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From good to great

andy cooke | project magazine | 4 september 2015

Project teams are comprised of different disciplines working collaboratively to deliver a successful outcome. Often the most challenging relationship on a project team exists between the engineering and project management disciplines, with both focused on ensuring that they have the right approach to delivery, and their risks under control.

Where this works well, the results are truly impressive. Most would agree that the London 2012 Olympic Games successfully delivered a spectacular event. Equally, however, there are examples where the results have been less successful. Upon opening, Heathrow Terminal 5 was quickly engulfed in difficulties with its baggage-handling system, resulting in 68 flights being cancelled on the first day of operations. Is adopting industry-standard methods enough?

The engineering and project management disciplines have been steadily maturing, in part to avoid failures such as those at Heathrow. The project management community has now widely adopted industry-recognised standards such as APMP: The APM Project Management Qualification. Meanwhile, the engineering community typically uses approaches such as systems engineering and the Rational Unified Process. The wide adoption of these methods and approaches has significantly improved project delivery performance, to the point where, in many cases, project teams do a good job of delivering against their objectives. Consequently, the risks of recurrence of the sort of incident highlighted earlier should have reduced. But is this good enough? And if it is not, then what more could be done to move from generally good performance on our major projects to really great delivery performance?

One of the hindrances to this potential improved performance is that the industry-standard methods associated with the different disciplines have matured independently. The result of this is that they all provide limited guidance on how to integrate with other methods and approaches – the implications of which can be significant.

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The focus of each discipline is different
The focus of each discipline is different

Projects are invariably started due to an urgent need and those in lead positions are expected to deliver within constrained environments. The consequence can be that the project managers and engineers typically look to quickly establish ways of working and, in so doing, bring their areas of responsibility under control. This can result in each ‘putting the blinkers on’ to focus on what they are contracted to deliver using the established methods that they know and trust. This is default behaviour that is hard to avoid in pressured environments.

It is, therefore, very much left to the skill and experience of the project management and engineering leads on a project to recognise the importance of finding the right way for their specific project to integrate the work within the disciplines so that one integrated team delivers against the objectives.

Understand the strength of each discipline

Unlocking this potential for greater delivery performance by improving collaboration is critical to enable project teams to achieve really great performance and avoid the friction, inertia and risks associated with the alternative, siloed behaviour that can so easily occur. To achieve this requires a focus on four things:

1. Understand the area of focus that each discipline brings

The focus of the two disciplines is to build the right solution, as well as to build it correctly. To achieve this, both disciplines recognise the importance of delivering within the performance, cost and time envelope. What is more subtle, however, is the focus of each discipline – engineering tends towards ensuring the performance characteristics are met, whereas project management would typically draw on its expertise in financial and schedule management to drive progress and ensure control. It is the awareness of the differing but complementary areas of focus that is important to lay the foundations of successful project working.

2. Sequence deliverables according to what the project really needs

Each discipline has responsibility for producing project deliverables during the different stages of the delivery life cycle. Still, the starting point must be to collectively understand what the project needs, in order to successfully manage the overall risk. Only then is it possible to determine the right set of deliverables and the necessary sequencing for the project. For each deliverable, clearly define who is responsible, who contributes to it, what it is dependent on and what is dependent on it. Building this deliverable set collaboratively creates the sense of focus and single-team ownership that can ensure the project progresses efficiently. This is fundamentally different to the traditional independent discipline approach that we typically develop our teams to be skilled in, but it is critical to deploying a successful, practical approach to project delivery.

3. Build an environment with healthy tension between the different disciplines

There is always a degree of tension in project teams, borne out of the difference in focus between the disciplines. The challenge is to build the environment where this tension is helping, and not hindering, the overall progress of the project. It’s like a fine watch. It works best when there is perfect tension between the different parts, keeping everything in balance – when the tension is too high or low, the performance quickly deteriorates. For example, on a typical project, engineering assurance should be pulling back just enough, and project progress reporting pulling forward just enough, to keep the project steadily moving towards its goal while ensuring that the overall risks are being managed in the process. This is most evident when everyone can openly challenge perspectives and actions with the confidence that due consideration will be given.

4. Play to the strengths of each discipline during the different stages of the life cycle

How the different disciplines work together changes through a project life cycle. During the definition stage, both disciplines are working closely together to reach collective agreement on the overall approach for the project, to define what is required, and how they deliver, manage and govern the work as one team. Once the project is established, the design stage is like a professional football team: everyone knows their role and how they contribute to the phase’s overall success. Project managers are focused on managing stakeholder commitment, finance and the schedule, while engineering develops a coherent solution, and both sides are collectively managing the risks of the project.

The changing relationship during the different stages of the project
The changing relationship during the different stages of the project

Once the design is complete, engineering determines how it can be built and integrated, and project management commissions the workstreams to deliver it. At this point, the project manager is managing the progress and delivery expectations, and is reliant on engineering for technical assurance that the workstreams are delivering the right thing and delivering it right.

During testing, engineering ensures that solutions are fit for purpose and can be integrated. Meanwhile, project management ensures that the business is ready for, and committed to, the forthcoming changes and de-risking the environment ahead of implementation. In the final transition stage of the project, migration to a sustainable position typically requires more of a one-team approach, collectively focused on what it takes to hand over change to the business in readiness to realise the project objectives and benefits.

The more those responsible for leading major projects understand and use the strengths of each discipline, the greater will be their ability to deliver in more efficient and effective ways, and, in so doing, move from good to great delivery. Experience shows that more collaborative working between project management and engineering disciplines leads to:

  • Better understanding of the problem and the real requirements, resulting in ultimately the right solution.
  • More comprehensive risk-planning and mitigation activities, leading to higher confidence in the final cost and schedule.
  • Better planning and progress reporting of cross-functional work, enabling more accurate assessment of the project’s status and ability to respond to change.
  • Greater stakeholder engagement and commitment to approach and functionality, leading to a more successful product launch.

Andy Cooke is a programme management expert at PA Consulting Group

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