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People in projects, the final frontier

Adeline Teoh ed.
February 10, 2012

There is no such thing as project success without happy stakeholders. There is no such thing as performance without a functioning team. There are no projects without people.

Late last month I took a passing interest in the 26th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which occurred on 28 January 1986. Seven NASA astronauts died on the flight, which ended when a faulty O-ring caused the ship to break apart just over a minute into its voyage. The disaster also gave birth to the joke ‘What does NASA stand for?’ ‘Need another seven astronauts.’ (Is 26 years too soon for that?)

An alternative reading of that fateful flight did not hold the faulty O-ring responsible for the outcome, instead pointing to the stifling NASA culture that made it difficult for its engineers to highlight potential problems. In many cases, the engineers logged problems that were later dismissed by management as not worth the rework.

Happily, NASA has since learnt from that mistake and is now an organisation world famous for assembling high performing teams. It is only a shame that it took seven lives to drive home the point. If you’d like to find out more about how NASA turned itself around and rebuilt its culture through recognition of its people, their talents and their behaviour, NASA’s former director of Astrophysics Charlie Pellerin will be visiting Australia in March conducting workshops on building high performing leaders and teams.

Another piece that caught my eye was a UK Cabinet Office release which fed the article ‘Major Projects Leadership Academy to stem project failure‘. Apparently, UK Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude intends to set up a Major Projects Leadership Academy to teach senior civil servants how to manage major government projects, largely to successfully deliver projects to the triple constraints, but also to reduce the use of external consultants.

It’s a great idea in theory, but it raises two points in my mind: the unexamined assumption that these senior civil servants want to—and are suitable to—manage major projects, and the impending prerequisite for staff to undertake this course before managing projects of this size.

The increasing professionalisation of project management and having education/training prior to entering the discipline is generally a good thing; many of you think so too according to preliminary results of our survey (all entries by February 20 will go in the draw to win an iPad2). To restrict the management of a major project to a handful who have undergone academy training, however, is dangerous until the government has built adequate capacity to service the more than 200 projects it classifies as ‘major’.

With around 50 people entering the program per annum, it will be several years before the Major Projects Authority should even consider imposing an academy training prerequisite to manage major projects. I only hope they work out how to stem attrition as well; project managers trained on the public coin and snapped up by the private sector is a likely scenario. Then there’s the portfolio question: have they asked ‘are we managing the right projects?’

I admit, though, that you can’t fight a sensible trend. According to a panel of experts from global training organisation ESI International, internal project management certifications in both public and private organisations will come to the fore (see ‘10 project management trends for 2012‘). On the surface it may look a mess with hundreds of organisations setting their own standards, but essentially it indicates that organisations are now investing more in their people and spending the time and effort to align their people to organisational goals and values. And surely that’s a good thing.

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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