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Project success or failure - two sides of the same coin?

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On a rainy Thursday evening in London, approximately 100 project and programme management professionals gathered in a room hoping for an informative, educational and entertaining talk from Stephen Carver. Stephen, if you don’t know him, is a lecturer at Cranfield University, who is allowed to venture out into the “real world” to work - a refreshing mix for an academic.

This was the third time I was lucky enough to attend one of his lectures, (each time courtesy of the APM) and it really was third time lucky. Stephen was speaking about Project Success and Failure – two sides of the same coin. Stephen worked the audience, asking whether certain mainstream projects were a success or failure - the London 2012 Olympics proved to be an extremely emotive example.

Most audience members were in agreement that this was, of course, a success - Team GB had done very well. London and the UK had been show-cased to the rest of the world and there was a shared sense of “we did it!” Indeed, some members of the audience had been intrinsically involved in the planning and deployment of the Games themselves.

Stephen then asked us to re-examine this first thought. In terms of budget - the cost of staging the London 2012 Olympics was well over the original forecast at the time of the winning bid, so clearly not a success for the budget holders. Stephen played with our emotions, as rational project managers we really had to declare the Games a failure on budgetary terms alone!

Stephen didn’t just play on our Games-loving nature, but looked further back in recent history, asking us to consider whether Brent Spar, or indeed Concorde had been successes.

At first sight of course, it’s easy to say whether these projects were a success or not. By asking the difficult questions (sometimes verging on interrogation) Stephen helped us all to look not only at the end result, but what the end result was like for stakeholders - did the project meet everyone’s agreed objectives?

“Ah-ha” cried Stephen - Concorde was not as successful as it could have been because the Americans had not fully bought into it (there is of course, more to the story than this – so attend one of Stephen’s lectures to find out his take on the success or failure of the supersonic aircraft).

I did think to myself “this fella is on to something” so decided to raise it with my team the next day. Do all of our stakeholders understand the exact scope of what we are trying to do? How can we ensure that they are updated about changes, and that we are alive to their views and concerns? Finally, when all is said and done, is our project or programme, going to be deemed a success by stakeholders? (Of course, being from Transport for London, our stakeholders are always united in their happiness?) Does all this sound rather familiar to the projects and programmes that you’ve managed? Lucky you!

Stephen worked with the audience to understand the influence our stakeholders can have on how a project is perceived, and how to manage those perceptions. He used colourful real-life examples, from his own career, as well as others from the media. It is, of course, great to learn the lessons from others and apply them to your own projects and programmes to ensure that they are remembered as successes rather than failures.

I know that I always come away from Stephen’s lectures feeling inspired and more knowledgeable. The events provide opportunities to share with professionals from other walks of life and discuss the topic areas both during and after the event.

Of course, it is also good to take the information, and discussion points, back to your own workplace, as I did, and share this with colleagues. I strongly recommend that others view Stephen’s presentation on-line, as well as attend a future APM event to listen to him, or any of the other APM speakers – after all you never know what you may learn!

Our thanks go to Atos for hosting this important event.

Stephens' presentation can be seen here:



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