Everything I know about project management I learnt from Kevin McCloud on Grand Designs

‘Grand Designs’, a television programme that follows the travails of passionate, amateur, house builders says a lot about how projects go awry.

I’m not even joking. I’ve been working for large corporations for several years now, in several different capacities like document control and communications. I’ve worked on million pound and billion pound projects but I’m not going to claim to know anything about project management.

As an internal communications specialist and intranet manager, I run campaigns that might stretch across the year, and have input to our communication strategy. In general though, I manage communications plans and I manage and edit our intranet. So, I don’t often get my hands on an actual budget, or indeed, have any ‘resources’ to manage, excepting our communication channels.

But, having now planned and built our brand new intranet I’ve come up against project management practices, and I notice that ‘Grand Designs’ from Channel 4 hits the nail on the head.

Kevin McCloud [of the clan McCloud (there can be only one)], passionate about buildings with a strong narrative, is most distressed when he finds couples building their own house who have no experience in project management. Kevin exclaims at their indulgence as they change the designs mid-way through the build, and hides his anxious fear as they wholly underestimate the cost and build-time.

As a corporate slave, I see business and IT projects regularly go over budget and well past their allotted time-scales. Why are we so poor at planning? Why don’t we recognise that we need more contingency plans? As communicators, why do we make promises about the ‘launch date’ when we know there’s a high risk of missing the deadline?

What I’ve learnt from Grand Designs

  • Plans are important, but they represent our intentions, not reality;
  • Cost and time estimates / plans are guesswork;
  • A defined budget is needed for ‘contingency’ – we need to plan for the unforeseen;
  • It seems like things cost a third more than you expected;
  • It feels like things take a third longer to complete than expected;
  • Do a lot yourself, stay on top of all details, know everything;
  • Hire experts – their work is faster and better than cheaper amateurs;
  • If quality is important, you’ll go over your deadline – probably your budget too;
  • If the deadline cannot be extended you’ll need to throw more money at the project;
  • Assuming quality is important, you may need to drop / defer some features (especially when building a new intranet or software product);
  • Communication is critical – and this doesn’t just mean sharing figures within the team – we need to talk to people and listen to people (even outside the project team);
  • Take plenty of time to plan the work, and get the expected inputs reviewed as well as the desired outputs;
  • Never, ever, change the design specification mid-way through the project;
  • Regardless of the plans, decisions will need to be made as you go, in seconds;
  • The ownership of the project, end result / product etc. must be crystal clear;
  • Prepare stakeholders to approve a second project directly after this one, to improve / manage / implement things;
  • Never compromise on the ‘finish’ or the ‘detail’ work, even though your manager and IT gurus will tell you there’s “no choice” and they’re “not crucial”;
  • Not everyone will like the end result – people will say horrid things, yet after six months everyone feels OK about it.

OK, I’ve compromised plenty on the look and design of my new intranet, but Kevin McCloud would not be proud of me for doing so. One has to maintain a strong vision, and that means adhering to your initial principles. but I’m told I’m wrong, and that the features and functionality of my intranet are the crucial matters, and I shouldn’t worry so about the details. I’m told that compromising is a mature behaviour. Can’t argue with that.


Photo credit: damo1977

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