Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Managing public sector projects: What determines success or failure?

Over the last few years there have been several initiatives in the UK and elsewhere aimed at building the project management capacity of the public sector. In the UK, the Major Projects Authority was established in 2011 to provide independent assurance to government about the progress being made on governmental projects, and to support the development of a skilled cadre of governmental project leaders. This was followed by the establishment of a Major Projects Leadership Academy to develop leadership capability and build technical and commercial know-how. The latest version of the Civil Service Capabilities Plan (the 2014 ‘Annual Refresh’) confirms that ‘delivering successful projects and programmes’ is one of four key priorities for skills development in central government.

The backdrop to these initiatives is a well-established rhetoric concerning the likelihood of failure in public sector projects. The strength of this rhetoric can be accounted for partly by the greater public scrutiny to which governmental projects are subject and thus the high-profile nature of ‘failure’ when it occurs, and partly by a tendency in some circles to view public sector management as somehow inherently lacking.

Despite the possibly heightened tendency to look for and find failure in public sector projects, it is nevertheless valid to ask why projects fail, whether in the public or private sectors, and what could be done to increase the chances of success. This is an especially relevant question in the current climate of austerity, with extreme pressure being brought to bear on public spending and on achieving the maximum ‘value’ from resources.

How, then, to increase the likelihood that projects, whether in the public or private sector, will be successful?

The usual starting point, in answering this question, is to underline the importance of leadership, of technical and managerial skills, and of ensuring that projects are soundly based on established methodologies. This latter point can be seen in the Civil Service Capabilities Plan, which emphasises the importance of ‘drawing on project management disciplines and methodologies to achieve predictable, consistent, robust results’ so that the Government’s priorities can be delivered ‘right first time’. This emphasis on applying established methodology reflects the nature of the professional discipline of project management, which emphasises a rational, technocratic and managerial approach in which an established ‘Body of Knowledge’, representing established good practice and applicable to any project, is to be consistently applied.

This technical approach to project management, founded on a linear process for initiating, planning, executing and closing a project, provides a valuable foundation for building project success, but it only takes us so far in understanding why projects go off the rails.

A wider perspective, and some important clues about project failure, are offered by a recent study (Haji-Kazemi et al 2015) which focuses on understanding what happens when early warning signs about a project’s progress are identified. Such signs, whatever source they rise from, should be important triggers that feed into project scrutiny and, if necessary, into corrective action which in turn should help to increase the chances of project success. In practice, however, early warning signs are frequently neglected or misinterpreted. The reasons for this, as Haji-Kazemi et al discuss, are variously organisational, psychological and political. 

Organisationally, choices have to be made about what kind of project information to monitor. Decisions made at this stage can crucially affect what information gets through. Psychological factors include a well-established tendency in project management towards ‘optimism’ bias (Flyvbjerg 2009), defined as a tendency to be overly positive about the outcomes that are likely to arise from planned actions. This creates an inherent bias towards over-estimating benefits and under-estimating time, cost and risk. A further psychological tendency that can contribute to a neglect of warning signs is a tendency towards ‘normalisation of deviancy’ as problems become familiar and so begin to be accepted as part of the norm, creating ‘a perfect petri dish environment for corporate (or project) misbehaviour’ (Pinto 2013: 377). Political factors, reflected in the role that power plays, affect what type of information is allowed to influence decision-making. Taken together, these organisational, psychological and political factors can have a considerable influence on the extent to which early warning signs are detected and acted on, and thus on project success. Significantly, Haji-Kazemi et al identify that the likelihood of these factors causing distortions increases as project complexity grows. Although their work was focused on the private sector, this is a highly relevant finding for the public sector project manager, as public service projects tend to be characterised by multiple objectives and multiple stakeholders – both of which go hand in hand with a large dose of complexity.

What does this information mean, then, for project management and for governmental projects in particular?

First, there is nothing in these findings that detracts from the importance for project success of managerial capacity, technical know-how and skilled leadership. All these components of sound project management need to be brought to bear on ensuring that the barriers to recognising and acting on early warning signs are minimised. We also need to recognise, though, the importance and significance of the organisational, psychological and political factors that play into project management. While project management disciplines and methodologies provide a foundation for identifying early warning signs, they do not of themselves guarantee that these signs will be acted on. Studies by Haji-Kazemi, Pinto and others indicate that the key components in this respect go much wider than the project manager or leader, and include the nature of the organisation’s culture (especially an openness to discussion and a willingness to learn), the use of external scrutiny to provide for objective assessment that is freed from internal bias, and an approach to governance that encourages and rewards reflection and transparency.

These findings about why early warning signs may be neglected suggest that organisations need to frame the ‘problem’ of project management failure more broadly. While accepting that project management skills and capacity are part of the answer to this problem, organisations also need to understand the deeper roots of project failure, and to develop their corporate capacity for openness, learning, external scrutiny and effective governance. Otherwise, no amount of training for project managers and leaders will increase the chances of project success.

Flyvbjerg, B., Garbuio, M. and Lovallo, D. (2009). Delusion and deception in large infrastructure projects: two models for explaining and preventing executive disaster, California Management Review, Vol 51 (2), pp. 170–193.

Haji-Kazemi, S., Andersen, B. and Klakegg, O. J. (2015). Barriers against effective responses to early warning signs in projects, International Journal of Project Management, Vol 33 (5), pp. 1068-1083.

Pinto, J.K. (2013). Project management, governance and the normalisation of deviancy, International Journal of Project Management, Vol 32 (3), pp. 376-387.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Of magma and craters: The surge of the far-right in Germany

hearted and quickly aborted ‘November Revolution’ showed that Germans lack the vigour and focus of the French or Russians when it comes to revolutionary endeavours, confirming the poet Heinrich Heine’s adage that the German oak tree lends itself badly to be transformed into gallows for the wealthy and powerful. In 1923, a fascist rabble-rouser called Adolf Hitler tried to conquer power in Bavaria, unsuccessfully for the time being because he had not yet understood that he would be more successful by counting on the German electorate and the compliance of liberal and conservative elites instead of forcing his way to power with violence only. In 1938, Germany’s Jewish population was given a taste of even more horrible things to come during the pogroms of the ‘Kristallnacht’, one of the most barbaric and visible first steps towards the Holocaust. And finally, in 1989, the Berlin wall fell, marking the end of the division of Germany.

Nothing out of the ordinary could be reported for the 9th November 2015, but in the mid-sized city of Dresden this Monday bore again witness to a deeply worrying weekly spectacle: a demonstration of thousands of followers of PEGIDA, an organisation that presents itself as a collective of concerned Europeans fighting against the Islamisation of the Occident.

In recent months, events in Dresden have gained some space on the news agenda in countries like Britain, but I would argue that this attention has often been based on two misconceptions regarding first the question as to what PEGIDA represents, and secondly the equally important matter of what it actually is. Let’s look into these two points in turns.

While it may be fascinating to ask why this movement has managed to sustain its mobilisation in Dresden to an extent unseen in any other parts of Germany (and there are local factors that could explain this conundrum), asking this question implies that PEGIDA is a localised problem, something that neither other German cities nor the rest of Europe need to worry about. Instead, it makes more sense to see Dresden as the crater, the visible exit, for magma that is bubbling under the whole of German society.

This magma, to stick to the geological analogy, consists of two interconnected political forces: On the one hand, we can observe in Germany as much as in many other European countries especially of the North and East a considerable number of people whose worldview is aligned to what the sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer calls ‘group-focused enmity’, in other words a set of core beliefs that considers other human beings, because of their belonging to specific social groups such as ethnic minorities, as being inferior. On the other hand, German society has in the last years been marked by the presence of a highly violent activism of the far-right, which strangely enough usually fails to attract the attention of international media observers who are normally so quick in falling over themselves to laud the virtues of the German model, be it with regards to its economic success or its presumably consensual, mature politics. According to the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, since 1990 178 people have been killed by right-wing extremists; since the beginning of this year, there have been 637 criminal acts against refugee accommodations including arson, often committed by persons who are not yet known to the security forces (even though one shouldn’t read too much into this, given that the scandal around the ‘National Socialist Underground’ has shown to what extent there is an opaque link between right-wing terrorist groups and the security apparatus).

In the magma chamber of contemporary Germany, these hitherto largely separated two strands of xenophobic racist ideology and far-right activism seem to have come together, forming a volatile brew that erupts with a foul stench from the crater that is Dresden.

If this is indeed the case, the question as to what PEGIDA is becomes important beyond academic debates, given that it may allow for insights into what is bubbling under German society. In the media, terms such as right-wing populism, ‘Wutbürger’ (angry citizens) or ‘the frustrated’ are frequently used, demonstrating a certain insecurity as to how this movement ought to be categorised. But looking at how the movement presents itself and its concerns and objectives, some key themes emerge. There is a clear focus on defending German society against an enemy from both within (political elites that PEGIDA considers to be complicit in opening the country to its outside adversaries) and the outside (Muslims, refugees, unwanted foreigners); a sense of being betrayed by those in power; an urge to keep Germany ‘pure’ to prevent its further decline and to address with strong voluntarism its presumed profound crisis.

Going through that list, it is striking that these views correspond neatly to the definition of fascism given by the historian Robert O. Paxton (2004). Therefore, things become much clearer and we can start calling a spade a spade, or in this instance a fascist a fascist, without being too cagey about offending anyone.

Now, qualifying PEGIDA as fascist is not the same as being overly alarmed. Fascist movements have only ever got to power when they found support among conservative and (to a lesser extent) liberal elites, when they confronted a dysfunctional political system that had lost the ability to regulate social conflicts and political questions in a legitimate way. Despite the profound crisis of European polity, we are not yet there. But it seems crucial to be careful and to keep an eye on these developments that seem unlikely to get better before they get worse.

Which brings me to my final point: As unpleasant as the regular sight of PEGIDA in the picturesque centre of Dresden may be, at least this crater allows us to look into the magma chamber underneath, to frequently gauge the latter’s condition. It is not much, but in a period when the far-right with its reactionary and aggressive rhetoric and worldview gains ground almost everywhere in Europe, one can’t be picky when it comes to ‘good news’.

Paxton, R.O. (2004). The Anatomy of Fascism. London: Penguin Books.