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My project journey: From past through present to future

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It’s a wet morning in 2023 and you’re comfortably seated in two chairs at once. Your five projects are so different. Some require day-to-day attention, others have stakeholders spread around the world, yet you think: ‘Perfect’. You glance across your digital-twin virtual reality project office at the whiteboard of accountabilities and note happily that your name is absent. Now in your other seat in your local coffee shop, you take a sip of coffee.

Civil war breaks out

It’s a dark afternoon in 1989 in Trondheim, Norway, and a bun fight has broken out at the international conference of project managers. Delegates argue noisily. “Must a project have a beginning, middle and end?” “Can a project exist if the ‘what’ and ‘how’ are undefined?” “Dr Obeng is an idiot!” “No, he has a breakthrough idea that brings reality to project management in a more rapidly changing world!”

My job is to live in the future. I’m always the misfit, iconoclast. I’d just presented a paper proposing that we classify projects as open or closed. Closed are traditional projects that respond well to a waterfall approach. Open projects are everything up to a problem without a defined solution.

It’s 1985 and I’m on a Shell graduate course learning state-of-the-art project management. How to plan, then monitor progress through review to a close. “The goal,” the instructor explained, was to “deliver quality at the planned cost, on time. Planning is paramount!” We planned a housebuild. Using a work breakdown structure, we found the critical path and presented it on a Gantt chart. Later, I found this works only when there is a dedicated workforce and the business situation stays unchanged.

What is it called if it has a beginning and a middle but no end?

It’s 1992 and I’ve juggled phone calls all day from almost every industry. Yesterday, readers of The Sunday Times found an article on the back page from an obscure Ashridge educator (me) on how organisations could practically tackle complex change by breaking it into ‘chunks’, called projects.

The common challenge from all callers was in facing a business environment of change with a workforce that had a day job to do. Change was internal – fraught with organisational politics – or external, with nervous clients who had to be handled carefully. Months later, my book, All Change! The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook, further popularised projects. Everyone could understand that projects of different types (open or closed) need different methods. Managers loved it, but ‘proper’ project managers were aghast!

A world in which every project succeeds

Today, we accept that the soft aspects of projects are crucially important alongside the hard. Our methods have grown agile with a focus on benefits.

We’ve improved. The challenge got harder: more obnoxious stakeholders, innovate, go global, deliver in uncertainty. Success rates remain unchanged. What is to be done? We check progress versus plan or story by review. Our metrics focus on logistics not people, so we’re easily derailed by behaviour. We certify knowledge of the science (tools), though assessing t he subtlety of project management ‘art’ is impossible.

Our new challenge is to create a world in which every project succeeds. My job is to live in the future, so I’ve already made a start:


Solution/‘Eddie hack’

WFH/hybrid makes building a real-time project difficult; globally dispersed stakeholders/project team participation.

Create a digital-twin virtual reality office to work in together. Everyone on the same page and inclusive. I use QUBE.

Uncertainty prevents clients and stakeholders from making timely decisions.

Chunk up projects into smaller deliverables and co-create future maps. I use ISWON.

Problem definition and scope is poor and the business case is unsound.

Identify scope and benefits first. I use a GapLeap. Be flexible with the methodology you use, waterfall/agile.

Low motivation/large staff turnover; difficulty leading people at a distance; inappropriate corporate culture.

Make the future tangible and exciting. I use GlydePath to set performance, so people can clearly see how well they are performing.

Poor communication and over-reliance on software and data management that keeps people apart.

It’s a mind shift – rely on people not software for communication. Share a belief you can deliver a perfect project. Explain how to look forward through the windscreen.

This blog first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM Members.


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