“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.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.