Improving Projects – Make sure everyone is doing the same project!

One of the most difficult situations for a project manager to deal with is that point in the implementation stage where one of the future users of the facility realises that what is being delivered is not what they were expecting. Usually, this means that there has been a communication error at some point in the scoping of the project or a lack of involvement of a key stakeholder.

Because problems of this type only come to light during the delivery phase, they can be particularly complex to deal with causing rework with cost and time penalties. So it is desirable to avoid them!


The causes frequently go right back to the project development stages and the processes used to move from each participant’s vague notions of what is required to a structured definition of the project scope.

Key issues include:

1.       Range of participants

2.       Process and Procedure

3.       Thinking processes

4.       Language Issues

5.       Cultural Issues


Most projects involve a wide range of actors with different skills, objectives and levels of involvement with the project and the assets to be delivered. Some are involved with its ultimate use, some with the construction or development and some with its on-going maintenance. Others may only be involved indirectly.

The end users of a project to develop a manufacturing facility:

  • Production
  • Maintenance
  • Marketing
  • QA
  • Logistics

The project team may involve:

  • Design
  • Construction
  • Project Management
  • Architect

This may be the tip of the iceberg: with corporate management and external contractors also having an input. For other types of project, the titles may be different but the complexity remains. Each group is likely to have only a partial understanding of each other’s perspective and ability to contribute.

Process Issues

Many project development frameworks envisage the development of a brief [protocol, mandate, charter etc.] which is intended to encapsulate the requirements of the sponsors and ultimate owners. This document is then used to guide the project team through the development and delivery phases.

This one hit method can cause serious problems as it may take only a slight difference in understanding to send the project team on a different trajectory to that anticipated by the sponsors.

Similarly, if there is not a mechanism to probe the objectives effectively, there is a significant danger that the project will deliver the stated needs but not the real needs. Satisfying the project objectives but not the corporate or strategic ones may result in the creation of a white elephant. This is discussed further in a paper “Integrating strategic and project management” []  and the book “Project Benefits Management” .

Thinking Processes

Each group comes to the project with a different level of understanding based on their knowledge, experience, functional expertise etc. This influences both their perspective on the project and their perceived needs and wants.

This is the essence of what Peter Senge calls Mental Models [See for example ]. Each of us has our own mental model which allows us to interact with and interpret the world – they are all different so failure to recognise this is a recipe for misunderstanding, futile argument and stress.

Gareth Morgan in his excellent book “Imaginization” provides a superb metaphor for how this works – he presents a drawing of a pig surrounded by a number of different observers ranging from a butcher to a small girl to a Muslim. [See slide 15 of ] they all see the same animal but it conjures up different responses for each.

One side effect of these different perspectives is that the different functional groupings each develop their own shorthand and there is a danger that they may well use the same terminology to mean quite different things.

Understanding these different perspectives is crucial to the effective development of a shared understanding of the project scope.

Language Issues

Appropriate use of language is crucial to shared understanding; unfortunately, our meaning is often distorted by what we say and how we say it. The quotation “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant”; sums it up neatly.

One of the key ideas in the field of knowledge of Neurolinguistic Programming is the concept of the metamodel. This describes how the ways in which we use language can lead to lack of precision in communication. A particular issue is the notion of “nominalisation” where we give a name to an abstract concept and talk about it as if it were real. David Kerr, discussed this recently in his blog

Different groups [and individuals] will use the same word for different purposes with the danger that they will superficially agree with each other whilst disagreeing at a deeper level.  An architect and a laboratory manager may have very different understandings of what is meant by “a state of the art laboratory”.

This may be compounded by national language issues for multinational teams, especially where people are working in their second [or third languages]

Cultural Issues

The way the organisation goes about its work and the behaviours it encourages or discourages may have a significant impact on the ability of the team to define the scope of the project. If the organisation encourages deference to experts and / or discourages questioning of management decisions then there is a significant risk that the proposed scope and implementation method will not be examined critically.

The more diverse the team in areas of expertise, geography and experience, the greater will be the danger of culturally led misunderstandings.


The first step in “solving” these problems is to understand that they are likely to occur; forewarned is forearmed. Specifically, however the following actions seem to be relevant:

1.       Encourage participants to understand the background, needs and contribution of each group.

2.       Use a facilitative approach to encourage effective dialogue. This requires an air of independence, a broader set of skills and techniques such as those outlined in “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook” and “The Dance of Change” [both P Senge et al]. The methods database of the IAF is also useful.

3.       Use approaches to encourage focused and well directed thinking such as those suggested by Edward de Bono.

4.       Be wary of agreement which seems to have been reached too easily – remember the Alfred Sloan statement to his board ‘Gentlemen, I take it that we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose that we postpone further discussion to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.’

5.       Put effort into ensuring that all participants are able to understand what is being proposed, don’t exclude them by using a medium they don’t understand – we will return to this in a later post.

6.       Remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the universe tends to chaos, effort is needed to create order. So work at it!

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  • ibrahim  On November 26, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Good subject

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