Projects on time and on budget

Put simply, project management is about people solving unexpected problems and getting things done, as Chris Johnston explains


Britain is awash with big infrastructure projects either under construction or recently completed. They range from High Speed 2, Crossrail and the new Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport to the London Gateway container port and the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a new “super sewer” to keep the capital clean.

All these are examples of project management – on a grand scale. However, project management does not only apply to big infrastructure schemes. The recent relocation of all News UK businesses in London, including The Times and the Sun, to the “Baby Shard” at London Bridge is but another example of project management in action.

As Dr Martin Barnes, president of Association for Project Management (APM) from 2003 to 2012, observes: “At its most fundamental, project management is about people getting things done.” APM was set up in 1972 to improve the professionalism of project management, with a vision of ensuring that every project succeeds, and is delivered on time and on budget.

“Project management is a set of processes and techniques which, if they are applied properly and logically, there is no reason why a project should fail,” says Dayner Proudfoot, a spokesman for APM.

While the Olympic Park for the London 2012 Games has become the poster child for the project management sector, because it was delivered ahead of schedule and under budget, not every project is as successful.

A global PwC survey of chief executives found that the typical project management approaches employed by organisations result in the schedule and budget for the project being missed in about a third of cases. The survey also found that poor estimation in the planning phase was the biggest contributor to project failures.

Project management is a set of processes and techniques which, if they are applied properly and logically, there is no reason why a project should fail

Learning the lessons from past failures is also crucial to modern project management. When British Airways moved into Terminal 5 in March 2008, the airline aimed to operate a full schedule of flights on day one. However, a baggage system failure resulted in chaos for thousands of passengers and dozens of flight cancellations. In contrast, when Heathrow’s new £2.5-billion Terminal 2 opened in June this year, things ran like clockwork because numerous test runs had been carried out and it was running at just 10 per cent capacity with only 34 flights carrying 6,000 passengers.

It is examples like these that help to reinforce Mark Thurston’s argument that project management has matured significantly as a discipline in recent years and is now much better understood and recognised in academic spheres.

The regional managing director for Europe of CH2M Hill, the employee-owned consulting, design and operations firm that is involved in Crossrail and worked on the 2012 Olympics, says: “Government in particular have recognised the need to take this stuff seriously. The private sector had got ahead, but the public sector is catching up and attracting some of the best people because they have found ways of paying those people market rates.”

VOCABULARY FOR SUCCESS

The big projects of the past two decades, such as railways, roads and the Olympics, have also helped to create a vocabulary for understanding concepts, including cost, time and schedule, that allow projects to succeed much more readily, Mr Thurston contends. “As a country, Britain has become a lot more project savvy and project aware in the last ten years,” he says.

While Britain now has a considerable talent pool capable of delivering big infrastructure projects for both the public and private sectors, there are question marks over whether the country has the capability for the next wave, such as the ambitious programme of building new nuclear power stations. “There’s a technical understanding and depth to nuclear which is of a different ilk to roads or railways or stadiums,” Mr Thurston cautions.

There are a plethora of software packages available for project managers, but there is a danger that chasing a technology rainbow can detract from the end-goal. Many in the sector say there is a balance to be struck to match the right competencies, leadership skills and experience with the right tools and systems.

No matter how sophisticated the systems being used on a project, managers will inevitably have to cope with unexpected events during the course of delivery. Whereas admitting that not everything is going to plan might once have been regarded as a sign of weakness or failure, changing tack or even pulling the plug entirely are now both valid options.

As Mr Thurston adds: “It takes a certain level of courage on the leadership of a big project to say, ‘Let’s get that out on the table’ – bad news doesn’t get better with time.”

The ability to go back to the drawing board is a further sign of the maturity of project management in Britain today – and of the future prosperity of the discipline.