Project Management Around the World – Europe (#PMFlashblog)

EuropeI’m once again privileged to have been invited to participate in the second Project Management Flashblog (#PMFlashblog) initiative, this time coordinated by Mark Phillipy (who runs the excellent blog, The Sensible Project Manager). This time the theme is Project Management Around the World and this is my contribution…

Cardiac Hill

There’s a hill behind my house in Spain. The views from the top towards Alicante are stunning. The locals call it “ataque cardiac colina” (Cardiac Hill). I’ve just walked up it in search of some motivation for this post – I’m not as young as I once was. My career has spanned 30 years, yet for the first 10 of those I never once met a project manager.

Before then I’d been involved in delivering all sorts of complex, technical stuff working in the IT department of a major bank in the 1980s. We didn’t have project managers in those days. They just didn’t exist in my world. We had no email, no instant messenger, no cellphones, no social media, no Internet, no SharePoint, no Microsoft Project, Word, Excel or PowerPoint – no PCs, in fact. We would talk to each other. Face to face, mostly. Sometimes on the phone. Everyone knew what their role was. We didn’t write everything down or obsess about covering our arses. We all trusted one another to do our jobs. And most of the time stuff worked.

Spectacular Failures

We did mess up from time to time. Sometimes spectacularly. We once mislaid tens of millions of pounds after some dodgy code I’d written and not tested correctly messed up the ATM network. And the bank’s first forays into internet banking weren’t great either. We hooked a website up to the old legacy banking systems, increased the number of users from a few thousand staff to hundreds of thousands of customers, and wondered why the thing wouldn’t perform, and we’re surprised when customers complained that systems were only available during office hours.

Clearly some level of project management would have helped avoid some of those earlier failures – thorough business analysis, considered requirements, comprehensive impact assessment, proper design, robust testing, managed implementation and post-live support would all have increased our chances of success.

Project management is not a recent invention and clearly it was being applied to the more major undertakings in the bank at that time, but it wasn’t ubiquitous and wasn’t applied consistently and systematically to every single change.

A New Project Management Paradigm

Today, in a more risk averse, litigious world, things have gone the other way. Projects are defined much more broadly. Everything is potentially a project, regardless of size or complexity. Project managers, many of them well-used to running large, complex projects, all too often now find themselves running tiny projects that can sometimes be anything but. The more projects you have, the more artefacts you need to produce, the more governance you need – the greater the overhead, the greater the cost.

I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. It reduces delivery risk and creates opportunities for people to break into the profession by getting their hands dirty on much smaller, less challenging pieces of work. Much better than being thrown in at the deep end and being asked to run something complex, unwieldy, risk laden and doomed to failure from the off. Additionally, in a world where everything is a project, and everyone is a project manager, you can also get an oversupply of labour, especially in a downturn when companies are shedding staff and aren’t investing like they used to. That can only be good for business when confidence improves and companies start hiring again.


So the project management paradigm has changed in the last 30 years. Depending on your perspective, that reduces risk, raises costs, improves governance, creates bureaucracy, depresses salaries, creates opportunities for career development, or helps you drive a harder bargain when hiring in the help.

After a long weekend in the sun I have to go back to work in the UK in the morning. For now though, from the top of a hill in Spain, this is my perspective on the state of project management in Europe today.

Los Arenales (foreground), and beyond, Alicante, Spain.

Happy Hootenanny – The PM’s Guide to Time Travel

Jools Holland, Project Manager Image Credit: Chris Boland / Distant Cloud Photography

Jools Holland, Project Manager
Image Credit: Chris Boland / Distant Cloud Photography

Every year in the UK, musician Jools Holland celebrates the New Year with a TV show featuring a “host of musical stars”.  Jools’ Annual Hootenanny (whatever one of those is) will be shown once again on BBC2 this evening (New Year’s Eve) from 23:30, until 01:50 (on New Year’s Day). So tonight you’ll be able to watch Jools, Mel C, The Proclaimers and Lisa Stansfield all see in the New Year whilst jamming away to the midnight chimes of Big Ben in London.

Time Travel

But that’s not the whole story. Tonight’s NYE show was actually pre-recorded… on December 11, 2013. That’s almost three weeks ago. Worse, the recording started at 18:45 and was done and dusted by 22:45. It didn’t even span a midnight. So in addition to being a pretty decent musician, Jools is clearly also a pretty good actor, as are his guests, and presumably the invited audience at the recording, too.

Risk Management

If you’re planning to watch the show this evening, you may be feeling a tad cheated at this point. However, apart from not being strictly straight with his TV audience, I suspect all that BBC Executive Producer Mark Cooper has actually done is look to eliminate the myriad of risks inherent with a live TV broadcast.  Or more likely, he’s dealt with the very real commercial risk that Mel C, Lisa Stansfield, The Proclaimers (and undoubtedly Mr Holland himself) have much better things do on New Year’s Eve than their day jobs, and therefore the guest list would have been much the weaker (or more expensive) than it otherwise is, had it been scheduled to be shown live.

Issue Management

So, with regard to the issue of Mark Cooper not being strictly honest with his TV audience by telling them they’re not actually watching a live feed of 2014 arriving in London, I don’t think he needs to worry. I suspect that by the time midnight arrives most TV viewers will have had a drink (or two) and probably wont even notice the show has been pre-recorded… unless they happen to have Mel C, Lisa Stansfield and The Proclaimers round for drinks and nibbles this evening.

Free eBook – PM Flash Blog

Free eBook

Free eBook

Somewhat belatedly, after last August’s first ever PM Flash Blog event, I’ve finally got around to publishing the eBook that brings together the complete set of the articles penned by over 50 of the world’s preeminent bloggers on project management.

They let me write one, too – you’ll find mine on pages 108-110.  Do feel free to download and share it as you wish by clicking the link below.

Free eBook

Special recognition is due to Allen Ruddock for tirelessly compiling the book and designing the cover artwork.

Rocket Science

Four million pounds of fuel ... and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder

Four million pounds of fuel and 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder

In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger was brought down by the failure of an O-ring. A single, small, relatively inexpensive component ultimately destroyed a spacecraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars, killed 7 people, and caused the total and spectacular failure of an associated mission project with a budget of $1.5 billion (the average cost of a shuttle mission over the life of the programme).

As Steve Buscemi (“Rockhound”) said nervously to one of his fellow space shuttle crewmembers in the 1998 film, Armageddon, “You know were sitting on four million pounds of fuel … and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder?” It’s sort of funny when you watch it (in a dark sort of way), but in the context of the Challenger disaster (and Columbia’s subsequent disintegration in 2003), not really.

Organisational Resilience

Beyond spacecraft, most things that fly have an awful lot of redundancy and resilience built in. I’m not so sure businesses do any more. It’s my opinion (and therefore a fact) that reliance on a single point of failure (SPOF) is ever more prevalent in business today than it used to be. Simple economics in a recession sees to it, whether you work in the public or private sector.

That means project managers, no matter where you work, have to deal increasingly with SPOFs as a matter of routine. Where your SPOF is a person, it’s only a matter of time before you will have an issue. Whether you know it or not, right now you probably have a real risk (perhaps several) of SPOFs working on your projects.

I’ve written before about the dichotomous relationship between project managers and the people working on their projects. We can’t achieve anything meaningful without people, yet they usually represent our biggest delivery risk.

The investigation into the Challenger disaster concluded that the failed O-ring was never designed to operate at the low ambient temperatures prevailing on the day of the launch. And that’s how it is with most SPOFs.  Few if any managers set out to create a situation where they’re entirely dependent upon one individual, but I guarantee that you will inevitably find yourself one-day dependent upon someone who is, often unknowingly so, a SPOF. The challenge is how do you recognise one before they unexpectedly go off sick or resign or something?

How to spot a SPOF

  • You’ve probably heard of them already – they’re inevitably world famous in your organisation as the go-to person for whatever it is they do. Chances are you absolutely will want them on your project.
  • They will do whatever it is they do extremely well, but perhaps on occasion with less regard for business priorities and the bigger picture. Look for early warning signs like them not being contactable, not responding to emails, and missed deadlines.
  • They’re inevitably extremely busy. “If you want something doing, ask a busy person”, said Benjamin Franklin.
  • Their function is usually niche. They may work alone, or in a very small team containing a bunch of people who are similarly stretched. Big crowds don’t tend to have too many SPOFs.

Hard & Difficult

The reality is few businesses can afford the level of resilience it would require to completely eradicate reliance on key people. Besides, getting resources to work on your project can be hard enough – it you’re lucky enough to be getting the services of someone so talented, you shouldn’t be looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Look for the above warning signs and take steps to manage the associated risk. If you are successful, please tell me how. I’m sorry if that’s not very helpful, but project management can be hard and difficult. At times it requires techniques that could be construed as a black art. It’s like herding cats, knitting fog and juggling sand. The good news is, unless you happen to be working at NASA… it’s not rocket science.

What does project management mean to me?

Life - moving fast Picture: Matt Stuart

Life – moving fast
Picture: Matt Stuart

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”
Ferris Bueller, Project Manager, 1986


Back in August (2013) Shim Marom contacted me and asked me to participate in an initiative whereby the leading project management bloggers around the world would all write a post, on a common topic, then publish them all simultaneously. The subject of our posts was to be “What does project management mean to me”. Rich Malzman subsequently came up with the term “Flashblog”. This is my contribution.

Journeys and Destinations – Ends and Means

Project management is, in essence, a means to an end. It’s about delivering stuff. Creating new business outcomes. New futures. That’s one of the reasons why projects can be so motivating. Outcomes usually outlive the projects that created them in the first place. That’s how it should be. Children should outlive their parents. It’s the natural order of things in both projects and life.

However (as Ferris Bueller points out) life moves pretty fast. Spend the best years of your life blindly running projects, being a slave to PRINCE2, and you could miss it. The last thing you want in life is to reach the final destination and to realise you didn’t care for the journey much.

Life moves pretty fast - don't miss it.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in while, you could miss it”.
Ferris Bueller, Project Manager

In projects you should quite rightly be more concerned about the destination than the journey, more about the outcome than the method. In life, however, it’s my opinion (and therefore a fact) that the journey should be more important than the destination. I will explain…

Interesting Stuff

In the last 25 years I’ve delivered countless projects and programmes – outcomes, if you will. I’ve done a job, created outcomes, personally invested a lot of myself in those endeavours, and been remunerated fairly for doing so.

However, I’ve also done some pretty cool stuff along the way, all of it as a direct consequence of doing the job and the people I’ve met on the journey.

  • Over the years I must have met literally thousands of people from hundreds of companies. I’ve worked with some of the brightest minds in business today. Some of the most interesting and memorable people I’ve met haven’t been CEO’s but homeless people in London or fellow commuters on a train or plane on the way home on a Friday evening.
  • I’ve flown (a lot) both as a passenger and a pilot, in everything from helicopters to microlight aircraft. I’ve been cleared to fly right up the Thames and been ordered to hold in the hover alongside the Houses of Parliament. I’ve also been buzzed by the Duke of Cambridge’s rescue helicopter whilst parked up on top of a mountain in Wales.
  • I’ve drank way too much alcohol with a series of politicians (one of whom tried to score a drug deal at 1am when somewhat the worse for wear – not so cool) and one serving Prime Minister.
  • For a while I counted Elle Macpherson, Margaret Thatcher, Roman Abromavich and Joan Collins amongst my neighbours (my apartment was considerably smaller than theirs).
  • I’ve lectured to university and college students and spoken at countless conferences (somehow getting away with using clips from The Lion King, Hook and Dead Poets Society in the process, as well as teaching some pretty serious delegates how to juggle as part of my slot)
  • I’ve held a series of clandestine meetings with Harry from Spooks.
  • I’ve travelled extensively on business and marvelled at some of the places I’ve worked in. I fell in love with America, ran people all over the Middle East, was underwhelmed by Hong Kong, and got shot at in Manchester. I’ve been humbled at the sheer scale of poverty in India, the similar sized chasm between the rich and poor in Mumbai, and the equally large scale of my Indian colleagues’ indifference to it.

The Exam Question

So, what does project management mean to me? Well, if project management is a means to an end, it’s sort of diametrically opposed to life, which should be more about the journey and less about the destination. For me it’s best summed up by Robert J Hastings’ short essay “The Station” which I will paraphrase here:

“… stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more and cry less. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough.”

Whilst on occasion I will admit it has felt like the day job is killing me, project management has, in part at least, helped me to do some pretty cool stuff with my life. No matter how passionate we are about projects, it’s mostly the stuff we do in between jobs that defines us, and that sort of puts PRINCE2 into perspective, doesn’t it?

#pmFlashBlog – Coming Soon!

#pmFlashBlog 0100 GMT - 25 Sept 2013

0100 GMT – 25 Sept 2013

On 25 September 2013 over 70 of the world’s most-read project management bloggers (and me) will be making a simultaneous post (at 1am GMT) on a common theme – “Project Management: What does it mean to me”. It will be the world’s first “flashblog” – the initiative of the event organiser, Shim Marom.

Whether you’re a seasoned change professional, looking to get into the industry for the first time, or just interested in the field as a casual consumer of content, it promises to offer one of the most diverse sets of perspectives on project management you will find anywhere… all in one place at one time.

My own contribution will be published here, where you will also find links to everyone else’s posts, too. Additionally, all the posts will be made available in a free eBook shortly afterwards (details to follow). All the posts will be tagged with the hashtag #pmFlashBlog so you can also follow things on social media, too.

Please do check back (you don’t have to stay up until 1am) on or after 25 September to see what we’ve all come up with. In the meantime, if you want a ready made list of the very best project management bloggers on the planet, simply start following the people below, all of whom will be participating in #pmFlashBlog next week.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers

Len Goodman, Project Manager

Len Goodman, Project Manager

In 1989 Stephen R. Covery published his seminal work “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. It’s since sold 25m printed copies, 15m audio books, and been translated into 38 languages worldwide. It remains one of the Top 25 business books today.

You’ll find plenty of blog posts out there offering up a complementary set of seven habits of highly effective project managers. Most focus on the procedural aspects of the job. Here I’ve tried to focus more broadly (if that’s not a dichotomy) on attitudes and behaviours.

Attitude is important. It determines your altitude. Christmas is coming. Do you want to soar like an eagle, or walk like a turkey?

Habit #1. Don’t take “No” for an answer

People who don’t set themselves challenging targets tend not to achieve great things. Aim for 75% and you’re highly unlikely to score 100%. Don’t accept things can’t be done. Don’t accept the first date you’re given. Don’t accept the first quote. Don’t accept a series of scope exclusions or a large number of assumptions. Challenge your team to do more with less and you’ll be surprised at how much you can achieve.

Habit #2. Don’t give “No” for an answer, either

Projects are about change. Getting things done. The last thing your sponsor wants to hear is “no”. Yes, you need to control changes to scope, requirements, dates, budget and so on, but that doesn’t mean you need to do so by simply saying “no” by default. Look at each request on its merits (particularly if the originator practices habit #1). See our earlier post on managing with fewer resources for some tips.

Habit #3. Keep calm and carry on

Projects will suffer setbacks, no matter how effective you are. Stay calm and work the problem. Your job is to come up with a recovery plan, execute the plan and restore control. Don’t get angry and “shouty”. People who get angry are usually out of their depth and out-of-control. Every time they get angry they’re advertising that fact. Do something that scares you every day. It will enlarge your comfort zone. News to a calm and in-control project manager with a large comfort zone is neither good or bad – it’s just news.

Habit #4. Drive change

Think several steps ahead. Seek out blockers and remove them before they become issues. If you do have an issue, own it – drive resolution. Make yourself responsible for the solution. Be proactive. Chase people up. Don’t email when you can phone. Don’t phone when you can be there in person. Push the team to do the same.

Habit #5. Focus on the end, not the means

Don’t become a slave to methodology. Your job is to create an outcome, to deliver products, create new capabilities, realise benefits. Never lose sight of that. Ask yourself if filling in all those forms, creating all those documents, chasing all those sign-offs, really will enable you to do a better job. If it won’t, tailor the methodology (no matter what method you’re using, most are designed to be tailored to your circumstances, with few mandatory components). Above all never, ever lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve.

Habit #6. Do detail (but make sure it’s the right sort of detail)

I’ve written before about the importance of being a project manager first, and the pitfalls of trying to be a project doer at the same time. Let your subject matter experts focus on the minutiae of requirements, business processes, detailed designs. The chances are they’re much better at that than you. Where you absolutely must focus is on the core aspects of your job. Make sure budget forecast is accurate, your actuals are up-to-date, your plan reflects reality, you report status truthfully, you’re on top of risks, you have credible plans to resolve issues, and so on.

Habit #7: Enjoy what you do

It’s pretty much impossible to excel at anything if you don’t enjoy it. Work is work. Most of us get paid for it. That’s the deal. It’s called remuneration for a reason. That doesn’t mean it has to be onerous, a chore, something you hate doing. Find ways to make work more fun. If you’re not enjoying your job (at least some of the time), perhaps it’s time to take a long hard look at your chosen career.

Principles of Flight 101

As I said earlier, attitude is important. In business, in life, and in flight, your attitude determines your altitude. Aim high and look to the sky and you have a fighting chance of achieving great things, of soaring with the eagles. Walk around all day with your nose pointing at the ground, buried in the minutiae of what you’re doing, and you risk turning your project into a bit of a turkey.