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What Your Project Needs Is a Friend
By Paul Slater

When I think of all the projects and programs I’ve been involved in as a team member, project manager, assessor or in any other capacity the one thing that stands out is the considerable amount of groupthink that goes on. I’ve been as guilty as the next man of stoking the groupthink fire and shooting down anyone who suggests alternatives that don’t match my own thoughts.

Even the smallest projects can have a myriad of stakeholders. Some may have perfectly legitimate concerns and reasons to express opinions on how things are being managed or the rate of progress. Some of course, let’s not actually call them stakeholders, simply have the ability and the authority to express opinions – hardly useful in any environment. Maybe it has something to do with projects and programs in large complex organizations but what is increasingly evident is the attitude of ‘Me First’ amongst many who are involved in and around projects. What I mean by this is the presumption that the success of a project will have a positive impact on the career of individuals. Likewise, it means that they will do all they possibly can to avoid being associated in any shape or form with difficulties or project failure.

Now this may sound like commonsense but what I see is difficult decisions being avoided simply because in order to deal with significant risks and issues hard work has to be undertaken and others may notice things aren’t going as well as they might be. What people forget is that all projects have difficulties along the way and the more complex a project the more complex the difficulties will be that have to be dealt with.

The consequence of all this is that project monitoring and project reporting ‘up the chain’ becomes something of a joke with everything being positive or green (for those who like traffic light systems). Even ‘amber’ warnings are annotated as being the fault of groups or people outside of the project team. These issues only come to a head when push comes to shove and something significant isn’t delivered (and it can’t be hidden). Or maybe an external independent team comes in to review the project and starts asking difficult questions. Such a Peer Review team will not have been subject to the groupthink that often permeates project teams and the large organizations they reside in.

So what is it that a one off review team can see that others don’t?

Well, for one thing they will have a remit of concentrating on the outcomes of the project itself and will not have any concerns of the project staff themselves. This is critical because what often happens is that review teams get drawn from the wider organization and they find it both difficult to concentrate solely on the project given that their colleagues are involved and also they will suffer the same groupthink as the team itself, but at an organizational level. For groupthink here we could call it ‘culture’ – the way things happen here. An external independent team will not suffer in the same way and providing they have an understanding of the ‘culture’ and how internal processes work will provide a much more realistic assessment of project progress and likelihood of success.

So how can projects improve this situation?

Well it’s not realistic to get an external review team in regularly although building such peer reviews in for long-term projects and programs is good practice. No, a more pragmatic approach that works well is for the project to find a friend. Not the Project Manager or Sponsor, the project itself needs to find a friend, someone who will ‘tell it like it is’ for the benefit of the project itself. Often described as Critical Friends, these people will act in a similar way to a Non-Executive Director on a company board. They may well sit on the Project’s own board and will at the very least report their views to it. And, as with the Peer Review Team their remit will be to view project progress, organization, structure, anything in fact and consider how ultimate project success will be impacted – nothing else.

This may well give rise to views coming forward that no-one wants to hear or wants to ignore and hope go away. A real friend would never ignore what needs to be said for the benefit of their friend so why should it be any different for a project’s best friend?

Paul Slater owns Mushcado Consulting and is based in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom. He offers consulting services to private and public sector businesses and specializes in facilitating change, reviewing projects and delivering training that really makes a difference.

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