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Hobby horses for courses


Author: Mark Thompson, Founder & Managing Director

Harnessing project mindfulness within your team is a key pillar for achieving a project outcome with the desired ROI. We all have the ability but sometimes not the encouragement nor environment in which to express our views openly.

In my career, I’ve been lucky to encounter some outstanding engineers. Those Scotty from Star Trek types who exude quiet confidence about their subject. As a young engineer, therefore, I was a little mystified whenever I heard that projects managed by some of these guys were often a financial bust.

My employer back then looked to the ranks of its senior engineers to meet its project management needs. And why not? Engineers should, and do, make good project managers. During one ‘lessons learned’ session, though, our bosses were lamenting a disproportionate amount of project failures. A colleague spoke up. ‘The reason isn’t because our engineers are no good at managing projects,’ he said. ‘It’s because they’ve become “hobbyists”, tinkering constantly around the edges, but not actually managing the project.’

Their pursuit of engineering perfection would lead to endless changes to the design and scope of work. This myopic focus on the aspect they loved—the engineering—was effectively the greatest factor putting their project outcomes in jeopardy.

His comment was about as welcome as Novak Djokovic at a care home. After all, these were respected senior engineers, and my colleague, like me, was a junior. The executives—instead of addressing whether the current project managers could embrace their project challenges in their entirety—resolved to fix their delivery issues with more processes. To my mind, this made them hobbyists, too, though I kept that to myself.

Project mindfulness over corporate conventions

Tightening systems and procedures is rarely a bad thing but only gets you so far. Conventional corporate thinking breeds more corporate conventions. Engineering perfection is not the goal; engineering is in service to the goal of operating within the boundaries of safety, performance, and commercial outcome.

Squaring up to the elephant in the room, boldly identified by my colleague, requires a shift to a more ‘mindful’ approach. The kind of on-the-job sensing that combats ever present uncertainty by detecting weak signals early before they become issues. This strengthens a project’s resilience to deal with what can’t be known at a project’s sanction.

This is not to denigrate the engineers, who developed many groundbreaking innovations and found remarkable solutions to technical challenges across the upstream energy industry. But when they were put in charge of projects, their passion for engineering became a weakness.

When I shared these thoughts with a colleague this week, he mentioned a phrase from productivity expert Tiago Forte: ‘A goal without a project is a dream. But a project without a goal is a hobby.’ While intended for personal projects, the risk of this mindset lurks in even the largest, most complex undertakings.



[Image credit, San Diego Model Railway Museum, James Lee on Unsplash]