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?
By Kevin Korterud
To mark the new year, I decided to make a rather ambitious resolution: envision the future of project management offices (PMOs). Specifically, what PMOs will be like in the year 2025.
In retrospect, a New Year’s resolution to exercise more or take up a new hobby might have been easier. But here goes.
In 2015, PMOs of all types face a growing number of challenges. These include larger and more complex programs, workforces spread across different locations, time zones and cultures, integration needs and a shortage of skilled technologists. All of these trends will likely intensify in the next 10 years.
While there have been significant advances in the area of program delivery with agile methods, work planning tools and other enhancements, we need to rethink the function of the PMO with regard to its readiness to deal with a constantly changing and challenging business environment.
Here’s how I think PMOs could — and should — be functioning in 2025:
1. Mega PMO. Today all sorts of PMOs are spread across an organization: enterprise, business, program and transformation PMOs. Organizationally, these PMOs are typically fragmented across multiple business functions and governance structures. In addition, each PMO can operate independently of each other.
Given the complexity and scale of contemporary programs, this scenario has inherent risk from a delivery integration and coordination standpoint. For effective and safe delivery in the future, all PMOs need to be brought into a single organization and centralized command structure responsible for the oversight of all delivery programs.
This “Mega PMO” would go beyond the strategic roles played by Enterprise PMOs (EPMOs)—like portfolio management and benefits realization—to encompass tactical and operational services as well.
The level of integration on today’s delivery programs compels a move to this new PMO operating model.
2. Mega-PMO Partitioning. We must also address the strategic, tactical and operational needs of contemporary program delivery. This can come about by structuring the PMO of the future into functions that provide services and direction at all three of these levels.
For example, portfolio management, benefits realization and strategic planning would reside in a function that is staffed with highly skilled resources. Administrative and operational activities such as work plan updates, status report production and financial tracking would be in a service center function using resources with matching skills.
3. Unified Program Managers. It’s common today to have program managers embedded in various parts of an organization. While this results in program manager specialization, it does little to harmonize program management approaches and activities.
Just as program oversight would be brought into a single organization, so should the program managers overseeing program delivery. This would ensure both existing and new program managers collaborate and execute in a coordinated manner.
In addition, the centralization of program managers would also enable the development of program managers’ skills in ways that typically wouldn’t happen while embedded in a business function.
4. A Master Control Room. In a prior article, I mentioned the need for and benefits of a program control room. The creation of a single PMO compels the need for a centralized control venue to enable effective delivery oversight.
To manage the quantity, complexity and scale of future programs, this PMO master control room would need to resemble a control room in a manufacturing environment. This would include display screens, consistent representation of status, incident resolution rooms and other enabling technologies that drive effective program delivery.
This vision of the future aligns with the trends and trajectories of delivery programs. Not unlike how manufacturing, supply chain and other core business processes moved from craft to industrialized systems, the design and operation of PMOs need to change to support the delivery programs of tomorrow.
What do you think the future will hold for PMOs? I welcome your reactions!
By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP
As you reflect on 2014 and prepare for the New Year, consider these eight resolutions for your project portfolio in 2015.
1. Be a portfolio leader. Don’t just manage the portfolio — lead it by thinking in terms of profits and losses. In that sense, how does it compare to other portfolios or business units? What was your 2014 return on investment, and what is your 2015 estimated return? Is this within your organization’s expectations? What projects/programs were a drag and should be stopped? What projects/programs have the potential to generate the most returns and can be a calculated risk? (A calculated risk has a reasonable probability of generating a return; of course, what is “reasonable” depends on your organization’s risk appetite and threshold.) If you were an investor, would you invest in your portfolio? Asking these questions may help you decide what to do differently in 2015.
2. Accelerate the business. Ensure strategic alignment by thinking about your portfolio as dynamic and agile — an accelerator to business goals and objectives. How can you free up resources to innovate rather than just keep the lights on?
3. Sell your portfolio’s value by understanding your audience. Speak the organization’s language while remembering the 5 C’s: clear, concise, credible, creative and compelling:
Clear— Frame the discussion in terms the other party can easily relate to and understand.
Concise— Long decks and presentations will lose your audience. Think elevator speeches: If you can’t sum it up in a sentence or two, it’s probably too complicated to understand. And if it’s too complicated, then you will not have the opportunity to influence, let alone reach agreement.
Credible— Know what you’re talking about and be prepared. This means doing your homework before coming to the table.
Creative— Look beyond the obvious to find the solution.
Compelling— Always know what’s important to the other party and what will drive them to action. Tease out the underlying need instead of only the stated desire. Understand what your bottom line is, and theirs.
4. Establish a culture of innovation. Do this, and you can deliver long-term as well as quick wins.
5. Make data-driven decisions.Look at the facts to drive decisions, not emotions. Don’t get attached to pet projects.
6. Engage with the world.Go beyond stakeholder engagement at work. Don’t forget about yourself, your home and your community.
7. Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. That little voice is an early indicator — listen to it. Sometimes when we forge ahead against our instincts, we find out later that it would have been better to take another course.
8. Find meaning in your portfolio. Your portfolio delivers the impossible — innovative projects and programs that have not been done before. What achievements in the past year were key to the organization, in terms of values, culture and feeding creative juices? How can you do more of that in 2015?
With an 85-year history, Ming Hua Yan Arts and Cultural Group is one of Taiwan’s artistic treasures.
But in recent decades, the Taiwanese opera group has faced a big challenge: how to modernize a traditional folk art and introduce it to a modern audience. Since project managers often struggle to bring innovation to historic industries, Ming Hua Yuan provides a successful roadmap to follow.
Blending Innovation With Tradition
Chen Sheng-Fu, who oversees the family-owned organization, said its success began with committing to building on its reputation; the group needed larger audiences if its art and way of life was to survive. Taiwanese opera is marked by an emphasis on stylized singing and posture, showcased through simple, slowly paced stories. This is antithetical to modern audience expectations, so over the past 30 years, Chen and the organization have been working around this fundamental problem. He has introduced the director system from the movie industry, and extensively applied the elements of modern theater to the production of traditional repertoires.
For the modernization of the form itself, Ming Hua Yuan has been adopting more complex stories. They usually consist of multiple storylines juxtaposing the past and present on the same stage. Ming Hua Yuan also introduced contemporary stage design such as lighting and sound effects, acrobatics and 3-D background panoramas, which are more typical in large-scale live concerts. In addition, more contemporary language was incorporated into the performance.
Using Process Analysis and Cycle Time Application
As a program manager overseeing this modernization, Chen relied heavily on process analysis. He strives to ensure each performer, prop or stage design can fulfill multiple tasks. For instance, quick scene changes are made possible through costumes and set pieces that can be easily changed or modified between scenes, and that can conceal the smaller props and costumes. For example, a tree trunk can be part of a forest for one scene, then turned around to reveal an imperial throne in the next scene.
This allows on-stage performers to be as responsible for scene changes as stagehands and technicians. If 20 performers each spend eight seconds to complete the tasks, then nearly three minutes of work can be accomplished, with the audience experiencing only a brief musical interlude with dramatic lighting. Such a cunning application of “cycle time” enables Ming Hua Yuan to change scenes without dimming the lights and bringing down the curtain.
The challenge of running a traditional performing art group is no easier than running any modern business. But with modern techniques and professional management, Ming Hua Yuan has successfully reformed itself—and introduced a traditional art form to a global audience.
My father spent decades working for a telephone company. When I was quite young, he took me to see a large centralized telephone switching facility. I was amazed and enthralled at seeing all the technology it took to carry a person’s voice over a telephone line between houses on a street or across oceans. Leaving the facility, he told me, “You know, all of what you saw here doesn’t matter unless we can get the last 100 feet of a person’s phone line right.” Although the end-user experience back then consisted of selecting numbers on a rotary dial, there were still many technological considerations in getting things to work in the last 100 feet from a telephone pole to a house.
Over the span of my project management career, I’ve realized the wisdom in getting those “last 100 feet” right for an end user — and how doing so is an essential part of the success of a project. Here are important components for getting those last details right:
1. Find end-user stakeholders. It is very common to have one or more stakeholders who are leaders in an organization. Stakeholders who are leaders provide essential strategic direction to a project. However, it is equally important to get the perspective of the people who will eventually use the outputs of a project. In addition to leadership stakeholders, create a group of end-user stakeholders that can provide a detailed perspective on these outputs. This balance of stakeholders between leadership and end users will give an all-encompassing view to help the project meet objectives.
2. Mind location. Quite often, a project manager is physically located near the project’s leadership stakeholders. However, certain types of projects that involve the creation of new processes and products would be better served if the project manager were located closer to the team serving end users, or the end users themselves. Doing so provides additional visibility to factors affecting the project that may come up in formal meetings. For example, the president of a global automobile company prefers to be located out on the design floor so he can have clearer communications with his designers, which results in higher-quality automobiles.
3. Develop functional success criteria. Much of our project management time and efforts focus on meeting functional requirements. But it’s also valuable to know how well we are meeting these requirements. To improve the quality of the outputs of a project, document functional success criteria for each requirement. For example, if a requirement states that a process is intended to produce a certain product, also specify performance criteria for the product. This can include functional success criteria such as: “Billing information must be displayed within two seconds for a customer inquiry 99 percent of the time.” Adding functional success criteria will promote end-user satisfaction and overall project quality.
4. Measure outcome-based metrics. We all know the value of measuring our project performance with A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)metrics such as schedule performance index (SPI) and other useful progress indicators. While these measurements are important, we also need metrics that measure the performance of the outcomes of the project. These can include adoption rates of a new process, evaluating end-user satisfaction with a survey and analysis of labor costs to complete a task. As these measurements typically occur near the close of the project, they can be conducted by someone other than the project manager.
It has been many years since my father took me into the telephone switching room. However, his comments about the importance of getting it right to the very end have stayed with me throughout my own decades-long career.
Do you have any tips on managing the “last 100 feet”?