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Be clear to avoid own goals

AGENDA - When projects go wrong, do we really learn from the experience, asks Anthony Morgan

THE CLEVELAND Bridge dispute at Wembley stadium highlights the risks inherent in big capital projects.When major projects go wrong they can bring companies to their knees, leading to a forced capital injection or disposal of part or all of the business.Do we really understand why they go wrong? PricewaterhouseCoopers research shows that the top three causes of capital project failure or dispute are poor organisation and management, lack of clarity with project initiatives and poor planning and monitoring.The common thread here is that people (both client/sponsor and implementation teams) are substantially involved and that communication and information management are central to making people and teams work well.

Information management is only one element of the structure that supports successful project management and delivery. Communication is just as important during the initiation phase as they are at implementation. Goals may need to be revised, as events require actions to be taken. Good data on progress against plan is crucial for managers to support a robust decision-making process and to take corrective action, so important when things do not go according to plan.

There have been many occasions when a lack of the clear goals has led to a product that fails to meet stakeholders' expectations. So often, each party has so clear a view of its own goals that little thought is given to ensuring that those goals are integrated.The outcomes are played out in courtrooms and in front of arbitration tribunals across the country.

We have probably all experienced the impact of sloppy communication.With partnering and collaborative contracts, parties are incentivised to work for the common good.The challenge is to drive incentives and the partnering culture all the way down the supply chain to the inevitable small subcontractor and supplier that deliver the wide range of specialised goods and services on major projects.

Another benefit of good information management is in the area of conflict management.How much time do we spend trying to analyse a problem after the event? The payment of a small premium for good data collection is likely to reduce the cost of any forensic exercise.How many companies suffer from poor records on projects that have not gone according to plan? It is a natural outcome that when changes occur the routine recording of progress, events and the background to a decision moves down the list of priorities. Even developments in IT systems have not reduced the commercial need to record what has happened and why progress is different from the plan.

It is also vital to establish at the very outset what constitutes 'success'.Clients are ill-advised to make significant investments on corporate transformation programmes if at the end of the day they cannot really identify if the transformation has had the desired effect.

At a high level, construction projects have their own success criteria, which act as relatively clear performance measures: was the project completed on time and within budget (or with the planned profit); and does it fulfil the need for which it was procured?

Every experienced project manager knows how each construction project brings its own set of challenges. For most managers, advanced control techniques have become a core skill, like driving a car.But then some are better than others and some have a higher accident rate.