Monday, March 10, 2014

Project Management around the World: Exeter (UK)

Here in the soggy South West of England the projects foremost in our minds are the ones concerned with drying out the Somerset Levels, repairing the destroyed sections of coastal railway line and even closer to home repairing the storm surge damage to Topsham’s famous (well famous in these parts) Goat Walk on the River Exe Estuary.

But looking wider afield I still see the continuing saga of failing projects particularly in the public sector. Those of you who have been following my blog will know that I am currently writing a book called “Project, Program and Portfolio Management in easy steps” due for publication in April this year. I would like to share my observations on two particular types of disaster projects from the book, I call them Leviathans and Vanities.

Leviathans were enormous, mythical all-consuming sea monsters which sounds awfully like some of the recent high-profile failed or struggling projects reported in the media:

British Broadcasting Corporation: Digital Media Initiative, to improve efficiency and allow better management, but underestimation of the complexity, poor governance, organizational immaturity and continual changes resulted in the contract being abandoned in 2013, at a cost of £100m (but they are currently having another go at it using an Agile approach so the final number may be even bigger!).

BSkyB: Customer Relations Management system, where the supplier failed to resource the project properly and was seriously late. When the project was finally scrapped, very little had been done but the cost was still £318m.

UK Government Regional Fire Control Centre project, which was flawed from the outset and scrapped as the IT systems could not be delivered. I actually trained the Fire Service project managers who were going to have to implement this one in the South West and every one of them knew it would be a total disaster! Fortunately they never had to implement it but the regional centre that it was going to be run from has been built and is standing empty. The cost was £469m at the time of cancellation but the costs are still on-going.

US (OK this is not local but I thought it worth including) Department of Defence: Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS), an integrated supply chain and logistics system (at one time the largest project in the world – which should have rung a few alarm bells!), finally scrapped as they couldn’t get it to work at a cost of $1b.

Airbus SAS: A380 commercial aircraft development project, delayed by nearly two years due to design faults caused by the use of different computer aided design (CAD) software in different parts of the organization at a cost of $6b.

The problem with these leviathan projects is they become like out of control giant tankers, almost impossible to stop until they hit a rock and flounder. Many more projects end up like this than get reported in the media, as they get hushed up by the embarrassed organizations responsible for them. 

So what can we learn from them? Effective Project Management in easy steps (one of my earlier books) defines 20 laws of project management. The most pertinent of these is this:

“A two year project will take three years;
a three year project will never finish.”

The basic problem is that the world will change, often quite dramatically, over a two to three year period. As a result of this, the business requirements are also likely to change in line with it. With the passage of time, what the project initially set out to achieve will no longer be what the business now requires. Changing the project’s requirements (scope) on the fly will seriously impact on the project’s time, cost and quality. This will add the risk of it falling further and further behind until, eventually, it gets abandoned. The larger the project is, the greater the risk of failure.

The second type of problem projects are vanity projects, promoted by proud men (usually senior executives) with whom no-one likes to disagree. These typically have poorly defined objectives and no sound business justification. They may eventually get completed but they produce little or no real benefit to the business despite using precious resources. Even worse they prevent those resources being used for projects of more value to the business. 

The problem is that without proper project, program and portfolio management processes in place each individual project is considered in isolation. It doesn’t matter if the project is necessary or not, as long as the person sponsoring it can make a convincing case for it. In fact it might not even need corporate approval if the sponsor has sufficient finance in his own budget to fund it. 

In the book I (naturally) go on to explain how program and portfolio management can fix both problems.

You might be forgiven for thinking that some recent projects (Olympic Games and Football World Cups come to mind) actually manage to tick both boxes!

Enjoy your projects, I do.
John Carroll (a.k.a. P M Blogger)

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