“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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.