Four Project Lessons from the Public Sector
Oct 09, 2015
By Todd Williams
Daily, the headlines cry the news of failed government projects costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Success rates in the private sector, though, are equally dismal. Much to a government employee’s dismay, transparency in the public sector makes it good press fodder. A good investigative reporter would salivate over finding a similar story in nearly any large corporation. However, the oft-overlooked benefit of government failures is that they are excellent case studies to help develop strategies for mitigating failures in our own projects. Recently, I interviewed a number of public sector employees who have run or are running projects to get their opinions, determine the common threads, and learn from their experiences how to run our projects better.
By definition, politics is a way of life in government work—and it has both positive and negative effects. The US government comes with one (hopefully) unchanging reality—democracy. With this glorious institution come many challenges. The first is elections. As opposed to a company with a stabilizing board of directors, every two to four years, at least some of our leaders and representatives change. The result can be a significant change in policy. Although we do not have election cycles and political parties in our businesses, politics can be equally harmful. Consider the effect on your company if it embraced a culture of anticipating a new direction every few months. People would feel directionless. Employees and project teams appreciate knowing the purpose and goal of the project while feeling they are contributing to a grander scheme. It motivates them and builds their passion. The result is higher quality, faster delivery, and lower cost.
In a democracy, there is always a vocal opposition to the party in power. Forty-nine percent (sometimes more) of the people may have supported an alternate direction and will actively fight against the elected leader’s direction for months or years after the election. In the oligarchic corporate world, leaders have the luxury of setting the direction and proceeding down the road to their goals relatively unquestioned. They make decisions, people follow those directions, and those who actively get in the way have their negative effect mitigated. In the rashest of cases, they are terminated. Waffling on decisions, revisiting reasons, and leaving questions unanswered undermine employee enthusiasm. In our companies and our projects, we want to foster a consensus-like agreement around our direction by getting our team’s buy-in. We need everyone to agree to work for the goal, whether or not they agree with the decision.
“What is measured gets done.” If the only incentive your employees receive for their work is continued employment (as with many tenure-based positions), they will do what it takes to keep their jobs and avoid taking any risks. Everyone knows that risk comes with grand rewards; it can also put your longevity in jeopardy. Business leaders should build a culture that takes sensible risks to help their companies grow and succeed. This may be challenging in a collective bargaining situation, but it is well worth the effort to hammer out an agreement that includes incentives other than guarantees of long-term employment. The key is building a package that rewards employee behavior by sharing successes. The task is properly defining success. For example, putting ten people on a six-month project and cancelling it after four weeks because the team encountered too many technical issues outside of its control should be considered a success. The team and management should celebrate it as such. The team members should not be laid off for underperforming. For, had they waited five-and-a-half months and spent millions of dollars before figuring out the project was impossible to perform, then everyone would have been faced with a true failure.
Fright of Publicity
Most projects do not carry the worry that the local or national news media will show up when budgets or timelines are blown. First, it is the shareholders' money and not the public’s. Second, most projects are not newsworthy. The slightest scandal in the smallest of city councils, however, is a tabloid treasure that can tarnish reputations. Albeit on a lesser scale, private company employees can experience the same fear. People on your project dread being the subject of the latest water cooler episode. A project culture that accepts the occasional faux pas for the sake of taking a chance to correct an issue, or one that praises a gallant effort rather that rebuking the risk taker, allows your team to grow and develop a culture comfortable with change.
Learning from Others’ Misfortune
Government project failures tell us a lot about running our projects. Their requirement for public transparency affords us a view into each project as a case study on how (or how not) to run our projects. Although many of the political peculiarities do not directly relate to our capitalistic oligarchies, there are lessons to be learned. These lessons are all rooted in leadership and valuing our people.
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