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Projects succeed through craft


Author: Mark Thompson, Founder & Managing Director

In the late Nineties, I was involved in building the first series of dual-activity ultra-deepwater rigs. Faced with flat screens and joysticks, the drillers would complain of having lost a ‘feel’ for the beast. In the years since tech has dominated. The same can be said about project management.

When I was coming up, PMs were usually discipline practitioners such as engineers, but also geologists, or even drillers. I’d joined the Navy at sixteen and demobbed six years later as a weapons mechanic. Only then did I go to uni for a bachelor’s degree in electronic and electrical engineering. Once I got into rigs, I came up through Quality and Safety to become an assistant PM, and eventually a senior project engineer.

It struck me recently that this kind of apprenticeship has mostly disappeared. Thirty years after the QA revolution, you’d expect increased quality management and a greater theoretical focus to translate to superior project results.


So why do so many large, complex feats of engineering still fail to achieve their desired outcomes?


I’ve got nothing against codifying project management with a chartered institute and degree programmes. We’ve hired many master’s grads and supported those who want to get the qualification mid-career. Continual learning is a worthy goal, but we’ve lost something, too. The relentless industry focus on standardisation aims to build corporate robustness. That’s admirable but can be brittle, especially on tightly coupled projects.

Today, project management is often deemed a success, even when the project itself misses its targets. They can’t be mutually exclusive. The pursuit of PM compliance does little for a project in the real world. Instead, project mindfulness helps you go beyond standardized conventions. Readiness beats robustness and project value trumps corporate aspiration.

“The pursuit of PM compliance does little for a project in the real world.”

Managing projects successfully is a craft, involving tools and techniques. It’s the difference between the material understanding, feel, and creativity of a master carpenter versus an industrial designer. Both solve problems, but the former have better situational awareness and can keep their heads when others are losing theirs.

And what of tech? Many companies claim their apps use IoT or machine learning to make projects more predictable. But they miss the ‘feel’ from the people involved. Our own tool, Project Horizons, is self-assessment software that regains that feel. Based on aggregated sense-making from your team’s responses, your report will indicate which areas you should explore and where you should focus.

Finally, one risk we’re seeing as the rig market picks up again is a chasm between older rigs and their late-generation offspring. The former still has lots of manual actuators and plenty of stuff that needs a skilled tap with a wrench. The latter are all touchscreens and quiet humming. If you’re looking for practitioners who can handle both, give us a call.


[Image credit, carpenter tools, Alexander Andrews on Unsplash]