In Capital Projects, Less Is More

In Capital Projects, Less Is More

Every industry is governed by a set of unspoken rules and assumptions defining what makes that industry different and unique; a set of ideas that are accepted as general truth by the professionals of the industry at large.

In the capital projects industry, that assumption currently manifests itself through a wide acceptance of the “insurmountable” unique complexities that characterize construction projects along with a dramatic shift toward the belief that successful project management depends primarily on software tools and practices rather than on people’s skills and competencies.

When I first started in the capital projects management field, I was repeatedly told: “Every construction project is unique, construction heavily depends on people and people are unpredictable; that is why most efforts at standardization are somehow inherently doomed to fail and that is why low office and field productivity in the world of capital projects will continue to characterize our industry for a long time.”

Greek mythology brings us Sisyphus, a former king punished by the gods to push an immense boulder up a hill and watch it roll down, forever. With increasingly unstable and short-cycled economic conditions determining the fate of capital intensive projects, like Sisyphus, a capital project manager, along with his or her team, seems to be doomed to the process of project formation from scratch, over and over again.

After a journey of passionate interdisciplinary and comparative research applied to the world of capital projects, I have come to realize that 1) conventional project management textbooks, 2) our general and overwhelming pursuit of “best practices” and 3) the industry’s current approach to information technology, no longer seem to be enough in preparing project teams for effective and successful project delivery.

On the contrary, we have done very little to empower project teams. For instance, while we have relatively recognized the importance of interoperability and integration in design information exchange, we have long ignored and underestimated the importance of integrating teams, work processes, and project activities.

Successful project managers and project directors who have consistently delivered superior value to their organizations and industries, tend to have one common trait: they are all exceptional decision-makers with an unorthodox approach to defining their management priorities. These capital project thinkers (who have contributed to shaping my view of capital projects) have developed and nurtured their ability to think critically in any given situation by making themselves and their teams less and less vulnerable to risk through the power of the right decisions at the right time.

For these successful project professionals, timely decisions drive the process, quality is more important than quantity, teams are more important than practices. For these project leaders, flexibility and predictability do not contradict each other. They are comfortable with variability and their teams are individually empowered and clearly distinguish between doing one’s job right and dealing with risk. 

So, instead of focusing all our efforts trying to anticipate project-related risks and accounting for them, I believe we should learn from these exceptional project leaders and organizations who have invested in their project teams’ ability to turn negative into positive by capitalizing on their experience through the power of accountability, alignment, and transparency.

For such organizations, when it comes to capital projects, strategically speaking, strong team shaped processes and the effectiveness of their decision making protocols are the source of their competitive edge over the competition. The rest of the project management suite of “tools” is just another cost of doing business, a cost that they remain ready to rethink and adapt as soon as it is proven to jeopardize or limit their competitive advantage.

For such organizations, there is no magical method or tool for achieving project delivery excellence. For the best outcome, shaping clear levels of accountability and enabling transparency across the project team is a more reliable principle of an operation transcending beyond an accumulation of “tools” and the adoption of the latest industry hot idea.

The magic lies in the magician, not in the wand — let’s build on that. 

Article initially published at constructioncapitalprojects.com.

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