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In retrospect

Those pesky costs keep going through the roof...


How often have we heard colleagues in the maritime sector complain '...the costs just went through the roof'...'?

In the maritime industry we often don't like to think much about project management... I've frequently heard people make excuses, saying 'project management will never work in our part of the maritime industry, because it's not possible to plan X, Y or Z...' What they really means is that they've no idea HOW to plan. I've also had senior industry managers explain to me that it would be unwise to have external help with project management because it could make them look incompetent by highlighting their own shortcomings to their's that for confident, reassuring management?

What is a ‘project’ anyway? A project can be described as a temporary organisation that is created to deliver one or more business outcomes subject to an agreed ‘Business Case’.

Ideally every maritime project would be delivered ‘on time and within budget’, but the unhappy statistics tell a vastly different story. It's common for maritime projects to fail. Even if the budget and schedule are met, we still need to ask if the project delivered the outputs we expected. A project’s success needs to be evaluated on all three components. Otherwise, the project can probably be classed as another 'failure'…

Have you ever seen a situation where your project appears disorganised and out of control – be honest now - and where your colleagues mutter about doom and failure? This situation is especially likely where multiple contractors are involved such as in a major project cargo operation, a large salvage, dry-dock or repair and ‘make good’ operation etc. All the parties involved will have competing priorities and interests. If you're paying the bill and unless YOU manage things properly, their interests aren’t likely to be aligned with your interests, with all the cost and risk that involves!

Have you witnessed situations where everyone is apparently busy doing work but no one party really knows what anyone else is doing? Have you seen contractors working entirely independently saying ‘we’ll do our bit, stuff everyone else’? Even worse is that moment when senior management start to look for a scapegoat as the project slides into anarchy… If you’ve ever witnessed any of those situations, then you’ve been involved in a doomed project.

When projects begin to show signs of stress or failure, everyone looks around for answers. There are many reasons why projects fail and even with the best of intentions projects can go awry if they are not well-managed. A good project manager will be equipped to recognise the warning signs of failure and act. A good project manager will be able to help you ‘turn the ship before it runs aground’ and will use all his or her training, experience and interpersonal skills in communication, leadership, conflict resolution and diplomacy to take the appropriate action.

One relatively simple solution lies in training people, specifically as ‘project managers’. If you don’t, or can’t, do that then outsource the role to a professional. As an industry, we're poor at training any kind of manager. Time again we see businesses simply pull seafarers from their ship or find contractors from a recruiter, give them the title ‘Project Manager’ and expect them to know what to do. Well, it just doesn't work like that... Training in project management isn't expensive, but the consequences of failure always are.

There are some basic requirements and good practices which determine whether a project, any project, is being properly managed. We suggest you use a formal methodology called PRinCE2, where there are seven principles to observe in managing a successful project. Unless all of the principles are applied, it is not a PRINCE2 project and the project is at an immediate and heightened risk of failure.

The seven principles are:

 1. Continued Business Justification – is there a justifiable reason for starting the project that will remain consistent throughout its duration? If there is no justification for the project, it should be abandoned.

2. Learn from Experience – How do you make sure you don’t repeat mistakes made on previous projects. How do you make sure you gather the relevant knowledge from all the project’s participants? PRINCE2 project teams will continually seek and draw on lessons learned from previous work.

3. Defined Roles and Responsibilities – Who is in charge, who is going to do what and what responsibilities do people have? A PRINCE2 project team will have a clear organisational structure and involve the right people in the right tasks.

4. Manage by Stages – How do you manage the task ahead, how do you deliver results? A PRINCE2 project is planned, monitored and controlled on a stage-by-stage basis.

5. Manage by exception – How do you know when things are going wrong? A PRINCE2 project has defined tolerances for each objective and established limits of delegated authority.

6. Focus on Products – What does a good outcome look like, what are you trying to achieve? A PRINCE2 projects focuses on the definition of the ‘product’, including delivery and quality requirements.

7. Tailor to suit the Project Environment – How can a project be set up to manage a situation, either large or small, complex or relatively simple? A PRINCE2 project is tailored to suit the project’s environment, size, complexity, importance, capability and risk.

So, the moral is: please, either train your people to manage a project properly or outsource the role – otherwise the likelihood of the project’s failure is increased enormously. 

Simon Beechinor