Seattle's Troubled Tunnel: 3 Communications Tips for Regaining the Public's Trust
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Categories: Best Practices, Change Management, Communication, Complexity, Ethics, Generational PM, Government, Human Aspects of PM, Leadership, Lessons Learned, PM & the Economy, PM Think About It, Program Management, Project Delivery, Project Failure, Project Planning, Social Responsibility, Stakeholder, Strategy, Teams
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!
As much as we wish these things didn’t occur, we sometimes find ourselves having to leave a project early or terminate a business engagement. This is always difficult to do, and how you do it can help you maintain your integrity and credibility throughout the transition.
Recently, I had to terminate a business relationship myself. Here are a few lessons that I learned that you can apply the next time you are in a similar situation.
1. Place the blame on yourself. I know you wouldn’t be leaving a project or quitting a business relationship if it were all your fault, but the key thing here is that you need to buck up and take responsibility for the business arrangement ending. There are several ways you can frame it to take the emphasis for the decision away from the other party. For example: “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the ability to deliver the work to you in a manner that you have grown accustomed to” or “I find myself at a point where I don’t feel my presence best serves the project, and I think a new set of eyes is going to be helpful to getting things back on track.” Or, you can come up with your own. The point is that you take a little of the emphasis off the party that you are ending the relationship with and place it on yourself. This will lessen any bad blood or negativity from the decision. It is important to note that you must cast the decision in terms of your inability to continue to serve the client in a manner that he or she deserves.
2. If possible, present options for replacements.If you find yourself at a point of no return and need out of a business relationship, you can soften the blow even more if you provide alternatives. The question you are probably asking yourself is, “If I can’t work with this person or on this project, why would I refer them to someone else?” But the truth is, we are all in different businesses and at different stages of our career — and while your threshold for some clients may be zero, someone just starting out or looking to find a different focus may be more than willing to accept a challenge that you consider unnecessary. This goes back to the first point: If you can’t serve the client in the way that he or she deserves, you are doing the client a favor by removing yourself from the project and helping him or her find someone who can do better.
3. Be prepared for blowback.Even when these things go great, there will be some sort of blowback or negative impact. You might have spelled everything out with as much tact as a veteran diplomat, but you are still leaving the business relationship with a jilted partner who may lash out to other members of your organization or other potential business partners. In this instance, you can try to contain any negative feedback or impact on you and your career by preparing a standard statement that you give to everyone that explains your role in the dissolution of the relationship. It should cast a bad situation in the most favorable light for you. One I have used is: “I am sorry the project didn’t work out, but I made a series of unwise choices that made my effectiveness impossible, and to best serve the project, I felt it was best for me to step away.” That’s it — it isn’t perfect, but neither is the situation you find yourself in.
How have you found success in ending business relationships?
Join meon December 4, 2014, in my upcoming seminar on leadership in project management.
Project trouble can hit from a blind spot, even though you tried as much as possible to prepare for issues. You did a risk analysis when you took the project on, and even tried to be ready to mitigate unknown issues.
As I advised in my previous post, do an assessment to determine the problem. Figure out what needs to be fixed, or if the situation is even fixable. If the project seems to have reached a point of no return, here are some tips on how to pull it out of trouble:
Finally, keep in mind that not all trouble devours all. Before panicking, calmly look to areas that will guide you to a solution. You may even find your project is more sound than it seems.
How do you confront trouble on your project?
|I recently heard an interview with Antonin Scalia, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, regarding the rulings he has handed down over the years. The reporter wondered if Mr. Scalia ever worried about public backlash or the opinions of his fellow justices. |
Mr. Scalia simply replied that he didn't worry about that. He has life tenure, given to him by the U.S. government. He believes that tenure allows him to do and say what he thinks is right and not worry about how it will affect his career or colleagues.
This answer had a profound effect on me. I often wonder if I am "doing the right thing" when I make decisions at work. I try, but I would not be honest if I did not admit that the career survival instinct hasn't kicked in once in a while. Perhaps sometimes I compromise on issues that I know are not good for my projects or my team. But I'll give the client the answer they want to hear, or perhaps tone down the weekly status report to avoid stirring the pot when there are real issues to discuss.
I've now started applying what I will refer to as the "life tenure" rule to all of my decisions and activities. I try to look at a decision or situation through the lens of "If I did not have to worry about politics or personalities or self-promotion, would I still make this move?" I have to say, thankfully, that I appear to achieve that about 90 percent of the time. But clearly I think that can improve.
I know it is naive to think that someone could or should perform their job as if they could not get fired. Or to think that if we all had that freedom, that we would always make the right decision. But it is an interesting concept to ponder, and a fascinating test to apply.
Think about it: How would your professional life change if you had life tenure as a project manager?