“They’re sometimes compared to superheroes”: Why we all owe a debt to project managers

Sydney Opera House. Image: Getty.

It’s highly likely that you recognise the building in the picture at the top of this page. The Sydney Opera House is, after all, one of the most famous structures in the world. Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, it attracts over 8m visitors a year and provides a massive boost to the Australian economy. Opened 45 years ago in October 1973 by Queen Elizabeth II, its iconic design of enormous precast concrete shells has won numerous prizes and UNESCO World Heritage site status.

Another example of world famous design is Concorde, the turbo jet-powered supersonic passenger airliner that roared over the Atlantic Ocean from 1976 to 2003. Jointly developed and manufactured under an Anglo-French treaty, only two airlines (Air France and British Airways) operated the 14 aircraft which were built to offer speed and luxury.

A trip from London to New York took less than three hours, and cost around £8,000 for a return ticket. In 2006, Concorde won the Great British Design Quest, beating other iconic designs such as the Mini and the London Tube map.

The lesser known element of these two design success stories, however, is that from a project management perspective, they could both be considered as massive failures.

The Opera House was finished ten years late, at a cost that came in a huge 1,357 per cent over budget at A$102m. The project also had a huge impact on the career of the architect, who, after disputes with the Australian government over design, schedule and costs, left the country before the building was completed, and never returned.

And while Concorde was an engineering marvel, travelling over twice the speed of sound, it had cost overruns of over 1,100 per cent, coming in at around £1.3bn. This meant far fewer aircraft were produced than originally planned. It also meant French and British taxpayers were left to pick up much of the tab.

More recent projects have faced similar problems. In Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament Building came in at more than 1,000 per cent over budget, with an estimated final cost of over £400m. The Millennium Bridge in London faced serious safety concerns due to the swaying motion of the structure, which needed to be fixed. Further along the River Thames, the Millennium Dome exceeded predicted maintenance costs and attracted fewer visitors than had been expected.

So why do so many projects end up painfully over budget, frustratingly late or not meeting expectations?


Great expectations

Part of the answer lies in the enormous expectations placed upon the shoulders of the project manager. In the case of the Sydney Opera House, some have argued that in fact nobody really took on that vital role. Utzon was focused almost entirely on design, while the government committee had no technical expertise.

Yet large scale projects come with great uncertainty and myriad stakeholders who must to be managed. Often a number of public and private organisations have to work closely together in order to deliver.

The role of a project manager is crucial – and often underestimated – in these situations. Project managers are (and should be) sometimes compared to superheroes due to the vast range of socio-cultural and technical powers they possess.

They need to be able to lead and motivate teams of different professions, such as engineers and managers. They need to be keen problem solvers. They need to have supreme negotiation skills to deal with a wide variety of interest groups and their often conflicting demands and expectations. They need to be adept at manoeuvring through the politics of such projects with a clear understanding of what the customer wants.

On top of all of this, project managers need technical understanding to manage schedules, organise and coordinate the various work packages, allocate resources and control budgets. Managing massive projects is a truly Herculean task.

Even the most diligent of project managers cannot account for all uncertainties. And the spotlight of media publicity means issues that do arise are often amplified, affecting public and government perception – and potentially restricting future investment.

Long term thinking

For example, a recent report revealed that delays in the UK’s Crossrail project are overshadowing its other notable successes – such as the lack of legal disputes and minimal supply chain disruption, which are not common in projects of this scale. This could potentially harm future investment in transportation – unless a project manager promises to deliver on better timescales. These promises in turn can lead to overly optimistic timescales, with any future delays overly scrutinised.

This vicious circle of over-promising and the inevitable under-delivery would lead to such projects being perceived negatively. Project managers, therefore, often need to maintain a stoic stance in face of short-term “failure” – and not give in to the lure of suggesting optimistic timescales.

Similarly, stakeholders need to appreciate that short-term setbacks are not indicative of the actual value delivered by these large scale projects.

While massive cost overruns and project delays need to be avoided, we should not forget that these kind of project management challenges do not necessarily add up to failure. A number of projects, including the Sydney Opera House, have become iconic symbols for their cities and countries and over time, attracted revenues far exceeding expectations and costs.

They remind us that beauty does not come easy. Large scale projects can create economic and social value, even though the process of accomplishing them is not always pleasant. Human endeavours that are painful in the short term can lead to long term and sustained benefits for all.

The Conversation

Jens Roehrich, Professor of Supply Chain Innovation, University of Bath and Jas Kalra, Research Fellow in Supply Chain Management, University of Bath.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.