Seattle's Troubled Tunnel: 3 Communications Tips for Regaining the Public's Trust
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One of the biggest public works projects in the United States right now has some major problems. It’s a more than $3 billion effort in Seattle, Washington to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an aging elevated highway on the city’s waterfront, with a 2-mile-long tunnel. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the project, you know that the tunnel-boring machine (dubbed “Bertha”) broke down more than a year ago, creating various challenges and overruns. Public outcry is mounting.
Now, if you’re like me and believe in the power of communication to ensure that projects run more smoothly, the tunnel project has highlighted the need for more openness, better stakeholder management and speaking to your audience in understandable ways, instead of falling into buzzwords or corporate speak.
If I were working on the project right now, here are three things I would look at to regain the public’s trust and help everyone in Seattle and the state of Washington understand exactly where the project is.
1. Be willing to convey incomplete information. The project’s big challenge is that the machine built specifically for drilling the tunnel encountered a setback when it struck a metal pipe during the excavation process. Unfortunately, it took project leaders over a week to convey the extent of Bertha’s problem, the course of action and any sort of timeline to get things back on track. Since Bertha stopped working in December 2013, information has trickled out to stakeholders.
The project’s leaders could have set a much different tone early on by stating what they know and what it means to the project—along with an acknowledgement that they really aren’t 100 percent sure what the solution is, and a clear statement that they will work to provide status updates to all stakeholders as often as possible.
Instead, it’s been “hard to get straight answers,” as the Seattle radio station KUOW put it.
2. Be honest. This really goes hand in hand with the first point about having the confidence to convey information that is accurate, even if it is incomplete. The public has begun to doubt that project leaders are being honest about the tunnel’s current status and future. This is partly because when the city’s department of transportation (DOT) or the state government has updated the community about the project, they have given information that seems farfetched and is tough to believe in light of Bertha’s lack of progress.
Case in point: A DOT official recently toldSeattle’s City Council that the project was “70-percent complete.” That claim was met with a great deal of skepticism by journalists and members of the community.
The lesson for project managers is: Don’t fudge information to avoid blowback. In the long run, you are putting your project at a strategic disadvantage because you may lose funding or you may come under heavier oversight…or worse. So just explain things in an honest and forthcoming manner.
3. Be consistent in the delivery of information. A lack of consistent communications has been one of the big failings for the Seattle project team. And when there’s an information void, it will usually be filled by something you aren’t going to like. In this instance, the lack of communications has led to a real breakdown of trust.
That’s why you need to make a plan for communicating consistently with stakeholders. It should include the best ways to communicate with specific stakeholder groups, and a plan for gathering accurate, up-to-date information from the project team. To ensure timely gathering, build the consistent delivery of information into day-to-day project activities. Set a schedule of when you want your team members to communicate information to you, and hold them accountable.
In turn, you need to inform key stakeholders of when and how you’ll communicate information to them, and then stick to that plan.
In most cases, communications comes down to recognizing the importance of clarity in effective project leadership. In Seattle, you can see what a lack of a clear process can do to the trust between stakeholders and the project team. I’m confident that most unsuccessful projects began to unravel when communications stopped being clear and consistent.
What do you think?
Program managers are looking to the future and how best to serve business -- and society -- in a more responsible way.
Global trends in corporate responsibility now include sustainable energy, combining improvements in efficient use of energy and renewable energy sources.
Enterprises that join this trend will likely prosper. Program managers are responsible for aligning an enterprise's business with its long-term strategy, and for sensing emerging trends that need to be embraced.
"Green" technologies, for example, are one such trend program managers should recognize and plan projects and programs around.
Organizations like Nike, Taiwan Telecom, Delta and Corning have recently built "green" factories, for example, using such technologies. If program managers don't follow worldwide trends like this, it will affect the organization's long-term ability to compete and prosper.
In this way, program managers echo the role of the program management office (PMO).
The PMO and the program manager are the main force for business strategy alignment. They adjust the resource allocation and business priorities within projects and programs by launching projects they believe fit the organization's business strategy, and stopping those that don't.
The best that we have to offer in our profession is to be forward-looking and socially responsible. What are you doing to be socially responsible?
The McGreen Mindset
Categories: Social Responsibility
|Let's face it, McDonald's doesn't exactly scream sustainability. Yet the fast food chain has shown a fierce determination to demonstrate its green cred that goes back to way before it became so cool. In the late '80s and early '90s, McDonald's focused on reducing its packaging--eliminating 300 million pounds of the stuff. Granted, there was plenty of packaging to get rid of, but still ...|
Since then, the company has tackled sustainability projects on multiple levels, everything from collaborating with Greenpeace on a soy moratorium aimed at protecting the Amazon to rolling out an environmental scorecard for its suppliers. The company also recently opened a green version of the Golden Arches on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, USA. And now others are under construction in France, Brazil, Canada and Costa Rica.
Of course with the global economic crisis, the big question for McDonald's and every other company out there is whether the commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects will last. Bob Langert, McDonald's vice president, says CSR can't be a standalone. On his blog, he writes: "CSR must be part of the way we think and act every single day. It is this type of mindset and way of doing business that does not waiver in the face of economic instability."
The struggle to balance sustainability and the bottom line isn't likely to end anytime soon. Check out the February issue of PM Network for an in-depth look at how the crunch may turn out to have a "cleansing effect" on sustainability.