1418 words: 9 – minute read

I was recently exploring world-class project management with a project director (I’ll call him John.)

The context for our conversation was he was fed up with the poor reputation project teams have for delay and budget overruns, and was determined to turn this around. As 2018 drew to a close, he wanted some ideas to ponder over Christmas.

The ground we covered is below. In case you’re in a similar boat, I thought you might find it helpful.

What is a reputation built on?

People think it’s about public relations and what gets posted on social media. But I think it’s much more than that, constantly being shaped by:

  1. What you say about yourselves and the promises you make.
  2. Project stakeholders’ experience of you and your work.
  3. What they tell others about their experience of working with you.

Some clients are wary of the Construction Sector’s project management reputation. Delays to the schedule and pitching prices low to win work, only to make margin through change requests are seen as examples of over promising and under delivering.

John saw this as an opportunity. “If we and clients are fed up with this, there has to be a better way” is how he put it.

What’s world-class?

I’ve been interested in this for some time. It can seem out of reach to many but take a closer look and it’s more graspable than you might think.

World-class reputations are typically seen in retrospect. They’re rooted in consistently outperforming your nearest rivals in the field. Take rugby union for example, the New Zealand All Blacks have earned their world-class reputation over many years by being better than their rivals. They have a win ratio of around 8 in 10 and set a world record of going 18 games undefeated.

About 1 in 10 large-scale construction projects come in on time and budget. Make that 8 in 10 and you can see what kind of sought-after reputation that would create.

World-class performance however is not about copying the best, nor is it solely having the appropriate skills, though that’s important, it’s more about having your unique way of operating and continuously improving that by enabling a team to give of their best in every single moment.

Interestingly, when you talk to athletes or virtuoso musicians about what was going through their mind at moments of peak performance, they say “nothing.” They call it being “in the zone” – a form of still-power not will-power. We’re all familiar with this; on days when we’re alert and simultaneously relaxed, we naturally perform better.

John wistfully said “The problem in project teams is too many aren’t in that zone often enough. Minds are full and closed, rather than free and open.”

What are the conditions necessary for world-class performance in a project management setting?

It seems to me we look in the wrong direction typically here. We think it’s only a question of having the right planning, commercial and technical skills enabled by systems, processes, data and rules. I ‘get’ why; these are all tangible and measurable.

They’re important, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t explain why even talented teams, with all the resources they need to hand, also under perform. The intangible vibe you get from a team, matters too.

If you’ve ever been in a project team culture where being vulnerable was considered a sign of weakness, you didn’t feel safe and had no clear purpose, I’ll bet your performance was below par.

If you’re concerned about raising contentious issues and getting them resolved innovatively, worried about what will happen if you say the wrong thing or screw up, and have little idea who is depending on your work and why it matters to them, being at your best is just not humanly possible.

Turning reputations around starts with your people realising that vulnerability is the flip side of courage and a vital part of trust. Psychological safety prevents them being in survival mode and hunkering down in silos. Their sense of belonging to a cause bigger than any one of them is the key role purpose plays.

What do you mean by purpose?

Your project management teams are rightly proud of their technical skills. Planning, managing tasks, risks and monitoring project performance is what they’re expert in and rightly want recognition for.

I know they’d like clients to be interested in that too, but frankly most aren’t. Clients have a purpose that goes beyond the confines of the design and build.

For example, they may want workplaces that foster wellbeing, creativity and productivity, or educational venues that bring out the best in student attainment, or health facilities oozing care and state-of-the-art treatments that deliver health outcomes, or a stadium that creates memorable moments, or transport facilities that cut journey times, or housing that fosters community etc. They also want assets that are self-sufficient in clean energy and run at minimal cost.

To them project management is a means to these ends. “And if our expertise aligned with and helped shape their purpose, there’s a chance they’d see us more as trusted partners, not just project managers” John added.

If vulnerability and psychological safety were considered strengths, what becomes possible that isn’t now?

You tell me.

Take your analogy above; if minds in your teams were “free and open” more than they are “full and closed” what could be improved?

John thought for a moment then reeled off this list:

  • Bid-winning project teams: I’d recruit, select and develop project teams for their potential to keep learning not just their competence. I’d coach people to unwind unhelpful mindsets that may have worked in the past but don’t any longer. I’d get teams to feel comfortable in their own skin and be part of our new project pitches, so clients get to meet them up front in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get way. I’d be transparent right from the start.
  • Stakeholder bridge building: I’d want teams to invest time in building these relationships before the project inevitably puts them to the test. I’d build an agreement with each of them: it would cover what both parties need from the relationship to make it work. I’d make learning to disagree healthily key to this, because it will not only save time and money, but ensure we get better solutions faster.
  • Bigger picture planning: I’d find ways of understanding the bigger picture in which a project sits for our client and our company, rather than be at the back end of the queue only knowing what others believe I and my teams need to know. I’d want teams to develop a project’s baseline by starting with the client’s purpose and handover point and work back from there.
  • Realistic contingencies: I’d want us to have more open conversations about the risks we can control and manage, as well as those we can’t because they’re client driven – politics with investors and / or material changes in their circumstances that lead to scope creep for instance. This would help us build in realistic contingencies we can all defend.
  • Collective confidence on overall project cost: I’d subject our planning assumptions to an outside-in view that compares what we’re thinking with similar projects elsewhere. This would iron out any unforeseen biases we may be prone to. It would also build collective confidence in a range of overall project costs – depending on the extent to which everything goes to plan – and not lock us in to a publicly stated figure we all know is unsustainable but pretend otherwise.   
  • Modular, design thinking: I’d want us to get away from “every building is unique” and “it’ll be alright on the night.” Instead we’d focus on getting things right from the start, including better economies of scale through modular design and modular programme phases. This would help us speed things up, reduce costs and enable to transfer learning across projects so we’re not always reinventing the wheel. 
  • Risk mitigation and reward: I’d build in early warning systems designed to protect the contingency. I’d want teams’ collaborative cultures to resolve issues collectively. I’d also think about how this more ingenious approach might get rewarded via us earning an agreed share of unused contingency funds as a bonus.

World-class performance is discernible with hindsight, once the results are in and compared to benchmarks. But it begins by creating a culture in which people’s differing expertise flourishes and adds to the collective learning pot. From this place of knowing more, consistency between what’s promised and actually done isn’t problematic. Trust and reputations rise as a result.

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