This month, M Moser’s Steve Gale examines the weakest link – us!

Scenario 1 – Workplace projects are delivered on time and on budget with cordial professional relations frequently evolving into lifelong friendships. The management of the process allows many little extras to be added, culminating in outcomes far beyond even the most optimistic expectations.

Meanwhile back on planet earth…

Scenario 2 – Every project is a one-off prototype, a symphony of imperfections trying to be all things to all men, on a budget that gets compressed into a black hole, with good ideas guillotined by events that no one anticipated.

Do we know why this second scenario is more common than the first? Is there one place we can look to improve the end product?

The familiar project team consists of professionals who know their stuff. On both client and supplier side you can have an impressive array of people who are talented, well trained and have seen it all before, but this is not enough to guarantee a successful outcome.

The management doctrine of a project is clearly reflected in the Gantt charts, which show a sequence of cascading events leading to hand-over and beyond. It’s all too predictable. Even if a project programme is rigorously updated as things change, it can only depict resources, tasks and time. The unrepresented factor is how people actually operate.

Even when professional ability on all sides is beyond reproach, a satisfactory project delivery can still be at grave risk. I want to look at the ‘soft skills’, which are not easy to judge or describe, but which are critical nonetheless. If we could improve our performance here, the tide of misery would begin to ebb, until stress and anxiety become history, like smallpox.

Let’s assume that our team is competent in eachseparate discipline. What can possibly go wrong?

Project delivery is threatened by a subtle virus that lives outside of professional expertise, and yet can have the greatest impact on output. The ability to work together and exercise judgement can make the difference between success and failure. I can think of four examples that illustrate this theme, which I expect will be familiar to many of you.

“Teams take time, as well as effort, to become effective. They can’t run the day after they are born”

First, we know that teamwork is essential in all commercial endeavours, but do people study the mechanics of teams to increase the chances of them working? Team members will carry their own set of expectations and roles that do not come in their job description, but project leaders hope that a collection of competent individuals will synchronise perfectly after their first handshake. Teams take time, as well as effort, to become effective. They can’t run the day after they are born.

A second blight is the way decisions are made, recorded and acted upon. We have all worked on a scheme that has been approved by a client and then sent back to the drawing board by a higher authority.

Getting a clear understanding of who really makes decisions and signs things off can be as tricky as it is essential. Often, even the client team does not know for sure. A large capital project may not be their day job, and their decision structure might not be defined and tested.

A third critical area of people management is communication. In business it is almost impossible to over-communicate, and thinking about channels, content, timing and provenance will never be wasted effort. Simple misunderstandings can inflict serious harm to the most robust project trajectory.

Finally there is pace. You can always compress and speed up a process but people are less compliant.

New thinking takes time to sink in – and forcing things can put a team into an irreversible tailspin. The natural speed of psychological acceptance is not a calculation, it takes judgement most likely found on the right lobe of the grey matter, but is no less critical for that.

Everyone benefits when we value the people skills needed to lubricate a project. We need to respect diplomacy and judgement in every job, not just as desirable attributes, but as critical ones. Each project team needs savvy in areas not taught in school, and often not high on the register of interest for practitioners, but which can make the difference between success and failure.

When people enjoy trust, respect and transparency from their colleagues, they will be closer to delivering Scenario 1.