute you” in contemplation of the adequacy of their plan and planning.
Malcolm Peart is an 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.