People do projects

Paul Vry | 15 Feb 2016 | Comments

People do projects. That may seem like a fairly obvious statement, but actually the routine failure to acknowledge this simple truth and put it at the heart of the approach to project delivery is probably the most common root cause of poor project performance across engineering design.

This is a systemic problem, and to resolve it requires anyone leading the delivery of projects to set aside the traditional task/technical focused way we approach the set-up, planning and execution of work, and focus much more on the people. Achieving this is simpler than you might think. But first let’s demonstrate how systemic this problem is; have a go at this exercise:

Try defining the game of football.

Okay, you probably came up with something like: a game played between two teams of eleven people, where each team tries to win by kicking a ball into the other team's goal. That seems fairly sensible, you can’t have a game of football without people to play it.

Now try defining a project.

If you have a qualification in project management then you probably said something like: A project is a unique, transient endeavour, undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits (APM & PMI define projects like this). Notice there is no mention of people, but just as you can’t have a game of football without people, no people = no project.

Here’s an even more embedded piece of thinking, the Iron Triangle: Cost-Time-Quality, wrapped around Scope. This piece of simple but powerful logic fundamentally drives most professionals’ approach to delivering projects. But whilst projects fundamentally rely on people as the main agents for successful delivery, this logic naturally creates a task/technical focus and draws the focus away from the people doing the work and making the decisions. The Iron Triangle is a very seductive philosophy for technical delivery organisations to subscribe to because it suits our character, we are naturally much more comfortable dealing with abstract, technical problems like writing long scope and task documents and cost estimates than confronting and dealing with all the complications that come with people.

So here’s an alternative triangle for a design project: Leadership-Resource-Definition.

Leadership – a successful project requires experienced, empowered leadership for delivery and technical aspects;

Resource – a successful design project is fundamentally built on having a sufficient number of organised, appropriately skilled, experienced and motivated teams;

Definition – a successful project depends on having a clear and fully captured definition of the objectives and all the associated deliverables, tasks, budgets and plans that support these.

So next time you get presented with a project to deliver, consider setting your standard against these three measures, leadership/resource/definition, not just cost/time/quality, and you will significantly increase your chances of a successful outcome.

You can read more about the importance of people and project delivery in Stephen Ashton's opinion piece, Projects are about people.