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IS SCIENCE THE ANSWER TO PROJECT OVERRUNS?

Blog 5

Is Project Controls Necessary?

Of course project controls is necessary for the successful delivery of projects. However the real question is; why are projects still going over-budget when there is always a new project control ‘trick’ or method being sold? We don’t need to look any further than the current UK market.

The Statistics 

Ben Flyvbjerg’s ‘What you should know about Megaprojects, and why’; indicates projects going up to 1900% over-budget. Some of the projects highlighted are found in countries with advanced project management tools including the USA which probably has the most matured project controls skill set.

What are we doing wrong?

The focus in the construction market may be too much on the tools to deliver the project rather than the people who use the tools to deliver the project. This is evident in how projects set goals for their team members which I will discuss in a short video in future.

Even when we borrow principles from other industries, we still tend to focus on the tools rather than their foundation for success. Let us consider our use of Lean which is an adapted version of the Toyota Production System. We tend to focus heavily on the Lean tools rather than the foundation pillars of why the Toyota Production System is successful which I sum up as ‘Empowering Teams’. The empowered team then create the innovative solutions required to meet the targets. The view of the Toyota Management team is that ‘they build people, not just cars’. The focus is therefore creating an environment which ensures the teams are empowered so they can continuously improve the processes thereby achieving the milestones. A similar situation could be said of how we use the principles of Total Quality Management.

What are projects about?

Of course they are about implementing change to yield benefits. However, to achieve that, projects need to meet goals! Goals! Goals! Goals. Therefore, should the industry be putting in more effort in understanding how individuals achieve goals? If we understand what makes individuals achieve goals then collectively they will be able to achieve project goals. This shouldn’t be the old theories of motivation some of which are ‘centuries’ old!

What the research on critical success factors tells us

There are several research on critical success factors some of which are:

1. Pinto Slevin success factors

2. Jiangs 13 success factors

3. Chan et al, success factors

4. Tedh Adelback & Niclas Johansson Success Factors

5. Netlipse Research Project Success Factors

6. Success factors discussed in ‘Delivering Successful Megaprojects’

All these CSF seem to suggest that the overriding factor to project success is the human aspect. The soft skills is the hard part which everyone stays away from. However to be successful on complex projects, it does go beyond simple soft skills. It requires project leaders to fully understand how the human mind works to enable them mobilise the power of the team to achieve their defined success.

The Science is Evolving

The human mind can be said to be evolving. Therefore the science to understand how it works and how we achieve goals is changing from what we knew 50yrs ago. The science in the media at any point in time is mostly 20yrs behind what research may have proved and we hardly utilise the available science in project management. For example, we all know about the placebo effect; however the understanding of this and how we can apply it in project management is not being fully explored.

Mind Models – Understanding How Goals are achieved

The same principles that made Roger Bannister run a mile under 4minutes, the wright brothers get a plane in the air, and helped Gandhi mobilise two hundred million people to gain independence are the same principles that will enable project leaders of the future achieve project goals. This is the same principle that makes the placebo effect possible.

There are several psychoanalytic models of the mind which may be the key to project leaders achieving success. Professor Steve Peters came up with ‘The Chimp Paradox’ which has its own understanding of how to achieve goals however there are several others that compliment each other which are worthy of being studied. Epigenetics is a science that every project leader may need to study to be successful. This research has been out more than 20years ago however not fully being utilised.

In all these models, it becomes clear that there are a few factors to achieving goals.

Key Factors in achieving goals

1. Is this the right goal? Is it challenging enough? There is scientific evidence which indicates that we are more likely to achieve stretched goals

2. Can you clearly explain to the suppliers and the team ‘why’ the goal? Most suppliers do not understand the reason for several client goals and therefore are not committed to it. The project leader should have a great ‘why’ and strong communication skills to get this across to everyone.

3. Does the project team ‘believe’ that the goal can be achieved? Most people pay lip service to the goals. Some will also believe the goals consciously but not believe it subconsciously. There are several tools that the project leader can use to address this. If the team believe the goal and are empowered, they will come up with the continuous improvement and innovative ideas to achieve the goal

4. Is it the right ‘plan’? Some projects do well here. However, because they are missing the ‘Believe and why’, it falls by the way side. Development of a plan requires a lot of rigour which can then be followed with monitoring and control and the ability to troubleshoot if things go wrong.

5. Sacrifice- Does the organisation and the team understand the sacrifice it will need to make to achieve the goal? This goes beyond the money that needs to be committed.

Once the team knows ‘why’ and ‘believe’ in the goal, they will figure a way to achieve it. The great Steve Jobs once  said “the greatest people are self-managing and they don’t need to be managed. Once they have a common vision, they will figure a way to achieve it”. The vision to me here, is the “right goal” that the ‘why’ has been sold by the leader to the team so that they ‘believe’ it.

Future Project Success

The topic of achieving project success, is not an article but a book and several research work. However, it is clear that we cannot go on with the same attitude of producing one tool after the other as the answer to crack our cost and time overruns. We will have to make a conscious effort to adopt a new science-based leadership and psychology as pillars of successful project management. Project managers will need to be trained in the science of the mind and psychology to be successful.

 

Author

Clement Kwegyir-Afful BSc MSc MAPM CEng FICE

Director of KAPM Services Limited. A specialist project management firm for complex and large infrastructure projects. The firm believes that for projects to be successful; they need to be uniquely defined at the onset to suit all parties. It then should be supported on the three pillars of project success: (i) strong project controls process (ii) strong leadership principles and (iii) an in-depth understanding of the psychology of how we achieve goals.

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