Turning negatives into positives with project management

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I’m a big believer that projects are a product of the people who are involved in them.

Of course, an agile framework and clearly defined measures of control are essential but, based on my experience, people have to enjoy what they’re doing and want to work together to achieve success, rather than being inhibited by the implicit threat of failure and contractual obligations.

Redefining failure

Unfortunately, failure is rarely looked at in a positive light by organizations and this is largely to do with how it is judged. “Failure’ is always a lesson learned and although organizations are definitely prepared to learn, they rarely see failure as acceptable and generally are not prepared to fail. Even though projects are often unique and teams change there are opportunities to ensure continuity of lessons learned. A project manager’s role includes developing these skills, which means embracing failure as a catalyst for improvement.

Ultimately, we need to revisit the definition of failure. There is a real need to understand the actual nature of failure and to modify attitudes towards it. For example, experiencing difficulties during a project doesn’t mean that you can’t reach completion and achieve stakeholder objectives.

Looking at success differently

In projects, we need to look at success differently.

I worked on a project to build an age care facility in Australia and success definitely wasn’t just about building the facility on time and within budget. It was also about ensuring that the facility was functional for the staff and welcoming for the people living there.

The success of a project is not just about meeting completion deadlines and making profit. As project managers we should take a more holistic view of success, including catering for the human factors and ensuring that the end users understand and embrace the results.

When you add in the layers of each individual project, success is about meeting the demands of a multitude of people, with a plethora of needs and expectations; even if this means deviating from, or even totally changing, the original plan.

Addressing perennial errors in project management

From what I’ve seen, the perennial errors in project management are the lack of ability to bring everyone together and the failure to communicate effectively in order to provide clarity about aims, objectives, and measures of success.

My mantra is that the most important part of the project is the people. If you did the same project ten times but with different people then you would get ten different outcomes (all of which could be successful). To get the best out of your team, you need to understand the client’s needs, communicate how these needs are going to be met and consider the benefits to the end user.

From my experience managing projects in the construction sector, the engagement of a contractor via a contract automatically creates an adversarial, party A vs party B, situation. Instead of wielding a contract as your primary tool to manage relationships, I believe we should focus on establishing a collaborative project environment where all team members are empowered to share information and make effective decisions to support the successful delivery of the project. Success needs to be defined by the collective, not the individual. I'm not suggesting that contracts be ignored; more that you should use relationships first and rely on the contract when needed.

If everything goes right on a project, then there’s minimal impact. However, if you experience obstacles or failure in some form you need people to already be engaged with the vision and to be committed to taking you to the finishing point. That can be difficult if the team and stakeholders aren’t working together tightly – and that’s when blame and reactive measures come into place.

I should add that project management frameworks only exist to provide a guide for you to apply the knowledge in the way that suits the project objectives. There isn’t just one way of delivering a project or defining success.

Turning negatives into something positive and useful

I have a fantastic example of something very positive coming out of a situation that could possibly have been viewed as a failure. During a project at a major international airport, a burst pipe flooded the inbound processing area and stopped the movement of passengers for two hours.

However, both contractor and airport teams were instantly mobilized and the result was great team work and an excellent spirit of comradery which ultimately resolved the issues whilst also galvanising the project team and making it much stronger as a result.

Success is about pulling together as team to turn potential negatives into something really positive. Failure happens when fingers are pointed and blame apportioned.

Things will go wrong. However, positives come out of these situations when you deal with them in the best way possible and learn lasting lessons that are widely communicated.

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