Are we out of the woods yet?

Managed woodland and a welcome signpost in Cumbria. Legal framework still applies here!

I wasn’t expecting music at the EVA21 conference this week, but it was there and used very effectively to bring the world of projects to life.

Sarah Shute gave an interesting talk about the importance of legal issues to the project manager. There was an excellent set of clear slides with key points to remember and good advice. However, it Sarah’s was her interpretation of a Taylor Swift song which captured the audience’s attention with Sarah’s on screen lyrics showing how the theme relates to the world of project controls.

Taylor Swift’s song ‘Are we out of the woods yet?’ is about a sense of insecurity experienced during a troubled relationship. It tells the story of incidents in a relationship where the couple get through. After each one, they wonder if they are ‘out of the woods yet’. Will they ever get out of the woods and into a calmer stage of the relationship? It’s not certain. What has brought them ‘into the woods’ is not stated but it is proving very difficult to find a way out.

We all know the feeling of being lost in the woods and searching for a way out. Sarah’s revised the song lyrics to reflect a dialogue between a project manager and the project controller during a project. Evidently some kind of ‘fix’ has been done during the planning to make the schedule ‘fit’ and look good on the surface. However, the schedule is ‘built to fall apart’ and this happens during the project. The project ‘map’ is not accurate and the project ends up ‘in the woods’. The constant dialogue ‘are we out of the woods yet?’, ‘are we in the clear yet?’ reflecting a tense project atmosphere as the project stumble onwards through the issues encountered and reflect on what has led them into this state.

Poor practice or mistakes not spotted during project planning inevitably result in problems with project execution and control. One mistake can lead to another as the project team try to regain control in a very challenging environment. The main message of Sarah’s presentation was that the project manager’s legal awareness can help keep the project ‘out of the woods’ or help find a way out if the project is already having problems. She listed a range of legal risks which can embroil the project and gave top tips for keeping ‘in the clear’ and avoiding getting into the legal ‘woods’ in the first place.

Project managers can benefit from more training and support on legal issues and should not be afraid to seek advice from others who have more expertise and knowledge of this territory. Well done and thanks Sarah Schutte and credit to Taylor Swift for helping us to get some insight into a difficult topic and enabling lively discussion.




Knights in Shining Armour and the importance of Project Controls

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I just got back from the EVA21 conference in London. A hectic couple of days in the historic setting of the Armourers Hall in London. EVA21 is a conference organised with Steve Wake and is associated with the Project Controls community. For many years, Steve was the Head of the APM Planning and Control Special Interest Group (more on this later).

Firstly, the venue. If you want to steep yourself in English history this is a good place to start. The Armourers are a guild of craftsmen making suits of armour set up in 1322, and given a Royal Charter by Henry VI in 1453. They set up their headquarters near Moorgate in London and have been there since. The building certainly impresses with its historical significance and also the attentiveness and courtesy of its staff. At the bottom of the staircase, a suit of armour announces that I have arrived in the right place. Halfway up the stairs a magnificent silver piece of a knight on horseback. Really quite distracting, especially seeing a member of staff pick it up and take it away for polishing!

The venue is appropriate for a ‘Project Controls’ themed conference with the emphasis of monitoring project value, the Armourers’ motto ‘make all sure’ is displayed on coats of arms throughout the building. This refers to the security of a suit of armour but also could be taken as a metaphor for project controls, ensuring the project is on track by comparing information on actual progress versus planned progress.

In 1703, the Armourers amalgamated with the Brasiers who produced brassware. The guilds were in similar areas of craftsmanship and were stronger together. The motto ‘we are one’ also displayed prominently in the building emphasises the two guilds see their future together and are committed to joint working. A shining example of all being one is when a member joined the guild, they committed to buying a silver spoon. This was engraved with the member’s name and kept in the guild. A priceless collection is now on display, so the guild has left a legacy for future generations in their beautiful craftsmanship and this historic building.

Today, the ‘We are One’ motto could refer to the interdependence between Project Controls and Project Management functions. The Project Manager needs consistent, reliable information on project progress in order to make decisions and obtains this from Project Controls. Project controls needs the Project Manager to interpret the information on progress and make the right decisions to keep the project on track and address any issues. Without effective project management, the project controls function is just an observer. Without an effective project controls function, the project manager is operating in the dark.

The project manager may be compared to the knight. They may be regarded as heroic but they rely on effective use of resources (horse, armour, weaponry) provided by others. Project controls will ensure all the resources are there. They also have to make sure the project has reins and stirrups to accelerate or decelerate progress!

Do all projects and organisations have a Project Controls function? Well yes, they all have this function but for small projects, it may be one of the responsibilities of the project manager, perhaps with an assistant to help gather information. In larger projects, the Project Controls function has evolved to take responsibility for gathering project data, reporting and ensuring its accuracy. In some organisations, Commercial Management may combine with Project Controls be part of a ‘Project Office’ function, procuring the resources needed and managing the contracts. It’s back room stuff but very important. As Napoleon said ‘an army marches on its stomach’. If the army is not fed, there will be no progress.

The Planning and Controls Special Interest Group is the voice of the Project Controls community within the Association for Project Management. It is a very industrious group which has produced a range of impressive publications and guidelines on Project Controls for the APM community. I attended the EVA21 conference because I was interested in becoming more involved in the Special Interest Group on Project Controls. The final photo is me in the impressive Court Room of the Armourers Hall, immediately prior to being elected to the committee. I hope that being involved in the committee, I can help build a bridge between Project Controls and Higher Education. I would also like to see more activity related to project controls in the North West region.

We are one and committee members really need support of members to ensure these aims are translated into effective actions. Your comments and offers of help are welcome!

Personal Best in Project Management


Last week we attended the APM conference where Marc Woods gave an inspiring talk about achieving  world class performance.  A signed copy of his book ‘Personal Best’ was in the goodie bag given to delegates. I started reading on the train on my way home and continued over the weekend. According to the book cover ‘Marc was diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, had his leg amputated and went on to win four Paralympic gold medals.’ The book is a mixture of personal stories from Marc’s own experience, inspirational stories about others who have overcome adversity or achieved athletic success and practical ‘how to’ advice for those seeking to improve performance of individuals and teams. True to the message in the book, although Marc’s name is on the cover – there are important contributions from a range of experts including his coach, Lars Humer.

There is lots of good advice here for project managers. For me, the best chapters were on teamwork and communication. In ‘teamwork’ stories from competitive relay swimming emphasised the importance of the team sharing a common goal. Of course this is well known but Marc emphasises that team discussions are needed to establish what success looks like and how each individual can best contribute. The role of the leader is in facilitating the communication and in assigning tasks to individuals to best achieve the team goals. In the chapter on communication, we have good advice on giving and receiving feedback. Also, there is important advice on seeking feedback in order to improve and in evaluating feedback and deciding whether to act on it or to ‘let it go’.

Marc emphasises that the idea of ‘personal best’ is not just for athletes but can be applied in any walk of life. The healthcare worker with an off-hand manner who does not treat patients as individuals is failing to achieve their personal best in their role. Project managers need mentors and team members who can point out where we can improve. The book has practical advice on goal setting and on the focus, commitment and practice needed for achieving mastery or personal best. This advice is general enough to be applied to many subject areas from sport to the business arena.

The book is an inspiring combination of stories and practical advice. By telling his own story, Marc convinces us that adversity and challenging circumstances can be overcome and can provide the motivation to improve performance. Marc does not gloss over the effects of serious illness, sometimes health challenges cannot be overcome but we need to make ‘personal best’ use of the time that we have to make a positive difference.

Moving from knowing to doing, requires goals, dedication and practice, tracking of performance and support and understanding from a team. Achieving high performance also needs support from friends and family and Marc pays tribute to those who supported and inspired him, especially his father.

The takeaway message is summarised in the closing lines. Marc asks us to take away:
– a desire to live life to the full,
– the inspiration to be the best we can be,
– the determination to strive to constantly improve and
– the courage to live life without regret.

Uplifting and inspiring words for the APM conference delegates to take away, reflect and act on in the coming year. Perhaps a good starting point is to define what is ‘personal best’ for us and the steps we will take to move closer to this in the year ahead.