Project Success or Armageddon


Ok we all know about KPIs, LTIs, positive/negative cashflows, WIP, cost reports etc etc. We have dashboards on our laptops spitting out critical data regarding our performance, document management software etc etc. But if you break it right down, what makes a project so bad that the PM pulls the pin before PC.

Consider three simple points

  • the project team
  • the client
  • the budget

My theory is if you can tick all three as acceptable or above, life is great, the project runs safely and financial well, the client is happy for us to build for him again, we all stay until the end and then we spruke about it on our resumes. Of course during the project life these three point can get better or worse but consider them as an average. If we can tick two then life is hard, there may be a reasonable client, but the job is under priced but at least the team gets along and we put it down to experience. If we can only tick one box things are getting serious. Bad client, crappy budget, but the team still gets along, and when we look back a year after PC we only remember the good laughs as we will all probably working for someone else. The worst case, no boxes ticked I shall leave to the end of this missive.

Now say the team is not great, there are some weak links, or in the worst case scenario, the PM has not picked the team, they have been chosen from on high and maybe the leftovers from other projects. Just names to fill in the organisation chart, keep the client happy and you get what you are given.

Now the client. We all have stories about difficult clients. My worst stories are not about clients but the ubiquitous client representatives. Over the last twenty years a whole industry has developed in companies engaged by clients supposedly to look after the client’s best interest, when in fact the only interest satisfied is the representative’s. They have to prove they are necessary so they crucify builders in every which way.

The final one of the trinity is the budget. How many times have you heard PMs say “which bloody lunatic priced this” or a more recent one I heard was “that estimator knows as much about construction as a horse does about astronomy”

Now what happens when none of the three boxes can be ticked. The team is not yours, they have not interacted well, some have left and more hand me downs are parachuted in, the client (more usually his representatives) is impossible and the budget bears no semblance of reality, now we are in trouble. As the great man said “Forget Armageddon, you are in hell already”

Can someone book that one way ticket – please.


We all have them, but we mostly don’t recognize them. They may be family members, managers in the workplace or the old guy you thought was a fool but in hindsight proved to be a pretty wise old bird.

The resources sector has many such people who on the face of it seem world easy, weather-beaten and basically the classic “grumpy old man”. But these are the backbone of the industry. They never read motivational, or self-help books by American Harvard gurus. They have, unwittingly mentored many, many people. often withe either party being totally unaware of what was going on. take the young know it all project manager, two years out of university whose biggest site he has seen is probably his girlfriend’s bare arse. he has no idea about what really happens on site, yet he is a wizard with Primavera, has multiple dashboards on his desktop and can wax lyrically about hours to go, month end forecasting, bloody KPIs, etc, etc. yet has no idea how to manage and pull down and re-assemble a stacker reclaimer or a dragline. Without knowing it his mentors are the people who report to him. Yet often the people with the real knowledge, the backbone of the industry, go un-noticed and not recognised. Sent out to grass whilst the young punk climbs the slippery pole called the corporate ladder.

Long live the grumpy old guy. Hope you read this Dante – I am referring to you, you grumpy old bastard.

Fools aka Pratts

Why do we put up with fools?

Well the first step is to define a fool. Yes we have all met them, worked with them and sometimes we have all been one. If you know you have acted like a fool that’s a start but a lot of people really don’t know when they are being a complete 22 carat unmitigated pratt.

So consider the workplace pratt. The most well known to all of us is Ricky Gervais as David Brent, the bumbling, self deluded manager in the UK tv show “The Office”. Who has never compared their boss to Ricky’s tv character, but the really serious issue is when you have this sort of Pratt who reports to you Well the first step is to define a fool. Yes we have all met them, worked with them and sometimes we have all been one. If you know you have acted like a fool that’s a start but a lot of people really don’t know when they are being a complete 22 carat unmitigated pratt.

So consider the workplace pratt. The most well known to all of us is Ricky Gervais as David Brent, the bumbling, self deluded manager in the UK tv show “The Office”. Who has never compared their boss to Ricky’s tv character, but the really serious issue is when you have this sort of Pratt who reports to you.

Well the first step is to define a fool. Yes we have all met them, worked with them and sometimes we have all been one. If you know you have acted like a fool that’s a start but a lot of people really don’t know when they are being a complete 22 carat unmitigated pratt.

So consider the workplace pratt. The most well known to all of us is Ricky Gervais as David Brent, the bumbling, self deluded manager in the UK tv show “The Office”. Who has never compared their boss to Ricky’s tv character, but the really serious issue is when you have this sort of Pratt who reports to you. Often they believe they are doing a great job, work under the misapprehension that their staff see them as born leaders and their boss thinks they are indispensable.

Bearing this in mind my thoughts went to an incident a few years back when I was Project Manager building a new municipal sewage treatment plant in Mumbai, India. We were working for a large civils company and the client was the equivalent of the local city council. I shall leave the whole Mumbai experience to a separate blog. The team consisted of me, two superintendents, six (yes six) QA inspectors, a project controller, numerous administrators and a dozen drivers, plus various assorted foremen. Everyone accept for me and one of the superintendents were local Indians. The superintendent in question was British and still though of India as the last refuge of the British Empire. I used to get the constant carping of “they do to do it like this in the UK” or “since we gave
them independence the place has gone to the dogs” Curious racist and xenophobic comments considering the basket case that the UK had become. But I digress.

This superintendent was technically very good, a hard worker, honest and loyal. But he was hopeless at managing people and even worse at managing upwards ie to me. In his eyes he was never wrong. The spec was wrong, the drawings were wrong, the consultants were d###heads and the client was off his trolley. All incorrect but not in his mind. This caused unbelievable tension and anyone who has worked in places like India know this attitude leads not to confrontation but to confusion and communication breakdown. I tried everything, the arm around the shoulder, the quiet word, even the threat of a one way ticket.

In the end he had to be convinced that he had to go. But the twist is, and the managing of the situation was, for him to convince himself he had to.

Well he’d did and went!

The Dog and the Tail

There is an old expression: something about the tail wagging the dog, the gist being the person who should be in control is in fact controlled by those he should be controlling. Apologies for the tautology but you get my drift.

The traditional project had a PM at the top of the pyramid and the next level would be site manager, project planner and contract administrator. the next level foremen, supervisers etc. Everyone new their role. The PM reported to the Building/ Construction/ Operations manager and they in turn reported to the Rgional/General Manager. Life was simple, comunication flowed up and down the organisation and everyone new their career path, what they were responsible for, and who they were responsible to.

Times have changed. In a world where the most junior cadet can email the client’s managing director and the first thing the PM knows about it is when the sh*t hits the fan, control of communication has become like knitting fog. OK we have Acconex (but don’t get me started) and other project controls, now that term did not exist a few years ago in Australia. Have you ever heard such American nonesonse “Project Controls Manager”. There is only one person in control – the PM, not some glorified QS.

Anyway I digress.

Back to the tail and the dog. Because the construction industry, in particular within the resources sector, is booming, we have had to hire people who if times were tough we simply would not entertain them. People who were supervising the construction of timber framed housing are now erecting structural steel, not on a domestic sub-division but inside a complex, dangerous production facility. Putting it simply – different rules, procedures, practices and trades. So these inexperienced “newbies” start to rely on advice not from the people they report to as that would show their shortcomings, but they ask the workforce. Before long the guys on the tools are asking for scale rules, contacting suppliers, organising deliveries and bacically running the job themselves. The canny PM spots this early and sorts it out, but if there is a long workforce it can go un-noticed until either someone gets hurt or the jungle grapevine tips him off.

Do you blame the person that hired these people? Normally you would say yes, but when you cannot get anyone who wants to be a supervisor and earn $50K pa less than those he supervisors, you eventually hire someone, anyone.

FIFO for real

There is a great deal of talk in the media about Fly In Fly Out and I suppose Brisbane to Port Hedland which is the same distance as London to Jerusalem, is a fair way to go to work.We mobilsed a week ago so now it is life in the camp for three weeks then back to Brissie for one week! Round trip nearly 10,000 Kim’s or 6,200 miles in the old money so lots of frequent flyer points, long waits at airports, crap airline food and we won’t mention DVT. Is it worth it? Well most of the workforce gross $5,ooo per week and pay more tax in a year than two school teachers earn. They all get free accommodation, flights home and some of the best food I have ever had, plus free Foxtel, WIFI, laundry, transport to work, gym etc etc. And project managers get exactly the same conditions but some earn more than the Prime Minister of Australia. So yes it is worth it. Of course long hours and 13 days straight without a day off is tiring, but the full week at home plus the dollars make it worth while. But there is another side that is often overlooked. You work with people 10 to 12 hours each day seven days a week, you breakfast with them, have dinner with them, wash your clothes with them, and have to listen to them. So situations arise where someone you dined with the previous evening, is someone you have to pull in to line the next day. The secret is keeping a distance from those who are under your responsibility. And if you don’t the consequences become personal. Maybe that is why “the boys” call me an arrogant prick ……… But that’s better than a soft prick.



The IT Crowd

What a breath of fresh air to have an IT department that believes their role is to support operational staff. In other words they exist because we need them and not vice versa. The lifeblood of a company is communication and my new company don’t mouth it they do it. There have been occasions in the past when I have had to literally threaten IT people to be held by their ankles from a window to get them to do what they need to do, so big tick for Amos and his staff.

IT departments when they are a support service do get a hard time and sometimes it is justified. However, when they understand their role and actually sit down with the person with the issue as opposed to hiding behind the dreaded email “help desk”, they then understand what we as project managers need – reliable communication.

Of course as the Project Manager you are responsible for the profitability of the project and IT support gets charged to the job. If you have a problem with a subcontractor for instance you hold the purse strings, but you do not with your company’s internal departments. My new best friend Amos understands that and I take my hat off to him.

Perhaps other IT people could learn from Amos. but if you try to poach him you may have to learn to appreciate hospital food.

Project Controls

The first time I heard this term was a few years ago whilst working in the Middle East in Qatar. In Australia the role is usually described as Contract Administrator, but project controls much better describes the position.

The skills and experience that I have looked for in potential contract administrators can be broadly divided in to three:

  • contract management
  • financial management
  • schedule/programme management (on larger projects this becomes the role of project planner)

Unfortunately on some lesser size projects the contract administrator ends up being the dogsbody who has to manage the subcontractors, submit progress claims to the client, order the stationery and do the filing. So a lot of their time is spent carrying out tasks which they are grossly over paid for.

The concept of project controls ensures that the right people are doing the right job. Unfortunately if you have ever tried to hire an experienced planner who can use say Primavera you will know how difficult it is.

So far I have been talking about the construction industry, mining and infrastructure has even bigger problems. Many companies in this sector simply do not have the systems and expertise to run and deliver projects. There is a reluctance from the mining sector to bring in construction people, yet, here in Australia that is where the boom is taking place and that is where there is a desperate shortage of planners, contracts people and project managers.

Who Wants Sharepoint

SharePoint folks enjoying some Huey Lewis action

I cannot understand why many organisations have or are going down the road of Sharepoint implementation. My experience is in construction project management and have gone through Sharepoint implementation in two companies in the last five years. On both occasions it was sold to us as a document management system – it is a document repository, as simple as that. If you want it to be a management tool you have to get bolt ons or pay through the nose for consultants to adapt it. Instead you can simply buy Acconex, project Centre etc etc and straight out of the box you are managing your document flow, drawing storage, capturing project correspondence and all the other data you need to run projects.

When will IT people understand what we do instead of forcing us to change best practice to suit what they think we need ie collaborative software tools. Managing projects does have some collaboration between the various participants but that is outweighed by the need to have accurate real-time records and systems that are easy to learn, use and manage.I came across a great blog and I have reproduced part of it.

“I tend to agree that Sharepoint sucks. Using it is like closing your eyes, holding your breath and spinning around for thirty seconds. When your done you don’t know where you are, you are very dizzy, and feel like you might throw up… I might create something in one place, but can’t delete it or rename it there. After 15 minutes of searching, I can’t find the same tool I used yesterday to do one thing or another. It’s like that house in 13 Ghosts, everything SEEMS to move around on you… What really bothers me is this is not version one. It is a great idea gone horribly implemented.

STAY AWAY… Sharepoint can be an incredibly useful tool, but in any office where I’ve seen it deployed, it’s acting merely as a web-based front-end to the file-system. If that’s all you’re going to be using it for, you might as well just use the file-system, via Explorer and mapped drives, and do away with the glorified front end.

I absolutely hate sharepoint even though it seems to be serving purpose here of a company with over 9,000 employees. i have to do the support and administrative stuff for it and have several users I can’t get connected to our Portal for some reason we can’t figure out.

Sharepoint…I hate Sharepoint with the passion of 10,000 burning Lotus Notes users…Sharepoint is a decent enough idea but it lacks a logical flow for navigation. Also, sometimes it just seems more cumbersome than it’s worth but eh, it works too.

Honestly, I found Sharepoint so inadequate and typical of a first generation MS product that I could only shake my head at it.  If it was made by anyone else than MS and had to compete on its merits I suspect most of us would have never even heard of it”

So any business that has an IT department as a support service is exposed to having software imposed on it by people who often do not even understand what that business does.

If you find yourself in that position, you can push back and if that fails simply move on

Profit – percentage or dollars

If you were discussing a pay rise with the boss would you ask for a percentage increase or a dollar amount. When you organize your household budget do you ever use percentages?

Of course you don’t, dollars mean cash income, percentages are for government spin doctors and bean counters. If you apply for a car loan or a mortgage the prime question is about how much do you earn ie cash.

So how to change this way of financial reporting? and get away from margins to the real world of cash – dead easy – stop trying to make us all accountants.

Readers have seen my views previously regarding killing off spreadsheets which is aka accountancy current practices. But that is a completely separate discussion. However, it was the bean counter who first started using Lotus 123 and now the expectation of employers is that is how the project manager will report on the project’s financial performance.

When a tender is accepted we know what the client is going to pay and if the estimate is accurate we know our costs. At the financial wrap up we know what we have been paid and what it has cost. The skill in forecasting between these two points in time is aided by using good project management systems such as Jobpac or Cheops.

The margin percentage is just a result of a simple calculation. The cash profit is what shareholders want.

Communication for Project Managers

Project Management Knowledge Areas
Image via Wikipedia

OK you have your first project as PM. There is nowhere to hide, nobody to blame, it is down to you, as we say in Australia “sh*t or bust.

I remember the day I was given my first project, and I mean real project ie tower cranes and unions. I had a mentor at the time and he said once I had delivered the project I should treat myself, and I did. I bought a Tag Heuer watch which I still wear every day. At the time it cost as much as a small car but every time I look at the watch it reminds me of my mentor and how I got my first “real” project under my belt.

I could bleat on about project management, the watch was 16 years ago, but what my current issue is communication and systems. There is  information we store for future use if needed and there is communication which  (I hate to use  IT geek speak) involves workflows.

So what is a workflow and what do we store for the future, workflow is communication that requires response, action, follow-ups and can cost you dollars, storage is what we keep if we have to prove the workflow.

Currently Sharepoint is well used as the storage facility or document repository.

The following quote whose source I have omitted for his personal reasons is seminal:

“In a panel discussion on SharePoint as a social platform, the consensus was that SharePoint contains many of the ingredients of a social application, but by itself doesn’t get you all the way there–not without extensive customization or the addition of a third-party product such as NewsGator Social Sites.”

Unfortunately some misguided IT professional believe Sharepoint can manage workflow as well, and in tandem with being a document repository. They are wrong and out of touch. Project Managers need information in real time and there are many proprietary software packages that will give them the information they need.

I am looking forward to the day when we bury Sharepoint as a workflow engine and linked spreadsheets developed in house to satisfy needs which can be met by software which is already available.