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Oops - what can happen when we don't consider the human factor; 16th June 2016, write up and material available

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How do you squeeze 5 presentations on a complex topic into a 1.5hour event? This was the challenge at the event “People Power Projects & Strategy - A Call to Action” organised by the People SIG and Stakeholder Engagement Focus Group on 16th June.

The purpose of the event was to highlight the problems that arise within projects when we don’t pay enough attention to our stakeholders and forget to plan for “the human element”. An impressive line up of speakers had been assembled to share their experiences and, in true TEDx style, each was given a restricted time slot.

We were treated to a collage of examples about the impact of people on project success. While the presenters were forced to canter through some major topics, they still managed to convey some important messages.

So what messages did I come away with? You can see the presenters’ slides below and on the APM resources area, but here is a summary of the jottings from my note-pad:

The individuality of stakeholders (Professor Agi Oldfied) :

  • People (stakeholders) conceptualise problems and interpret information in different ways. “10 stakeholders given the same project brief will have 10 different views about the project objectives”. That can have a profound impact on decision making and the problems that are likely to emerge downstream.
  • Behaviour is not always rational. When people start losing they make bad decisions (gamblers’ escalation of commitment).
  • Behaviour and thinking is driven by a range of factors eg. motivation, perceived levels of control, previous experience
  • Understanding stakeholders is essential for understanding and managing project risk
  • The Global Risk Assessment and Strategic Planning (GRASP) methodology suggests 7 factors for stakeholder analysis:
    - Vested interest (motivation)
    - Objectives
    - Perceptions (eg. interpretation of information, perceived level of risk)
    - Perspectives (eg. operational lens: finance, engineering)
    - Assumptions (eg. level of control)
    - Agendas (overt or covert)
    - Other factors eg. previous experience
  • A better understanding of our stakeholders improves our ability to influence them, and thereby improves the likelihood of successful outcomes.

The increasing complexity of projects (Miles Shepherd):

  • Projects are not managed in an isolated world. They influence the environment (delivering benefits for stakeholders), but are also impacted by changes in that environment.
  • The rate of change in the environment is adding complexity for project managers eg.
    - Advances in technology have disrupted the way people work, the speed at which problems can escalate, and the expectations of stakeholders
    - Legislation, regulations and economic drivers have changed the stakeholder map and project constraints
    - Project management processes are changing to reflect new standards and an increasingly diverse workforce
  • On top of that, the nature of stakeholders is changing. eg.
    - Clients are more demanding as expectations change;
    - Sponsors are better qualified and experienced, in some cases better qualified than the project manager.
    - Stakeholders, even those based in the same country, are more diverse in terms of culture and language
    - The nature of the workforce is changing in terms of experience, age and skills.
  • The challenge for project managers is to keep one step ahead. Meeting the challenge requires PM’s to be more
    - Culturally aware
    - Internationally aware
    - Multi skilled
    - Technically competent
    - Qualified
    - No pressure then!

The end user as stakeholder (Michael Ocock):

  • However simple the system may seem, if you’ve not taken the end user into account, the risk of system failure is high.
  • End users, like all other stakeholders, bring their own ‘baggage’ in terms of culture, expectations, objectives and assumptions. If you think that end users can be managed, think again.
  • The example presented was passengers getting on and off trains at Baker Street Underground Station. The system is very simple, the instructions write on large overhead signs. But as Michael illustrated, people do not interpret instructions in the same way, or simply do not do what they are told. The result (in this case for people trying to get on and off the platform) can be a system that doesn’t work.

Projects as human systems (Barry Trebes):

  • We can be so focused on the mechanics of the process that we overlook the fact that implementation involves people.
  • “A lot of effort is put into the terms of a contract; but we do not put the same amount of effort into our people.” eg.
    - NEC contracts include the clause: “The Employer, the Contractor, the Project Manager, the Supervisor shall all act in a spirit of mutual trust and co-operation”. For the people who are expected to behave in that way, has anyone defined and communicated what that behaviour looks like?
    - Apparently on average 30% of documents relating to contracts are lost by the end of the project; which is probably because supervisors hate doing paperwork. Has anyone taken the time to explain why the paperwork is important and how their actions contribute to the success of the project?
  • The NEC defines the process but people make the difference.
  • Failure to communicate is a major cause of contract failure.

Strategic planning for problem solving
To illustrate the uncertainties that people can introduce into a well-laid plan, we ran out of time for the 5th presentation from Niall Campbell which promised to open the discussion about the need for people to be at the heart of project planning and implementation.

However, at the end of the evening Ben Pinches, founder of the Stakeholder Engagement Focus Group, summed up by highlighting that despite the importance of people to project success, the existing project management paradigm doesn’t acknowledge the human element. There is a need to plug that gap. So this is a subject that will be revisited.

Fran Bodley-Scott
People SIG SEFG volunteer

The speakers have very kindly allowed their material to be made available for viewing.
The slides are also available in our APM resources area and also below for reference.


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