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How to become a rollercoaster PM

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Michelle Hicks designs and builds theme park rides. She works for Chessington World of Adventures – ride projects she’s completed include The Gruffalo River Ride, the Land of the Tiger and the Adventure Tree. “It’s the whole reason I studied engineering. It’s what I wanted to do since I went to my first theme park, aged five. My dad would take me on my birthdays, and I knew even then.”

Her childhood dream took her to an engineering degree at University of Surrey, where she won several awards. After a brief stint at WSP, she saw a job ad for Merlin Magic Making, the creative arm of Merlin Entertainments, which owns Chessington, and applied. She got the job and took the APM qualification to improve her project management skills.

The first thing that Hicks does when coming up with a ride is brainstorm ideas. “We ask what is achievable? Can we build it on time and on budget? Then I develop it and apply for funding from the board. Then I appoint architects and creative designers, get planning permission and go to construction. Then I monitor the construction.”

Here’s Hick’s advice on how to project manage great rides:

1. Aim for “Wow!’’

For your ride to be amazing, you must be prepared to stop a project and take action, no matter how far along the process it is. “When I was working on the Gruffalo River Ride, we got to the construction phase, but we saw the station where the guests get on and off, and it wasn’t making us say ‘Wow!’ We could do so much better. But we had just a month left.

“We decided to act. We sat down with the creative team and came up with a new vision, adding layered scenery and artificial foliage. Yes, it sounds completely bonkers. But it makes guests say ‘Wow!’”

  1. Explain your logic

Cost overruns during a project are not easy to handle, so you need a strong business case, Hicks explains. During the Gruffalo redesign, Hicks had to ask the client for more money. “I presented the cost implications and explained why we needed the extra budget. I also detailed how we’d minimise the cost impact.”

By explaining the logic behind the request – why the changes would result in a better experience, and how the team would cover the cost – resulted in the client backing Hicks and her team.

  1. Listen to everyone

Project managers sometimes need to have difficult conversations. Hicks says you should really listen to everyone’s points – and then process them. “By doing this, you will come up with a fair outcome, and everyone will feel like they have been included in the final decision.”

  1. Work on your weaknesses

“When I came to Chessington, I had a few areas of weakness,” says Hicks. “One was the operational side. When we work on a new attraction, we need to be aware that the rest of the park is open. It can’t close to suit us. I learned to keep everyone informed of what’s happening and be very clear in our requirements. It also helps to second-guess what others may say and prepare for compromises.”

  1. Build a community and have fun!

“When I work with big teams, I get the best out of people by creating a sense of community. It is important to me that we all like what we do. Frankly, if we aren’t enjoying working on an attraction, then maybe the guests won’t either.”

Read a full profile on Michelle Hicks and her amazing job in the Winter edition of Project journal.

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