The manual on project management continues to grow. As more projects get done, so grows the amount of best practice and the number of experts in the best practice. And yet, projects typically run late or exceed their original budget, especially when they are international or involve changes to information technology and business process.
We see projects that fail so conspicuously that the brand is left with an unfavourable association in the public eye. The best practice manual seems to become a dead weight rather than a help on many projects, tying them up in reporting, risk registers, action logs and gateways.
There is nothing wrong with the manual on project management. It is right that, as with any engineering discipline, the body of knowledge in the discipline is captured and reapplied. Where it goes wrong is in its application. Project management, perhaps more than many engineering disciplines, is about people.
To try and define a new people oriented manual for global project management, we interviewed senior executives at 15 major companies. We found one rule to be more important than all the others: big projects need big hearts, and this idea is at the centre of what makes difficult projects succeed. The ‘big heart’ comprises four human qualities: humility, experience, leadership and stamina.
Humility is about listening to stakeholders, understanding what they say and acting on it. It is about acknowledging that your idea might not work without modification – that others may have a better way of achieving your objectives, because they know more about some of the challenges. Without humility, the project will fail – during delivery or in benefit realisation.
We worked with an international client that was seeking to rationalise its global sales centres. The case for the rationalisation was worth £50m in annual savings. It went to the top of the firm and got approval but, during implementation, met resistance around how to achieve the changes in the local context. A small injection of humility, represented by the programme leaders’ willingness to find a compromise on the number of centres required to meet everyone’s needs, resulted in a new solution. This led to an approach that worked locally with the same corporate economic outcomes.
The second big-heart quality is experience. Experience is worth a thousand tools and templates. It sounds like an obvious point to make, yet all the companies we interviewed agreed that experience is fundamental to sound intuition and judgment. Experience tells you what feels right and what feels wrong. Of course, no decision on a program ever gets made without there being some logic to it. Experience is the short cut to the right logic.
Among our research group, mergers and acquisition projects featured prominently. Across these projects, all agreed that experience is critical. Spreadsheets are worthless without an intuitive understanding of how a deal will work. This is the case not only when making the deal, but also when it comes to implementation. Carrying people with you depends on an intuitive understanding of how to flex the deal and where to make your big plays.
The third quality, leadership, means that sometimes you take decisions that people don’t like, and still carry the day. Good project leaders don’t just make tough decisions, they carry people with them. They do this through their belief. In combination with humility, belief provides energy to align the team so that everyone pulls in the same direction.
We saw the importance of leadership demonstrated in a project to launch a new airline. The aim was to achieve the start-up within 12 months. The project leader had extraordinary belief in how the airline should look and feel and how the timeline could be achieved. This belief shone through and drove the project team to a successful launch.
Stamina is our final big-heart quality. A global project only works if everyone works with you, not against you. However, keeping people with you throughout a project is hard work. It is not enough to say “we agreed this; we need to move on”. Each obstacle and objection must be tackled with the aim of keeping the team as one – the project won’t be successful otherwise.
We worked with a global pharmaceutical company to standardise and centralise its information technology. This was not popular in all the countries but the savings justified the effort and were achievable. The programme team met resistance in every corner of the globe, took the discussion into almost every one of the 164 countries involved, and sold the necessary changes each and every time. Stamina is having the energy to answer the ‘why’ question every step of the way. People will ask it.
Everything we have written here is anecdotal. But if we are right, the message to project sponsors is clear. Find a project manager with feelings.
The companies we spoke to included Lilly, Sanofi, AP Moeller Maersk, IAG and DHL Express.
Alexander Tamdjidi, business transformation expert, and David Elton, IT and change management expert at PA Consulting Group
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