Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke

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Who owns all the oranges?

Photograph © Paul Downey 2012

PRINCE2 promotional literature

January 5, 2013

Project principles and problems

Industry needs planners, people who see what’s needed in the future to grow a business seamlessly and economically. Companies sometimes transform how they work in order to become more efficient or take advantage of new technology. When they make these changes a team of people is needed to make the alterations without affecting day-to-day business, and may be outsiders or in-house staff. Types of projects run by these groups can range from small changes to a wholesale rebuilding of facilities. Somehow this has to be managed and over the last 15 years the PRINCE2 methodology of administration has become a popular choice for firms large and small.

The basic principles of PRINCE (which stands for PRojects IN a Controlled Environment) were developed in the 1980s by the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency, a UK government agency, for use in information technology projects. It became popular in other industries and was released as the generic management method PRINCE2 in 1996.

Since then it has been adopted as a standard around the world with UK government departments often insisting that companies bidding for contracts be qualified practitioners. An industry has grown up around this to provide training and there are consultancies that exist purely to manage projects without any need to know what industry the company is involved in.

This is the essence of PRINCE2, an applied set of principles that will help a project run smoothly regardless of the industry. The processes are commonsense to anyone who has experience of working in projects with seven stages including starting and closing a project and managing the elements in between. These are then complemented by seven principles and seven themes running within the seven processes. It’s a very structured method of running a project which, in my experience, handles real life very badly.

Having worked on broadcast engineering projects alongside staff from more than 50 companies over the last 15 years and seen the transition from using managers who know the business they are dealing with to PRINCE2 qualified ones who sometimes don’t, I’m unimpressed with the methodology’s application in most cases. In fairness most of the jobs I’ve worked on haven’t used it and not all the ones that have were disasters. My lack of faith stems from seeing it create a superiority complex in its practitioners.

They no longer need to know the details of what happens beneath them provided the plan is adhered to, no matter which circle of hell that plan was formulated in. The most common question asked by PRINCE2 managers when a problem occurs, as they always do, is not why it’s happening, but when it will be fixed. Asking why would allow a broader discussion of the effects of an issue and give everyone a greater understanding of what needs to be done to rectify it. Asking when simply changes the date on a piece of paper and that’s a way of working that can only lead to upset for those at the top.

More than anything PRINCE2 is good for the head of a company as it allows them to stay remote from the running of a project but receive regularly updated paperwork. It’s a lot easier to look at a spreadsheet or a report and see that everything is checked off on a list than to become involved in the day-to-day running of the job.

This system is, however, only as good as the man who ticks the boxes. This aspect leads to a regular shuffling of responsibility as when the CEO is removed from the details, it’s easy for those that report to him to claim there are minor problems further down the chain rather than face the fact that a storm may be brewing.

The biggest issue can often be that the people in charge don’t understand the work being done as they have gained their experience in another industry, leading them to make assumptions in their paperwork. That’s not to say that people can’t swap industries and bring a different level of expertise or a new way of thinking that is beneficial, there are plenty of managers who do.

The problem is with those who proclaim their knowledge of everything after a few days. This isn’t just based on personality clashes or a rejection of a new way of working, it’s dangerous to have someone inexperienced steering a project when a decision they make could throw weeks of valuable work away (a situation I have experienced).

The fact that projects are being done with tighter budgets doesn’t help and it often irks staff that they have to work harder for a profitable company when a little extra money could help things run more smoothly. It’s a symptom of the short term view that many companies now have that investment in people at the bottom, where there is often youth and eagerness, is no longer seen as worth it.

I have several times seen companies cut budgets and dwindle staff numbers in order to bring in more management layers, a modus operandi that only leads to despondency in the lower ranks. The longer this carries on the nearer to despair staff members get and the more likely they are to leave.

Unfortunately this style of management can forget it’s dealing with people, who aren’t taken into account aside from being assigned roles and responsibilities. It dissociates people from the job they’re doing by emphasising discussion about the work to be done over the actual work. Interminable meetings take place because the process says they must.

Further alienation can occur because PRINCE2 has its own language which, unless you’ve taken the course, may not be obvious. Terms like timelines (when things need to be done) and deliverables (what things need to be done) are the simplest to understand, but when more complex jargon takes the place of everyday English it only serves to isolate staff members who are not part of the club. The Plain English Campaign in an article in 2009 even suggested poor communications caused by complexity of language in the finance industry may have contributed to the failure of the banking system and the economic crisis we now find ourselves in.

There have been plenty of times I’ve sat comatose in meetings wondering whether I was the one in the wrong for not knowing what was going on, but decided very early on I wasn’t. Returning to the earlier point about superiority, the worst practitioners of this are also the most jargonised. Admittedly, for the most part I made very little effort to find out what it all meant as there would always be five minutes at the end of the hour where reality would set in and the real work could be discussed.

Alternatively, and more commonly in my experience, those who do the work on the ground have a discussion outside meetings (offline I believe it’s called in the business) and decide amongst themselves what work needs to be done and what information should be passed to the project manager to appease the paperwork.

This quite obviously has no accountability and is merely a demonstration of human beings’ ability to adapt to situations that are too cumbersome to work with. In days gone by (about five years ago) it was sufficient to send a weekly report to a manager which contained all the dangers ahead, the things that had been done since Monday and the planned work for the following week. They would review it, comment on anything they felt needed it and ask about anything that hadn’t been done, and more importantly why.

That’s accountability; the difference being that the engineer always knew what work needed to be done that week and any reason it wasn’t had to be explainable. Bosses weren’t meaner five years ago, they just had more trust in their staff because they had generally worked in the industry themselves and easily recognised the abilities of all their staff.

Finally my assumption is that PRINCE2 is considered not just to be more efficient but cost effective as well. The government’s IT projects might not be a good advertisement but from my own experience I can’t really see the advantages of layer upon layer of management, particularly for smaller projects. Large projects can definitely benefit as there has to be some structure to prevent them falling apart but projects used to run reasonably smoothly without applying an expensive commonsense methodology, people just did the jobs they were paid to do.

In any team, there will always be different skills and strengths and there will always be good and bad managers. PRINCE2 isn’t going to change that, no matter how many made-up words are spoken.

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© Oran Burke 2014. All rights reserved.

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