At Kingsfield, much of our work centres around construction projects that are already late, over budget and/or in dispute. One of our strengths is unpicking what’s happened and getting to the root causes. After over 25 years in the industry, I (like many of my colleagues) are frustrated to see similar root causes coming up again and again. Whilst this questions the ability of organisations to learn, we owe it to ourselves to at least aim to identify the ‘red flags’, when they typically occur and encourage more scrutiny in the form of internal or external reviews. The early warning signs are there if you choose to look for them, and if the culture of the company supports this. The flags are waving from the earliest stages of project conception and the strategic decisions that are taken then are fundamental foundations for a project’s success. Whether it’s the ‘correct’ selection of a joint venture partner or alignment between the stakeholders on the project goals, a process designed to focus on known red flags at critical stage gates can reap massive rewards for the risk management strategy and successful outcomes. In my opinion, it is nearly impossible to recover a project that’s been poorly conceived or sold – it’s like trying to turn around the Titanic!
As engineers, we find it easier to identify and act on the ‘hard’ warning signs, for example when a first of a kind technology is being used. In my experience, most of the checklists and reviews during bid development concentrate on a series of ‘hard’ questions based usually on technical lessons learnt from the past. Our experience, backed up by research, suggests that it is often the ‘soft’ issues that derail projects. Those gut feelings that many of us have had, but don’t want to acknowledge or don’t know how to deal with, sit there unanswered and slowly undermine the team’s hard work. Examples are a culture of blame where team members don’t speak up or the burn out of the project manager who’s trying to get by without the necessary resources. At Kingsfield, when we are asked to investigate a project in distress and dig in to the details, it is often these softer issues that are established as key root causes. I believe that we all want to learn, and I also believe that only listening to the head and not the heart (or the gut!) is as bad in business as it is in life. Maybe we could all get more comfortable with listening to and having the courage to act on our intuition – and maybe our projects will benefit?
Karen Cherrill – Director, Kingsfield Consulting