Can we measure project success likelihood from the truth we hold most dear?

I would like to propose that we might. But I am back to university again to stress test this idea. All critical challenge is very welcome.

Here is a summary of elements, or truth bearers, I am revisiting.

visibility +/- behaviour +/- trust = project truth

This is a terrible simplification, and on the face of it is considering three unmeasurable parameters of an unquantifiable metric. It is however, a means to demonstrate why I believe our project thinking to be fundamentally flawed.

The toddler by the lake – the choice we do not make

Here is a metaphor to make a comparison with what we would all want to think is a truth.

the scenario

You are walking in a park and spot a toddler by a lake. You judge the child to be in no immediate danger but closer to the edge then they should be. You look around. No adult supervisor can be seen nearby. What do you do?

The responsible actions may be one of the following.

  • call out to see if they are okay. Maybe that is a little over the top.
  • change your direction of walking to close the distance to the child. Getting closer, but without spooking the child or an unseen parent. This is just in-case the situation changes – and requires you to take emergency action – but for now also without causing alarm.
  • keep your distance but increase vigilance to the situation. Maybe you are a fast runner and think the distance acceptable as it is.
  • seek a second opinion of another person nearby. To see if other options are worth considering or if they are better placed to act.

The switch

Same scenario, but the toddler is now an adult. An adult with a tracksuit top on with Olympic Swimmer written on the back.

Clearly, none of the actions from the first version are likely to apply in this second. At least not with rescue sentiments in mind.

What has changed?

You have increased trust. Increased trust that the Olympic Swimmer is safe. It was the distrust of the toddler’s risk awareness that required you to increase your attention to the situation. It was the distrust of the toddler’s capability to save their self that required you to reduce the gap, and increase you readiness to act.

Being true to the wellbeing of others

In this example the responsible actions were yours to make. There were choices but ignoring the toddler was not one of them, at least by my reckoning of rational and moral behaviour. This situation has changed what it is to be true. It requires you to make an intended change. The goal of which is to present an increased level of safety to another. It is time-bound by the urgency of the situation. The level of trust, the level of behaviour of the other and yourself, and the visibility required to uphold this shared truth, are all responding in predictable ways. When a shared truth exists, no matter how fleeting it is, the less trust that exists so visibility and behaviours directed towards that truth necessarily need to increase.

How is this project related?

I will admit that it is a reach to make this momentary scenario a project. That is not the intention of this page, although I will be arguing this in due course. My intention here is to demonstrate an oddity of commercial projects when considered against this same otherwise common-sense expectation of us all.

Construction projects operate in low trust environments

I doubt construction is any different to any other competitive trading environment. No one trusts anyone, and that is just life to most. Collaboration is a buzz word. It wins tenders. It scores well on key performance indicators and ticks boxes. When it comes down to it, everyone is assuming the worst of the other. As I think we all do of any counterparty to any contract. Contracts are the frameworks of delegated responsibility. Cashflow is king, and we feed ourselves first.

Yet, it is curious to me, with this metaphor of the toddler by the lake close to hand, that project actors are not stepping up their vigilance of each other or regulating behaviours by the proximity to the other. Quite the opposite is true. Low trust is often accompanied by distance, both in proximity and reporting. Something else is happening, and I believe it to be at the heart of why our projects do not succeed. We do not step closer and increase our vigilance, instead we build a control environment to the benefit of one project party at the expense of the other. Contracts replace trust, and permit colloquial behaviours by both parties. Greater visibility, more interest in regulating behaviour, are not directly increased. Instead they are circumvented, deflected. We make defensive decisions. We use contracts to replace trust. Seeking financial protection from our counterparts. Because we feed ourselves first, and will take food from others if they fail our needs.

The final outcome is predictable. Dispute between these parties. What is disputed is perhaps the most interesting part and where I will leave this article for now. What is disputed is the events, the status, the responsibility, for what has gone wrong. We retrospectively become interested in visibility and behaviours. What becomes disputed is the truth. And the commercial boundary (the contract) is where it becomes divided. This, in my opinion, is where our projects fail.