Look into the future
Our world faces a series of complex issues and a host of ever-increasing challenges. Whether it be the impact of globalisation, volatility caused by political and economic uncertainty, the demands on healthcare created by an ageing population, or the effects of climate change on our weather systems, one thing is certain: the next set of challenges is just around the corner.
Here is another certainty: projects and programmes are being used as the instruments of change to address emerging challenges. It will be their legacies that determine whether or not they were considered successful. Therefore, what happens after project delivery is not just important – it must become the reason we undertake the project in the first place.
It should not matter whether these projects are the instruments of change needed to address global challenges, or simply voluntary work within our local communities; the topic of legacy should be uppermost in our minds from the moment the project is conceived.
However, as a profession, can we honestly say that we all think deeply about what we wish our project legacy to be? Or is it that – in a world where our approach to projects tends often to be short term, delivery oriented and focused on ‘getting the job done’ – legacy is not something we are concerned with?
Littered throughout history are projects that were delivered immaculately to time, cost and quality, and yet have been considered failures. We must, therefore, think seriously about how to approach the task of creating our intended legacy, so that we gain new knowledge and insight, which can, in turn, help us improve rates of project failure and address regular challenges.
It is interesting that, while the tools and techniques used to manage projects have stayed essentially the same over many years, the environment in which our projects are managed has become ever more complex, and uncertainty is the only thing we can be sure of.
To consider, from the beginning, what may occur after a project is delivered allows us to think in novel ways. For example, if the main aim of projects is to support the achievement of strategic and operational objectives, then each project undertaken will create incremental shareholder and stakeholder value and contribute to a shared legacy. If it does not, then should we start or continue that project at all, even if the business case is viable? Or should we provide more resources to those projects that expand our organisational future?
Addressing legacy as part of our project planning can also help the stature of our profession by demonstrating that we are contributing to something much bigger than the project alone. This will ensure that we are not viewed simply (and incorrectly) as ‘executors of planned tasks’, but as the custodians of the future.
The legacy of projects can inspire people to do things more effectively in the future. Thus, the legacy of one project will directly or indirectly impact on the success of another. Project legacy can help create an identity. Organisations can therefore use legacy as part of their marketing strategy, or as a characteristic to differentiate themselves.
The fourth dimension
‘Legacy’ can have many meanings and can be dependent on many things – such as our own perceptions, judgments and view of the world. Legacy can be visible or invisible, permanent or temporary, real or perceived, with a short- or long-term impact.
There are ‘hard’ legacies, such as the ‘afterlife’ of a built venue; ‘soft’ legacies, such as lessons learned; and ‘emotional’ legacies, such as the feeling of togetherness and pride that the UK felt in hosting the 2012 Olympic Games.
But one thing that none of us can control – and yet contributes significantly to how a project’s legacy is perceived – is the dimension of time.
The best example of this is the Sydney Opera House. In the 1940s, Sydney was overshadowed by a rival city, Melbourne, and one of the ways to put Sydney ‘on the map’ was to design and build the Sydney Opera House. In that aim, no one can deny that it has been a resounding success.
Designed by the Danish architect Jrn Utzon, its immediate legacy, however, included the sacking of its project manager, Utzon’s resignation part way through, continual political interference, persistent changes in scope, spiralling costs, street protests and an opening that came 10 years later than planned.
When the Sydney Opera House eventually opened in 1973, in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, Utzon was not even invited to the opening ceremony, nor was his name allowed to be mentioned in Her Majesty’s presence. Perhaps the saddest legacy was that Utzon garnered a reputation as a ‘one-building architect’.
With the passage of time, the Sydney Opera House enjoyed a growing reputation, sitting proudly against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour. In 1999, Utzon was invited back to act as a guide for future design changes.
In 2003, he was awarded the highest honour in international architecture, the Pritzker Prize. In 2004, the reception hall was renamed the ‘Utzon Room’, and when he died in November 2008, the flags on the Sydney Harbour Bridge were flown at half mast. Perhaps his legacy – and that of the Sydney Opera House – is best captured in the words of the American architect Louis Kahn: “The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building.”
All projects leave legacies and, as such, we must think about legacy at a strategic level and recognise it as a strategic enabler. When thinking about legacy, it is important to consider it as carefully as we do risks, opportunities, stakeholders or schedules. But, while we may be able to influence the perceptions and judgments of others through our stakeholder engagement and management strategies, we cannot plan for what cannot be controlled – such as changes in political systems, developments in culture or environment, adaptations in community values and ethics, or the dimension of time.
Legacy is not just about doing the project right, but about doing the right project. Project managers must plan for what we wish our legacy to be, and then review, recalibrate and re-plan at every stage. Nonetheless, plans may be rendered worthless by things that we cannot control.
When it comes to guidance as to what we should consider when thinking about project legacy, our current methods, tools and techniques seem to have little to say. It is time, therefore, to break the silence.
Project professionals have stayed in their comfort zone for too long by not thinking meaningfully and deeply about project legacy and what the real purpose of our projects actually is.
We must be able to envisage the ‘bigger picture’, and be able to do so now. Why? Because tomorrow is too late; it is already the future.
What happens after you have delivered a project should be the reason that you begin the project.
Project legacy is about inspiration, creating an identity and being the difference that makes the difference.
Each project undertaken within a portfolio creates incremental shareholder and stakeholder value, and contributes to a shared legacy – whether you like it or not.
Project legacy is about seeing the ‘big picture’ and thinking beyond the project life cycle.
Grasping the project’s legacy will help you manage projects more effectively, decrease project failure and create a better project future.
This blog first appeared in the Summer edition of Project Journal and was co-authored by Paul Hodgkins and Esil Onal Inam.