Friday, 16 May 2014

The London Olympics 2012: A View on Lesson's Learned

The Olympics 2012 are nearly upon us. Of course the fact that it is right on our doorstep this year makes it all the more exciting. We expect 205 nations to take part in 300 events and 147 nations will take part in the Paralympic Games. The Olympic Delivery Authority is highly focused on the immovable deadline of 27th July 2012 and effective risk management in the preparation and run up to the event. They will have been relying on lessons learned from the previous events in Beijing, Sydney and Athens to ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated and any successes are realised early on. Here we look at project management in a large scale operation like the Olympics and the importance of acting on lessons learned.

Lessons learned surrounding the Olympics will include the need for thorough requirement gathering, documenting developments and clarity surrounding measures applied to the workforce data and scoping development changes. There is also a need to demonstrate the effectiveness of interventions, the need for independent audit, and the importance of clear communication surrounding the point of data capture and effective escalation procedures.

The ultimate goal of any project however is to execute and deliver whatever has been planned and promised – on time and within budget and scope. The challenges of delivery will always be present regardless of how conscientious we have been in anticipating possible scenarios and events. Thus, failure at some point is something that is inevitable.

The likes of Usain Bolt can relate to Derry Simmel's words: Time spent in doing the work better is time well spent.

In his book "Lessons Learned: Why Don't we Learn From Them?" board member of the PMI’s PMO SIG, Derry Simmel states "Time spent in doing the work better is time well spent". This statement supports that getting it right the first time is cheaper and easier than doing it and then fixing it later. If we accept that lessons from past projects are indeed useful then we can prevent the same problems occurring in future projects. The challenge is encouraging organisations to create a lessons learned culture where people not only take the trouble to learn from past projects, but actually want to learn - a culture where we apply best practices and discard bad ones.

If project managers are going to actively contribute to the project management knowledge within an organisation and make use of it, it's important to have a well-defined and simple process for collecting, collating, analysing, disseminating and acting upon lessons learned. Here we have a few suggestions:

Discover – Project teams should learn to identify lessons during projects and record them for inclusion in a lessons learned report at the end of the project. It is also important to note that lessons learned should be leveraged during the life cycle of the project, for example at phase boundaries as well as at the end so the project has a chance to learn from its own lessons. Lessons can be discovered by asking these three questions:

  • What went right?
  • What went wrong?
  • What could have been better?

Recommend – Project managers and their teams should make recommendations. What would they do differently if they could go back and start over again? This needs a degree of honesty and the feedback needs to be constructive in order to understand how things could be done better in the future. Lessons learned need to be applied into our daily lives of managing projects as we move forward.

Document and Share – It is important to document and share findings. The best way to do this is by creating a standard lessons learned report and a repository with good meta-data to help with identification. This should be kept updated with lessons from the most recent projects in order to take account of the current working environment, structures and constraints.

Review – It is the job of the Project Management Office (PMO) to review lessons learned reports and pull out issues that arise multiple times. The PMO must look at what makes projects succeed and what makes them fail, and give recommendations that sit alongside those of the project teams.

Store and Retrieve – Lessons learned must be stored in a central repository with general access. Project managers should be expected to retrieve and review lessons prior to commencing a project. They should have this as part of their annual performance objectives and be able to demonstrate they have retrieved, reviewed and applied lessons wherever applicable.

Act – It is all very well capturing and storing lessons learned but if no-one takes responsibility for acknowledging or acting on them then the process of documenting the lessons becomes pointless and redundant. Acting on lessons learnt is the key to learning from previous mistakes and making significant improvements to the project in hand.

Lessons Learnt From Previous Olympics – With regards to our own Olympic Games in London, there will be ample opportunity for short term gain. Both the Beijing and Sydney Olympic Games taught us not to be fooled by the location of the Games and assume it will only affect the east of London; it is likely day to day activities will be affected throughout the whole of London and surrounding areas. Rising rents in London have already been picked up on by the UK press, and no doubt rents in and around East London will continue to rise as demand will be elevated. Although, whilst taking advantage of a short term gain looks tempting, it is important to bear in mind that there will probably be a big fall on the other side.

In Sydney and Beijing, roads and transport suffered the greatest impact due to closures and the amount of traffic causing delays. Similarly transport problems remain "one of the biggest risks" to the 2012 Olympic Games according to a London Assembly report (April 2011). Dedicated temporary lanes, similar in appearance and function to bus lanes, will be assigned for the use of official Olympic vehicles and emergency services only. The level of London traffic needs to be taken into account when organising travel and the likelihood is that journey time frames will need to be extended.

The projects related to the London Olympic Games are continuously providing new lessons worth learning. p3m global, located on the sunny south coast, are lucky in the fact that they are not only just an hour from the main Olympic events in London but are also close by to the sailing that will be taking place in Weymouth. The coastline and popular New Forest area is renowned for its traffic jams and tail backs during the busy summer period and that is without the addition of a popular Olympic event being based in the region. It is true to say that the transport delay risk will inevitably extend outside of London in July and August and we will therefore be learning from this lesson and planning our journey times accordingly.

Off the topic of transport, it has been reported that UK immigration is already starting to get busier due to processing Olympic-related applications, which include those related to tourists, business, sports and entertainment. There may also be an increase in employment-related visas for companies who are supporting the Olympics and need to temporarily relocate their employees to the UK. In line with current practice, advance planning is advised where possible and UK visas should be applied for within three months before the date of travel.

Looking more specifically at the London 2012 construction programme, there are already a number of themes emerging which have been recorded for future projects. We must recognise that no two megaprojects are the same and that programme-specific characteristics will inevitably shape the appropriate organisational structure and management style. For example, the London 2012 construction programme contained a wide variety of individual projects (requiring a flexible approach to project procurement and contracting). Nevertheless, there are four key lessons that have been identified by the Olympic Delivery Authority*:

• Invest in comprehensive project and programme management processes. Stay in the right lane to learn lessons given by previous projects.
• Find a way to create an intelligent and broad-capability client.
• Secure 'full funding' (having a realistic programme to work from helps to create the right culture from the off);
• Invest in human resources and organisational development – to build skills, relationships and a supportive culture.
• Creation of a successful lessons learned culture needs leadership support as well as time and buy-in from project managers. Implementation of a simple process for collecting, collating, analysing and disseminating lessons learned is essential if it's to be adopted.

Once lessons have been captured, they need to be made available to all project teams to help them avoid repeating problems of the past. It is important that these teams understand what past projects have to tell them and act upon that information. History has a strange way of repeating itself. If we don't take the time to learn the lessons of the past, and moreover act upon them, we will continue to commit the same project management sins again and again.

Project management is a game of endurance, persistence and vision. The factors to "win" at project management are not dissimilar from those required to win a race at the Olympics. The athletes taking part in the London 2012 will have trained hard, set tangible targets and goals, managed their schedule, assessed the risks, learnt from their mistakes, capitalised on what works well and tried to avoid anything that led to past failure. The stakes and stress levels are high and team morale plays a vital role in crossing the finish line.

There is little difference between running a good race and running a good project. Success is the result of having a plan and the determination to do something to the best of our ability. Without having to learn, growth cannot not be achieved and whilst it often takes time, energy and determination, no victory is sweeter than one you have had to work hard for.

*Source: Lessons Learned from the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games Construction Programme – Ian Mackensie 7 Andrew Davies
This blog post was published on the PM-Partners Blog 12th June 2012.

Helen Carter served previously as a Consultant at p3m global (then known as PM-Partners EMEA). She now works as a project manager for Zurich Insurance.