Problem solving, increasing value, streamlining process, and improving performance.
These endeavours give me purpose.
But how to do this in the most efficient manner? This requires investigation.
Of failure rates
(Where are there the biggest problems?)
Of the arenas of failure
(What seems to be causing the most disruption?)
Of failure mechanisms
(What are the root causes of the disruptions?)
Two areas of interest embedded into my psyche:
Mining and projects.
So it is at these crossroads where an investigation began...
Over the past year, I have monitored and read a lot of articles, webinars and discussions on several project management websites and discussion forums.
What I found was pretty shocking - that rates of project failure were hovering around 70% across all industries, and for many, many, different reasons - one particular site listed 22 different categories (although one could argue that there was plenty of overlap between some of these!)
The primary issues most repetitive and appealing included:
communication, expectations, team alignment, and planning.
You see, I’m a collaborator by nature, and I enjoy bringing people together to work on challenging projects, to brainstorm and find solutions and build on each others’ knowledge areas, and to put plans together to get things done. I also enjoy mentoring and raising awareness in people on various topics, helping them to understand and respect the perspectives of others, so that they might broaden their thinking on who to engage in their work for better outcomes. Helping others to interpret expectations and gain alignment to move together on one path forward is key.
Through this review phase, I noted one other important thing:
there are plenty of options for generalized project management training,
in person or online.
Plenty about standards, and the tools necessary for good project management, the steps necessary to achieve good performance.
So why do project failure rates continue to be so high?
Is it because the training is too high level? - After all, the devil is in the details, and the details are different for every sector, every sub-sector. And one might suggest,
Particularly in the natural resources sector.
Where there are many influences, on multi-phase project scopes, multi-year schedules, and both internal and external approvals to proceed to execution.
Where the needs for stakeholder engagement, and communication management are critical.
And where the number of communication channels are drastically increased over smaller scale, less complex projects.
For these reasons, I decided to investigate whether there was an opportunity to develop more hands-on, applied training for project managers and designers working within mining - or for those wanting to enter the sector.
I felt that there was a need to focus more distinctly on the issues that arise in just this sector to truly make an impact for improving its project success rates.
To be most beneficial, research was conducted in three separate ways.
The first included a review of popular topics online and focus areas in project management in general. Just to see where some common problems are, across all industries.
The second involved reviewing relevant risks and issues in relation to mining developments and closure of mining sites. Combining the results of these with common project issues would determine where overlaps existed, and where gaps may need filling - both aligned with the intention of finding better solutions and improvements for the industry.
The third part of the research was conducted by interviewing various people working within the mining and natural resources sectors, both within supporting project management roles, and within management streams of mining organizations. This part of the research was smaller in scope, but allowed exploration to a level of detail into why some issues keep surfacing, and to extract some recommendations on how things might be improved.
Throughout the interviews, the main intention was to find out where challenges exist with respect to gaining approvals for mining projects - both internally and externally - and for barriers to attaining good project performance.
This particular article focuses on the first two parts of the research - a summary from an online review. Another article will follow tallying the results of the interviews.
Project Folks are Talking About...
In general, the following short list of popular topics was found on project management sites and discussion forums:
- Project failure rates and causes, with the most common issues quoted as poor scope definition, poor planning, scope creep and related change management issues, and of course - poor communications.
- What defines project success, with most feedback suggesting success is meeting client and stakeholder expectations, on time and on budget (hello - no real reference to quality???)
- Benefits realization and management, where it is assumed a project is initiated to bring about some particular value or address some need. In other words, there is a purpose for every project. The discussions here focused around:
- how a project’s success is ultimately countered when what was promised differs from what was expected,
- where there is little accountability for project teams to ensure all lifecycle stages of a project are completed to realize its full value (this being rather an owner or management decision at each phase gate), and/or
- where a completed project is not well implemented / transitioned to the users, or trained and maintained to gain full realization of the benefits intended.
- Requirements gathering, touted alongside stakeholder identification, as the first and most critical steps in determining the scope of a project.
- The role of the business analyst, where the analyst is responsible for detailing all of the product requirements as opposed to the project requirements. Subject areas included the integration of project management and business analyst responsibilities into one role; how these roles can better work together; what the distinct responsibilities are; and more.
(Don’t get me wrong, there are other hot topics too, but they weren’t necessarily relevant to projects for mining developments!)
Out of this list, one theme could easily be shown to span all of them - the effectiveness of this impacting all of the others:
This soft skill has always been an area of focus for leadership and project management training. This focus will never go away, and if anything, training will only become more in-depth over time. And it is the reason I won’t delve into it here.
However, what I will highlight is that two of these topics have really captured the attention of the project management profession:
failure rates and requirements gathering.
In fact, there is a connection so strong between these that the project management institute has now developed guidance materials and created a new business analyst designation for which you can gain certification for - the PMP-BA.
Of course as a result, there has been an increased focus on content to raise awareness, educate on concepts and tools for gathering requirements, types of requirements you might face on a project, and more.
It is obvious that a high value is being placed on the need for business analysis within project management, to help those professional project managers who don’t have a designated BA on their teams to gather appropriate information for their projects.
The main downfall?
That the guidance and training materials are maintained at a high level so that they are relevant for all users, in all industries.
To gain any real benefit of these programs, the users need to understand how these might best be applied within their own sector.
For the natural resources sector, where there are unique requirements related to the environmental assessment processes, and to community stakeholder engagement and closure issues, a lot can be missed if the BA or PM working on the project does not have such sector-specific experience in order to draw these out.
So will this new focus really improve projects performance in mining?
Cautious are the Industry Players
Next we move onto the review of primary industry risks, which seem to be constantly in a state of flux due to the most dominant risk of all, volatile commodity prices and market inflection. Aside from this one driver, the following provides a highlighted short list of risks specific to large-scale, natural resource developments:
- Access to capital or capital over-reach, with a need to find ways to reduce spend, improve productivity rates, and to innovate, optimize and lean operations and developments
- Relevant to the last, the need to control cost and schedule overruns of major projects, where major causes of failure indicated poor portfolio and procurement management, inadequate planning, unrealistic goals and overly aggressive estimates, skills shortages, regulatory and policy risks and uncertainties, and civil and workforce disruptions
- Obtaining and maintaining a social license to operate, and an increase in stakeholders seeking a larger share of project value and/or partnerships, indicating that the recent shift to more extensive stakeholder engagement and inclusion in decision making will only increase over time.
All of these issues impact the decisions of whether to move forward with a project or not, whether determined at a project's forefront before much work is done, or at one of the various stage-gates of projects already in motion. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a conundrum.
In this sector, the performance of a project - how well it stays on schedule, on budget - can be a primary cause for discontinuing said project. On the flip side, a project’s performance and success are dependent on ensuring all of the objectives, risks and opportunities for improvements are embedded in its scope.
The reality is that if we not only consider the objectives and design requirements to gain the product, but also take all of these business risks into account when we are evaluating and planning projects, it will make it easier to identify where the opportunities for innovation, optimization and risk mitigation are.
It would give us the ability to alter and adapt the options being assessed within a project scope, look for more cost-effective solutions, and make more informed decisions within the scope of the project itself.
Of course, this requires companies to be open to those solutions that may be outside of our norm, and some flexibility in terms of the methods we may take to get there.
Bringing things together
In order to achieve better project outcomes, it is clear that we must get better at the identification of all requirements of a project, and then planning to achieve those accordingly. In the natural resource sector, the types of requirements to include within scope will be more extensive than those outside of the sector.
To bring about the greatest value for our clients and stakeholders, we need to gather and apply requirements from each and every one of the multiple influencing areas:
- to ensure that the project promises equal what is expected
- to ensure that the project’s full scope is defined
- to allow for holistic and thorough planning
- and to find the most efficient and effective ways of achieving all objectives.
Should the appropriate time be taken to compile a holistic picture, and consider all of the associated business risks and objectives as requirements within our project scopes, we may:
make the goals for the project more clear,
gain some alignment on the priorities of each objective,
develop more realistic budgets and schedules,
avoid major scope changes due to fluctuating external forces,
lower the risks (and associated cost overruns) of our planned developments, and
actually achieve all of the intended benefits of our projects.
The crossroads of project failure and the risks of mining clearly show that support is needed in regard to ensuring requirements are better delineated and defined in this space, to start a project off right. Perhaps having a tool that defines and keeps the requirements more front and center, even visually accessible, could help to maintain a connection with the ultimate purpose(s) and restrictions of the project.
In my next article, I delve into the findings of the interviews I held within this space. If you have any feedback, please leave a comment, or send me a direct message. I’d love to hear your opinion on this topic!