Project Management Institute

It's a fine line

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Best of Congress Papers

by Susan Ladika

This article is based on material in the white paper “Avoiding the Successful Failure,” presented by Lynda Bourne, DPM, PMP, at PMI's Global Congress 2007—Asia Pacific in Hong Kong.

just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, oftentimes project success—or failure—lies in the eye of the stakeholder. For some, a project delivered on time and on budget still may be considered a dismal failure. For others, a project that comes in long past deadline and nearly breaks the bank is viewed as a wild success. It's up to project managers to figure out what stakeholders perceive as success—and find a way to make the project live up to those expectations.

That's not as easy as it seems, cautions Lynda Bourne, DPM, PMP, director of training for Mosaic Project Services pty Ltd., South Melbourne, Australia. “There is never just one person you can look to [who can] say whether something is successful or not.”

Project managers must identify who the key stakeholders are—and they're “not always the ones you think,” Dr. Bourne says. Stakeholders and their roles aren't necessarily static, either. “Their importance changes as time goes on,” she adds.

The perceptions of project success may also change over time.

Such was the case with the new Wembley Stadium project in London, England. Intended to replace the previous incarnation demolished in 2002, the new 90,000-seat stadium was supposed to open in time for football's FA Cup Final in May 2006. But the project was plagued by delays and cost overruns. The Australian construction company Multiplex blamed many of the problems on a shortage of steel and a resulting hike in prices. The project was to cost £757 million under a fixed-price contract, but Multiplex ended up taking a £100 million loss.

When a project comes into its own, “all of a sudden you have a different view of how successful something is.”

—Lynda Bourne, DPM, PMP, Mosaic Project Services pty Ltd., South Melbourne, Australia

The stadium's most striking feature is a 133-meter-tall arch, making it the longest single roof structure in the world. The construction allows part of the roof to retract and means there are no pillars to block spectator views. But that, too, posed problems. A scaffolding collapse in 2004 killed a worker, and two years later, a steel beam dropped about a half meter, forcing 3,000 construction workers to be evacuated.

In 2006, when the stadium wasn't completed in time, the FA Cup Final had to be relocated to Cardiff, Wales. The following year, however, the 2007 final was held at Wembley in front of a packed house. Since then, the stadium has hosted the Concert for Diana and the Live Earth show.

What once seemed a failure is now viewed as a hit, Dr. Bourne says.

A change in opinion about a project's outcome can easily sway the other way, too. Take the Millennium Dome project, also in London. Everyone pegged it a wild success when it opened in January 2000 on time and within the projected £600 million budget.

But when the dome—originally designed to host an exhibition ushering in the new millennium—failed to draw the expected crowds, financial woes followed. And since opening day, it has cost the British government £30 million in maintenance alone.

Sometimes it just takes time for projects to find their best use, Dr. Bourne says. In 2007, the Millennium Dome reopened under new ownership and with a new name, O2. Since then, it has reveled in its newfound status as a site for concerts, movie theaters, bars and restaurants, and sporting events. O2 is even slated as one of the venues for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

When a project comes into its own, “all of a sudden you have a different view of how successful something is,” Dr. Bourne says.

It's All About Relationships

Project managers must work to build relationships with the various stakeholders—all the while understanding that each one has a different expectation for a project and their own take on what constitutes success.

To manage these relationships, Dr. Bourne advocates using a “stakeholder circle” model:

  • Identify stakeholders, looking both at what each one requires from the project as well as their significance to it.
  • Rate each individual's influence based on their power, proximity and urgency.
  • Create communication plans tailor-made for each individual.

Not only must project managers consider the power and interest of each stakeholder, they must also understand whether each individual is a supporter—or a detractor—of the project, says Dom Moorhouse, PMP, managing director of Moorhouse Consulting Ltd., London, England. That means project managers need to focus their attention on “those that have high power and high levels of unpredictability,” Mr. Moorhouse says. “You need to try to mitigate the threat and build rapport.”

Sometimes a stakeholder who might appear to have the most obscure role turns out to be the biggest obstacle to a project's progress.

Often project managers know the leanings of the stakeholders because they've worked with them for years, yet each project also has its share of wild cards. Sometimes a stakeholder who might appear to have the most obscure role turns out to be the biggest obstacle to a project's progress. If the stakeholder is someone unknown to the project managers, they need to “assume the worst” and regard the stakeholder as unpredictable, he says.

But project managers must also remember that a person's role with an organization could easily change, affecting their influence and power over a particular project. So when it comes to identifying and prioritizing stakeholders, “the exercise should not be a one-off snapshot. It should be a dynamic process,” Mr. Moorhouse says.

Playing With Politics

Whoever is charged with communicating with stakeholders must be comfortable taking on the role and working with the top levels of an organization, Mr. Moorhouse says. Someone who has all of the technical aspects of the project nailed down may be the worst person to carry out the communications role. A detail-oriented person is “often not what's required when you're trying to win people's hearts and minds,” he adds.

Dr. Bourne advocates deploying what she calls “third dimension” skills, which focus on reading the power structures of an organization and the political environment surrounding each project—and then knowing how to work within them. There may some trial and error. Relationship management can be taught to an extent, but it's often a matter of “instinct and experience,” Dr. Bourne says.

And although it may seem counterintuitive, failure can breed future success. If an organization isn't one to dish out blame, and a project manager is able to take a step back and not take things personally, “an individual can actually learn from their mistakes and from discussions with others,” she says. “Project managers know that no matter how hard you work, sometimes failure is beyond your control.”

They just have to make sure all their stakeholders perceive it that way, too. PM

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida, USA. Her articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal-Europe and HR Magazine.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK | NOVEMBER 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG

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