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ISSUE 65(FREE READ)

The Project Management Profession as Panacea to Potholes and……

The issues and cases given in this paper are hypothetical and are meant only to raise the issue of why projects fail and what we can do to mitigate failure. Permit me to use a recently constructed (conjectural) road, which is full of potholes after the first rains, as a case study representing a miscellany of private sector projects, which are passed as ‘successful’ on commissioning but in actual fact are failed or distressed projects. I would qualify a road that develops potholes soon after construction as project failure because it is unusable.

On probing why the road ‘failed’ one would ask if the road was constructed according to the planned project baselines.

In other words, was the road constructed according the planned scope, on time, within budget, and meets the quality standards?

If the answer to any of these project baseline questions is no, the ensuing question is “why?” Were the project baseline variations/violations documented, communicated to the relevant stakeholders, and approved according to the project governance framework by the project board? Was there an identifiable project sponsor? What were the documented lessons learnt? Was the PM a trained and certified project management professional, or was he/she an ‘accidental’ PM? Hard questions as they may seem, they are very necessary for any progressive ‘success’ oriented entity. Permit me to ‘skin the polecat in public’ regardless of its stink. Further questions should arise as to the fate of a) the road construction contractor who toasted ‘success’ with a bottle of Moet Chandon, b) the road engineer who inspected and passed the ‘quality’ of the road and got promoted, and c) the official(s) who awarded the contract to the construction company and overtly lives large. Great silence perhaps? I suppose everyone is happy except the road user suffering from unacceptable discomfort from high levels of ‘body bounce’ and high cost of suspension replacement kits. The road would dismally fail the ‘road roughness’ quality test.

As stated earlier this article is based on a ‘hypothetical’ case study and is not to poke fun at or pick on the road engineers in the road authorities at all. It is meant to ask deep questions about the project management practices in Zimbabwean public and private sector organizations, with a view of correcting and mitigating the project failures caused by the cohorts of corruption, skills deficiency, ignorance and mismanagement. The latest Project Management Institute’s (PMI) publication “Pulse of the Profession 2017” (www.pmi.org) reports positive trends in the way organizations are managing projects and programs.

For example, it is reported that there is a significant decline in the dollar lost in projects, e.g. $97 million is lost per $1 billion invested in projects. In other words projects lose around 9.7% perhaps due to cost overruns. This is an improvement from the previous year, which reported $122 million lost per every $1 billion invested, or 12.2% loss. The research is carried out across the globe by soliciting feedback from 3,234 project management professionals. Having the knowledge that the number of Project Management Professionals (PMPs) and PRINCE2 certified professionals are significantly higher in the Americas and Europe, it will suffice to conclude that the findings of the research are heavily skewed towards the developed world.

The question is, if the developed world with advanced and significantly numerous PM skills, is incurring around 10% loss, what are the losses of the developing countries with less advanced and significantly less PM skills? Before you stone me, let me give the facts. I am a Project Management Professional (PMP®) certified by PMI. The statistics I got in a recent research were that the USA has around 1000 PMPs per million population, with Africa at about 6 PMPs per million population. This is a stupendous 17,000% gap! A significant number of organizations in the USA have implemented a Project Management Office (PMO), with many even progressing in maturity to set up an Enterprise-wide PMO (EPMO).

Furthermore these developed countries have set up government PMOs to oversee public sector projects, for example the Major Projects Authority in the UK and the Major Projects Management Office in Canada. Just before leaving office, the former President of USA, Barack Obama, signed into law, the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act of 2015 (PMIAA), which will enhance accountability and best practices in project and program management throughout the federal government (www.pmi.org press release, 16 Dec 2016). I do not profess to have carried out thorough research on PMO implementation in Zimbabwe or any other African country for that matter, but I would hazard a deduction that only a handful of companies are enlightened enough to have a PMO. I know of one Mobile Network Operator and probably a couple of banks that have trained and set up PMOs.

Furthermore I have not come across an African government with a ministry/department that has oversight on execution governance of public sector projects. Most African governments would have statutory entities such as Zimbabwe’s State Procurement Board, with oversight on the procurement process, but no oversight on the execution process. If a public sector centralised or even decentralised PMO exists in Zimbabwe or any other African country, I stand to be corrected. In addition I would like to know if such a PMO is resourced by trained and certified PM professionals.

The Project Management Profession as Panacea to Potholes and…… Engineer Tororiro Isaac Chaza, I would also like to know if there are private sector companies with PMOs manned by qualified rather than ‘accidental’ PMs. The basic question is “what is project success?” Whilst there is no consensus on the definition of the term ‘Project Success’ I proffer the modest definition as such; a project is deemed successful if it is completed according to the planned scope, quality, schedule and cost baselines. Furthermore when the product or service goes live it delivers the desired benefits to the stakeholders, namely the client organization and to the end customer.

A project that incurs scope overruns, cost overruns, and schedule overruns, or does not meet the quality standards, and does not satisfy the stakeholders, or is decommissioned before completion, is deemed a failure. However there are varying degrees of success or failure along this metric continuum. The complication is that you can successfully manage a project, e.g. a multi-story building, but if no one takes occupancy of it, or if the building collapses a few years later then it is deemed a project failure. On the other hand a project may be badly managed with serious baseline violations, but delivers the desired benefits in the long run.

The “Pulse of the Profession 2013” (www.pmi.org) report had a telling statistic, that “high-performing organizations lose 12 times less money than low performers (US$20 million versus US$230 million for every US$1 billion spent on projects).” Low performers incur a loss of about 23%! This, by the way, is in economies that measure and keep track of metrics. If the developed world is making on average a 10% loss on investment, how much loss is being made by developing countries such as Zimbabwe, considering the 17,000% skills chasm? If I were to take a survey or audit of Zimbabwean organizations’ projects I reckon the figure of project loss per invested US$ billion (million to be apropos) would be titanic.

Using the ‘hypothetical’ road construction as an example, here is how the project loss is incurred in layman’s terms:- Assume that a 10 km paved urban road (high level scope) should take 4 months (schedule baseline) to complete at a cost of $10 million ($1 million per kilometer cost baseline). But the status after 12 months is that only 5 km (50% of scope) has been constructed at a cost of $10 million ($2 million per kilometer – 100% cost overrun), and is completed in 12 months (200% schedule overrun). Furthermore the road develops potholes within a few months of commissioning (adverse quality performance).

The reasons for the scope variation, schedule overrun, cost overrun and adverse quality are, among others:-

  1. a) Planning estimates were out due to wrong planning.
  2. b) Planning estimates were correct but project governance was weak and therefore the constructor took advantage and just claimed more work and therefore more money.
  3. c) Chiwoko-muhomwe – (Shona meaning a hand in the pocket, i.e. bribery and corruption) by scheming officials, quality inspectors and constructor resulting in poor quality as specifications were compromised to reduce input costs, yet pricing increased. d) No risks were identified and managed, resulting in serious project delays. e) Client used untrained or ‘accidental’ project managers, who could not match the contractor’s shrewdness. The last point refers to ‘accidental’ project managers. These are subject matter experts, i.e. professionals in their own field but have not been trained and certified in project management and therefore lack the knowledge and expertise of, for example, a certified PMP. Yet they are given the task of managing complex projects. They then run projects without a proper governance structure.

They do not follow proper project management processes, nor do they know how to report on project progress. Yes, they know how to do a project Gantt chart, but they have never heard of metrics such as Schedule Performance Index or the Cost performance Index. They do not know about Risk Management, nor are they exposed to Stakeholder Management. They plod along and ‘accidentally’ and fortuitously deliver a ‘successful’ project, so it seems until an audit of the project is done. The ‘success’ becomes very questionable as high losses are incurred. I have had a go at the ‘accidental’ project managers and yet it is most likely not their fault, as it is the executives in the organizations who are not providing the opportunity for training and up-skilling the subject matter experts with the proper PM credentials, the reason being availability of funds.

It is the executives with proven corporate governance skills but are not project governance savvy. At this juncture I take a poke at the widely practiced corporate governance practices, which are mute on project governance. I would also like to take a poke at the accompanying accounting systems/ practices, which consider human capital and talent development as an expenditure whilst an office chair is deemed an asset.

If perchance you are chaffed by my depiction of a ‘fictitious’ road construction project, it is perhaps time for you to introspect within your own organization and ask questions along the list below:- 1. Does your organization have:-

  1. a Project Management Office?
  2. a Project Governance structure?
  3. Does your organization do any talent development in the area of Project Management?
  4. How do you measure project success in your organization? Or
  5. What are the project success criteria in your organization? If perchance you are now rattled by lack of answers to the questions above, let us try another angle of questions:- 5. How much money does your organization invest in projects in a year?
  6. How much of the investment is lost due to:-
  7. Scope overrun?
  8. Schedule overrun?
  9. Cost overrun?
  10. Rework due to quality problems?
  11. Are your project managers trained professionals or they are ‘accidental?’ I advocate for the correction of this project management malpractice and urge Zimbabwean and African countries and their private and public organizations to invest in appropriate project governance structures and attendant project management training.

The developed economies have invested significantly in the project management profession and continue to do so. African countries are 17,000% behind and will continue to remain behind, incurring huge losses due to project failure, until they/ we realize the need to invest in talent development. Furthermore in this highly disruptive and competitive global environment, inertia in project management skills development is extremely fatal.


Engineer Tororiro Isaac Chaza, PMP®

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