Management: Left-brain logic makes you late

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The Independent Online
Hands up, any reader who is not, to some degree, a project manager. Do not even think about it - you are.

From the prosaic task of buying this weekend's groceries to the development of, say, Euro Disney, the same basic principles of project management apply. It is a pity that the skills shown by millions every Friday in planning and achieving the shopping task on time, on budget and to specification are conspicuous by their absence in many commercial projects.

The initiation of any form of change - such as new product development, acquisitions and mergers, technology investment, reorganisation or job move - requires planning. How much planning is a reflection of the style of the person initiating the change. The record industry's products, for example, seem to emerge from some alchemical process, reflecting the dreams of musicians, with a dose of post-rationalisation conjured up to drive the sales and marketing plan. This may explain why 'hits' are so rare.

Formal project management makes much of the planning phase, drawing on the Critical Path Method or its variants, to establish the desired end-point, resource implications for time, people and investment, and logical stages to be covered. The CPM shows how each succeeding stage depends on its precursor and, in turn, sets up the best conditions for the next.

The computer software industry has recognised the potential in project management for computer support - Lotus Projects is a bestseller. Likewise, academics and traditional teaching institutions, such as Cranfield School of Management, as well as the leading international management consultancies, have achieved strong revenue on the methodological approach to project management - the tools and techniques of planning and execution.

But there are still problems, says Edward Roberts of Boston's Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Pugh Roberts Associates - which is part of PA Consulting Group. Why, he asks, do fewer than half of all development projects meet their targets for development time and cost? Surely good planning and execution can bring home the bacon?

In an analysis of defence and commercial software projects in the US, Dr Roberts' colleague at Pugh Roberts, Kenneth Cooper, argues that the hidden realities of execution cause the high failure rate. He describes a phenomenon intuitively known to us all called the 'rework cycle' in which innocent phrases such as 'revision number 3' or 'issue number 7' betoken what really happens - things go wrong and work has to be done again.

He says that rework may well be the lion's share of the problem in terms of total cost of money and time. The key lesson is discovering where and why rework is needed.

The point is brilliant in its simplicity. In a logical process, if one stage is wrong or late, everything after it is probably wrong. Project management is, at best, a logical framework for illogical activity. Failure to recognise the truth that people make projects happen is likely to cost the project dear.

Project management is, as I hinted at the outset, central to general management. It is increasingly likely to be the critical management competence. If you wish to remain employable, think projects.

Effective project managers ought to stay in the role. What changes for them is the increasing scale of project for which they become responsible. Airline pilots tend to achieve success by flying ever more complex aircraft, rather than desks. They play to hard-won strengths. The same is true of project managers.

Cooper's rework cycle should shorten as the project manager gets better and better at focusing on the real causes of error - people and their compound relationships within the project.

Tony Paris, a senior member of Air Malta's management team, combines that role with a crusading passion for project management development techniques. He is working with Gordon Webster, of PA's Sundridge Park, to help industrial giants break out of the high-failure-rate project management cycle.

Their solution revolves around the idea that the logical component of managing projects is perhaps only 10 to 15 per cent of the whole. Recognising the rework cycle, they have identified that if projects are allowed to be seen only as logical structures, and are numeratively monitored, the causes of the failures will be missed.

They have developed a 'whole-brain' model for project management that puts a premium value on the 'right-brain' attributes of imagination, creativity and interpersonal skills, so that the 'left-brain', logical, 'critical path' aspect is tested for its human risk factors, where the mistakes tend to happen. Businesses are introduced to the model through a high reality business simulation that compresses 'whole-brain' decisions for six months into a one-week programme.

There is initial discomfort, especially for left-brain managers previously prized for their logical decision processes. But there is universal recognition of the need for change. And the success rate is much higher.

This leads to the question of how many general managers are in the left-brain logic trap. The answer is sobering: certainly more than 80 per cent if early results from Paris and Webster's research are borne out.

The writing is on the wall. Logic is not enough. If you cannot adapt yourself, at least acquire a team that draws on both sides of the brain.

The author is marketing director at Sundridge Park Management Centre.