The economic downturn that has blighted Britain and many other nations over the past five years has made life more difficult for many businesses. While some have pulled down the shutters in a bid to ride out the storm, the more fortunate – or perhaps better-managed enterprises – have continued to invest and expand. For many that has involved some type of project that is separate from the company’s day-to-day operations.
However, those companies that have continued to embark on projects have had to deal with even greater pressure to ensure they are delivered on time, on budget and contribute to the wider success of the business. This scenario has created opportunities for project management professionals and consultancies like Project Plus, whose managing director is Iain Fraser.
“Organisations have realised that aligning project-related work to their strategic objectives allows them to prioritise and really get quite focused on what will most contribute to their wellbeing, compared with things that might distract them from their goals,” he explains.
Further, he says that project management has allowed some organisations to get ahead of their rivals by taking advantage of a depressed market to make acquisitions or launch new product lines.
Project managers all agree that effective communication is essential if a project is to achieve its goals, stay on time and budget, and help support the wider business. Marco Formentini, a research fellow in the faculty of management at City University’s Cass Business School, says that leaders must communicate a shared vision about its scope, framework and outcomes to everyone involved in a project.
To foster commitment, trust and empathy among team members, he believes that each person must have a complete understanding of project’s goals. “The project leader who has good communication skills can interact effectively with an interdisciplinary team because it is now very important to have a range of skills within a project team,” says Dr Formentini.
By learning from projects, the whole company can reap the benefits, and improve its structure and organisation
Communication can take many forms and employ modern tools, such as social media, but more old-fashioned approaches such as diagrams and newsletters can also make an important contribution, he says. “Without communication, it’s very difficult to reach your objectives and to understand the constraints of projects.”
Without effective leadership, any project will run into trouble at some point, adds Mr Fraser. He recounts a project that Project Plus undertook for a bank outside the UK in which the chief executive’s leadership was crucial to its success. The board had appointed the chief executive to help stabilise the bank in the wake of the credit crunch, and the consultancy helped him and the senior management team to map change against the bank’s organisational goals and objectives.
“They made some big changes and sacrifices, and were able to turn the ship around and have been very successful since,” says Mr Fraser.
Most projects will face hurdles along the way and if problems, such as delays or cost overruns, are encountered, he maintains that is essential for leaders to stop and evaluate where the problems lie. “If there is bad news to be told, tell it early. It all comes back to the need to communicate effectively and efficiently. Even if you are the bearer of bad news, how you tell that bad news and what actions are taken immediately after are crucial.”
He adds that if a project has a significant number of external stakeholders, an organisation’s reputation can be affected negatively very quickly if bad news is communicated poorly. “If information goes into the public domain, it can get out of control very quickly, so the need for transparency is absolutely crucial,” says Mr Fraser.
Dr Formentini also identifies a less obvious aspect of good leadership in project management that can help an organisation support its objectives. He believes that it is important to identify and organise knowledge within a project and then use it to influence other projects within an organisation. As companies now routinely have multiple projects underway simultaneously, sharing knowledge across the organisation becomes even more valuable, he says.
Given the pressure on time and resources in the modern business wold, he acknowledges that some companies may find implementing best practice in project management something of a challenge at first. Yet aiming high can be well worth the effort, given that research on the impact of leadership on project management has identified a link between project performance and organisational performance. “By learning from projects, the whole company can reap the benefits, and improve its structure and organisation,” Dr Formentini concludes.
No royal delays
The new Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport will be ready to welcome its first passengers in less than 12 months, on June 4 next year. Project director of its satellite pier Julian Foster is one of the executives charged with ensuring Terminal 2 stays on time and on budget.
However, he does not think of the £2.5-billion construction venture as a project. Rather, he talks about it in terms of the benefits that it will bring about for all the stakeholders involved, such as passengers, airlines and staff.
Building a new terminal at the world’s busiest international airport is no simple task. Mr Foster says it has demanded best-in-class project management, using people with the right qualifications, skills and training to keep the project on track without disturbing airport operations.
Communication has been an essential component, Mr Foster explains. Setting the right tone from the outset has been his goal, which requires getting the right message to the right people at the right time. Ensuring that everyone involved in the project knows what his or her contribution is to the overall success is very motivational, he adds.
The naming of Terminal 2, when it opens in 2014, as the Queen’s Terminal has added another dimension to the project. Mr Foster says: “We have to be ready on time – we can’t let the Queen down.”