This month we won't be watching the FA Cup Final in the newly refurbished Wembley – because there isn't a newly refurbished Wembley. This is despite a five-year, £750 million (so far) refurbishment project dogged by, among other things, contractor disputes with partners, design and materials challenges, industrial action and no less than three completion postponements.

Builder Multiplex’s latest completion date is sometime post September – which is well after the original completion date of autumn 2005, set to be comfortably ahead of the 13 May’s climax of the English football league’s year.

Clearly something’s gone wrong. It’s almost as bad as the allegedly typical IT project in terms of slippage. Indeed, it is a nice change to focus on another industry’s problems with project management.

Our colleagues in construction have recently racked up such non-successes as a three-year over-run for the new Scottish Parliament and the splendid new British Library, which was a mere three times over budget and five years late in completion. Ouch.

The answer – both in building big landmarks and IT infrastructure – is to improve project management science. If only. Talk of project management always brings to mind the old Monty Python joke about complexity: when outlining a recipe for making rat pie we are given huge detail on how to catch, kill and skin your rat, then when you come to the bit you really want, all it says is ‘now make the pie’.

A tough discipline

Project management is hard. It probably isn’t automatable and anything that relies too much on a ‘project management in a box’ approach should be treated with suspicion. But patently some disciplines do manage to bring projects in on time, to budget and adding value – even construction and IT.

In 2004, joint research by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society, suggested that what IT lacks is enough system architects, a role more common in engineering. An IT system architect would be capable of producing an overview of the technical structure of any system, abstracted from details of the implementation. Such professionals would be experienced, knowledgeable and able to translate vision into a technical blueprint, expressible in a way that allows formal analysis. Systems architects would also have a breadth of human and organisational insight to address issues that can critically affect a project’s success. “The evidence suggests these people can hold the key to success in a complex IT project, but are in very short supply,” said the study.

Sounds great – and such contributions would, no doubt, be highly welcome. But even so, they would not solve project management problems overnight (even with a three-year extension). This is because complex projects are more than simply the sum of their various parts.

Projects are Gestalts – a psychological concept that suggests our minds form a
view of reality based on pattern interactions. The attributes of the whole are not deducible from analysis of the parts in isolation, so a holistic approach is the only way to view something. Which is a fancy way of saying a project – Wembley rebuilding or that new ERP platform rollout – takes on a life of its own, made up of all sorts of hidden agendas, interactions and complexities that can’t be boiled down to a Gantt chart.

In life, as in project management, rules, goals, deadlines and values all have a place, but events seem to have a mind of their own.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and organise this complexity and shape it to our ends, but a certain sense of reality is useful. Projects aren’t just pieces of construction, engineering or systems, but are more like theatrical productions, with lots of rehearsals and preparation that needs to be done before opening night but which sometimes do still result in real stinkers of plays. Why? Because they are really just collections of people – and you know what they can be like.