Envisaging a world where all projects are boring

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When Mike Nichols revealed the associations vision for the profession as creating a world in which all projects succeed its fair to say that there were a few raised eyebrows. You only have to look through the popular press to see the catalogue of reported projects and programme failures to realise the scale of the challenge. 

Well, nobody said it would be easy. But, consider, then, Cobbs paradox 'We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure so why do they still fail?' or Sir Peter Gershons assertion at the APM Conference in 2010 that projects continue to fail for the same boring repetitive reasons.

So, if we know why projects fail, then there must be some hope in addressing those reasons and moving closer to a world in which they all succeed.

You dont need to look very far to find how other professions are striving for perfection. The medical profession uses research and case history to establish the best treatments to increase the likelihood of success. The legal profession uses precedent as a guide to creating a fair, robust and equitable legal system. The army use the conflicts of the past to plan for the conflicts of the future. In fact, there is a strong correlation between the most respected and mature professions and those who actively create, share, analyse, cross reference and apply lessons theyve learned from the past.

Nearly every project manager I talk to has the same opinion on lessons learned. Everyone writes them, nobody reads them and certainly nobody changes their practice as a result. Project management success results from experience or luck; which, in a rapidly changing world, may end up being the same thing.

Last month, for the first time in 46 years, a Britain, Mark Cavendish, won the World Road Race Cycling Championships. This wasnt luck and definitely not experience, it was the culmination of Project Rainbow Jersey and a core philosophy of the Aggregation of Marginal Gains find out what works and apply it continuously.

Compare, this to, say, English professional football craving a World Cup win. We are hoping to stumble across a golden generation. The accidental convergence of the required talents needed to win a major tournament. By leaving it to chance, were much more likely to fail than succeed.

 The importance of lessons learned in a more traditional project management sense hit home to me when talking to Karen Elson and Kenna Kintrea of the Olympic Delivery Authority. The ODA have just released the lessons theyve learned from the construction of the Olympic Park. As a dissemination partner APM has been charged with promoting and publicising them. 

If we can apply the lessons from the Olympic Park programme to construction projects in the UK, the return on that initial investment, in terms of greater effectiveness and reduced rates of failure, will be immeasurable. As a result, I dont think that London 2012 is just the most exciting programme this country has delivered since the war; it could be the most enlightened. Imagine if we all openly shared our lessons learned for free? The aggregation of all that learning would mean that wed gain far more than wed lose.

When I asked Karen what the secret of the ODA success has been she said, quite simply, we rigorously applied project management. If you look at this years APM Programme of the Year, Regional Command (South West) Afghan National Security Forces transformation program, youll see that the essence of the success was that they rigorously applied programme management. Their method of choice MSP - was not particularly unique, but applied in a war zone bridging cultural gaps to the US Marines and Afghan people made it a remarkable achievement. At the heart of this success is what Tim Banfield of the National Audit Office saw in Mays issue of Project projects succeeding for the same boringly repetitive reasons". 

Professor Eddie Obeng, at this years conference, presented a challenge to the profession, which gave us quite a jolt. We have an inbuilt desire to fail because nobody is particularly impressed by a project which is delivered without drama. To be a hero, we ultimately have to crave failure, albeit subconsciously. In some project management circles, we actively celebrate failure because of the heroes it creates.

Compare this to another mature profession; midwifery. Having a baby is a profound and dramatic event for the parents; the midwife is the steadying influence. When the baby is safely delivered and everyone is exhausted, she whispers congratulations and disappears off to deliver another baby. Her objective is a drama-free, boring, delivery; satisfaction comes from the safe arrival of the baby. 

Tim Banfields view is that if projects are done well they should be boring. The more boring a profession is in delivering benefit (that is, less dramatic), the more people trust and value what you do. 

So perhaps were right to be sceptical of creating a world in which all projects succeed if we continue to apply the same approach and mentality that has evolved within some parts of the profession - the project manager, the hero, acting on their wit and instinct. If the core competences of a project professional were not risk management, schedule adherence and so on, but, reviewing your environment, researching the best approach, learning from the experience, and sharing what youve learnt. Perhaps then, we can genuinely look forward to a world in which all projects succeed.

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Posted by Scott Walkinshaw on 1st Dec 2011

About the Author
Scott is Head of Marketing and Communications at APM.

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