Guest Column | July 14, 2017

Your Key To Project Success? Think Human

Angela Payne

By Angela Payne

As Water Online Chief Editor Kevin Westerling wrote recently, the results of an annual State of the Water Industry (SOTWI) study by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) reflect  lower confidence in the industry than in recent years. When asked to rate the current health of their industry on a scale of 1 to 7, the average rating from AWWA members came in at an all-time low of 4.3 — compared to scores ranging between 4.5 and 4.9 in previous surveys.

So what are the chief concerns dragging down water leaders’ confidence? At the top of the list: outdated infrastructure and financing for capital improvement projects — accompanied by long-term availability of water supply and public understanding of the value of water resources.

That’s a weighty list of worries. And there are no shortcuts when it comes to keeping infrastructure sound, even if it’s a costly proposition. As Westerling notes, “Any deferred maintenance for pipeline infrastructure will end up costing more in the long run,” and “it’s better to invest sooner rather than pay the ultimate price later.”

There may be no easy answers when it comes to handling the capital projects often necessary to keep water infrastructure safe and secure. But there is guidance for how to lead those projects — and produce on-time, on-budget results, including pipelines and systems that perform reliably for years to come.

When it comes to tackling hard problems with major projects, often the key to success lies in the seemingly “softer” issues — the people issues such as engagement, alignment, and communication. While there is a natural tendency for organizations to focus on details such as technical design, processes, and procurement strategies, research says that factors such as people, approach, and governance are responsible for 65 percent of delays and missing targets. Such matters ultimately aren’t so soft because they can lead to very concrete results. In the water industry and beyond, your human capital is the key to extraordinary performance.

Consider the experience of a $640 million highway bypass project in Asia Pacific with major geotechnical challenges. This alliance of five companies was working against many odds, but rallied to deliver seven months ahead of schedule and $100 million under budget, while winning industry awards for innovation and safety. Another example: An engineering joint venture that was five months behind schedule and 70 percent over budget in an overhaul of a power plant. After a six-month intervention, the companies recovered to complete the project on time and under budget with a 54 percent uptick in productivity. And there was the major metropolitan water authority undertaking a high-profile infrastructure upgrade threatened by a multitude of factors, including community resistance. The project was delivered on time and more than 20 percent under budget.

Each of these mission-critical undertakings had one thing in common: Leadership at the top realized that to overcome steep obstacles, they had to shift their approach and fully engage the people involved to think newly and act differently. Specifically, leaders did five essential things — steps any water leader can take to help ensure project success.

1. Identify and change mindsets that may be limiting performance.

Something we have seen time and again: Perception and interpretation win over reality every time. Talk with your people: Identify the mindsets, opinions, and prejudices which may be in the way of adopting and delivering higher performance for the project. Then: Constructively challenge those mindsets, opinions, and prejudices.

This may sound like a sideways step at the beginning of a project, when everyone’s eager to dig in and make something happen. But if you want all that energy channeled in the best possible way, then take the limited time necessary to clear out potential obstacles from the get-go, then leap forward.

In the engineering joint venture I mentioned, leadership didn’t take this step — not at first. Only when the project was in serious jeopardy did leadership realize they had to intervene and identify what was causing constant slippage with the schedule and budget. It turned out that the two companies had unspoken preconceptions clouding their relationship to the project timeline. People “didn’t believe” the schedule, with teams on one side of the venture making assumptions that the other side had built in a “cushion” that created unnecessarily tight deadlines. Through a series of facilitated sessions, the people involved aired their concerns and effectively shifted their orientation to the schedule. From there they were able to perform in a way that enabled the project to recover and succeed.

2. Align on a shared purpose and vision for the project across the board.

The importance of getting people aligned on purpose and vision may sound like common sense, but alignment doesn’t usually occur without very deliberate leadership. The various individuals and groups making up the project team should know they stand for a shared sense of purpose, as well as a shared vision of success.  Once people collectively commit to highly ambitious goals for performance that supports the project’s purpose, they can all begin to pull in the same direction.

With the water authority I mentioned, a fundamental aspect of their sweeping infrastructure upgrade entailed fully engaging the organization, from senior leadership to the front lines. After discussions with staff at all levels, it became apparent that community relations were going to be central to the effort and had to be integrated into operations. Construction crews welcomed a bold decision that they would “own” the community relations work — versus having it be a siloed aspect of the project implemented after community complaints had already been filed. Leaders cascaded messaging about the new community relations imperative throughout the ranks of the 700 people involved in the undertaking. This was a pivotal move that aligned teams across the board in the landmark effort.

3. Make real and measurable commitments to exceptional performance.

A unified approach and alignment are incredibly important, but to produce high-performance results, you need high-performance commitments. There has to be absolute clarity about vital aspects of the work, including deliverables, schedule, cost, safety, and quality. Each and every team member has to see how their actions connect to the project’s priorities and targets. This can lead to accelerated progress through more effective coordination and collaboration as you build out a roadmap for achieving your goals.

In the highway bypass project I highlighted, the leadership team coalesced to identify daunting targets that had team leaders shaking their heads in disbelief — at least at first. But at that point, these managers realized they were in too deep to buck the challenge. They had already worked tirelessly to encourage their people to shed perceived limitations to performance, and to fully embrace the project’s purpose and vision.  And with potentially catastrophic roadblocks already cleared out of the way, they were well-positioned to chase seemingly impossible targets for the sake of their shared mission.

4. Create a common language for talking about progress and problems.

I can’t overstate the importance of developing a common language for talking straight about what’s happening or isn’t, what needs to happen, and how to handle issues as they arise. If there is a common agreement to immediately discuss and address potential threats to the schedule and performance, that cohesion can inoculate against any tendency to shift the schedule “to the right” and delay delivery.

Each of the projects I’ve mentioned faced very serious threats to on-time delivery, quality, budget, and even safety. But their people were equipped to deal with the unexpected. Better yet, they had leaders who understood that a huge obstacle can actually serve as a big catalyst for a breakthrough by teams who refuse to let anything get in their way. When people are prepared and willing to communicate openly with each other about project progress, they’re predisposed to overcome obstacles and stay on track. This requires a granular focus on each team’s and each individual’s commitment to action. It also should include celebrating progress and recognizing when a threat has been overcome.

5. Build on learning and develop capabilities to continually increase effectiveness and performance.

Something else high-performing project teams and organizations have in common: They’re never really satisfied. Strength is the basis for developing greater strength: You can build the muscle of your project team by creating a work environment where they — not you — are motivated to continually raise the performance bar for themselves and for the project.

It is critical to continually engage all team members as your project presses forward. As a leader, it’s your job to constantly keep a line of sight between actions of individual team members and the project’s strategic priorities. If all stakeholders are taking ownership of the success of the whole venture, this significantly increases their chances of delivering — or exceeding — the extraordinary performance they committed to in the first place.

And it doesn’t stop there. Once a project team has experienced what it’s like to be part of an aligned, high-performance effort that delivers “the impossible,” they never forget it. And they will want to do it every time they’re called to action.

Angela Payne is a leadership expert and author with a background in a range of industries, including natural resources management. As a member of JMW Consultants’ North American Team, she coaches top executives and facilitates training sessions for leaders and teams seeking to step up their professional games. She is based in Boulder, CO.