BOOK REVIEW / Over budget, behind schedule. Why?: The Management of Projects - Peter W G Morris: (Thomas Telford, pounds 55)

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The Independent Online
The common feature of such large projects as Concorde and the Channel tunnel is that they cost far more than originally estimated and take far longer than expected to complete. Other expensive projects such as Nimrod, the airborne early warning system, were cancelled because politicians finally lost patience with the huge cost overruns.

Nor are these examples unusual: Peter Morris followed the records of 1,449 projects and found that only 12 had kept to or come in below their budgeted costs. This record of financial ineptitude, and often technical and political ineptitude as well, raises the question: 'Why can't we learn to manage large projects?'

Morris's book seeks to provide the answers. But first, he shocks the reader into recognising the importance of the question by cataloguing the history of projects from the Second World War on. This has been dismal, despite accomplishments like landing a man on the moon.

The cost and time overruns for the likes of Concorde and the Channel tunnel get most publicity and linger in the public memory, but the technical failures are less well known. Morris gives a few examples from the UK and USA of incidents in the nuclear power industry: equipment put in the wrong way round, reactor supports installed 45 degrees out, boiler design declared unsafe after installation.

The history of important projects is partly an account of the computer-based methods developed for controlling a project over time. One of the best known is PERT (programme evaluation review technique), developed in the late 1950s. It identifies the 'critical path', that is the sequence of events in the project that requires the longest time for completion. Developments in information technology have made the use of such techniques much easier and more effective. Project management has become a recognised subject with university courses, scholarly journals and professional societies. Yet Morris claims it is often stuck in a 1960s time warp of a tools-and-techniques view of the subject.

A key thesis of the book is that project management is much broader and more strategic than the application of control techniques. They are about internal control but many of the reasons for the dismal record of big projects come from outside. It is these that project managers must seek to control. To stress the broader view that he thinks is essential, he argues for the title, The Management of Projects rather than project management.

The crucial challenge in the effective management of projects, Morris says, is resolving the need to meet schedule and budget with the desire to improve the technology. It can be dangerous to put meeting the schedule above getting the design right. Once the nature of the technical challenges has been properly recognised, history shows how impressively they can be met: working in space, in the North Sea oil fields and the Alaskan wilderness. Projects go wrong when the technical challenges are not adequately understood.

But more often they go wrong, Morris suggests, because the project manager is not sensitive to the political currents and does not seek to build the public support needed for projects that affect the local community.

Modern project management developed in the defence/aerospace industries. Engineering and the urgent need to meet the Soviet threat were the key drivers. Later, technology and speed were the drivers in the development of power stations and the North Sea oilfields. Product prices were rising so minimising cost was not of great importance.

In the 1970s environmental issues and finance became significant factors to be taken into account. In the 1990s there are more uncertainties that can derail projects: political, economic and environmental. Technology continues to develop rapidly and the practice of management is changing.

Morris discusses the effect on the management of projects and forecasts future changes. The pressure of Japanese competition is bringing much greater focus on improving performance. Projects have been getting smaller. They are more often carried out as self-standing modules, which reduces risks in a rapidly changing environment. Scheduling, managing and paying contractors by milestones provides more control.

Much more attention will be paid to the identification, analysis and management of risk. Relationships with contractors will be more long-term. The team approach to project design and production will be more widespread. These changes are the new ways to improve control and productivity.

Social changes mean more people demand consultation. Project managers will have to hone their communications skills to form and channel public sentiment. They will have to pay more attention to health and safety and to the effects on the environment.

Morris is a dedicated expert. He sees himself working in an exciting and growing discipline. But although the last word of the book is 'fun', he makes no attempt to convey why project managers find their work exciting. At the same time, unlike many management books there is no market hype.

The book should be of value to those who commission, finance and manage projects. It could also interest a wider audience, though its price will deter them.