Perceptions Matter

The Australian Institute of Management and the Safety Institute of Australia have recently published a survey on the effectiveness of organisation’s occupational health and safety (OH&S) processes. The findings may be of value to another specialist area – project management!

Some of the key findings were:

  • 77% of CEOs and 56% of senior managers stated they put a ‘very high priority’ on workplace OH&S. Only 38% of OH&S personnel thought their organisation placed a ‘very high priority’.
  • 50% of CEOs said they strongly agreed their organisation had a well entrenched OH&S culture, only 18% of OH&S personnel agreed.
  • 88% of CEOs and 70% of senior managers said top level management ‘walked the talk’ when it came to OH&S but only 47% of OH&S staff agreed.

This intention of this post is not to focus on the OH&S practices and policies of organisations, rather to speculate on why there is such a significant difference between senior management perceptions and specialist management perceptions.

It would be too easy to pass off the difference simply based on senior management ‘saying the right thing’, unlike project management if there is a serious accident, senior managers are personally liable and can face substantial criminal and civil penalties. It I simply not in management’s interest to ignore or accept sub-standard OH&S practices, in many Australian States they can literally go to jail if there is a significant failure.

My feeling is the dramatic difference is driven by two key factors that overlap and support each other.

The first is differences in the degree of technical understanding. The OH&S expert’s know what is possible, needed and represents current best practice. General management would have been involved in direct supervision of workplaces probably 10 to 20 years ago; best practices and the law has changed dramatically in the intervening period. The senior managers may believe their organisations are doing well simply because they don’t know what best practice looks like from personal experience and involvement. The challenge is to educate senior management on best practice so they actually understand – how you fit this into a senior manager’s busy schedule is an interesting problem.

The second is appreciating the details. OH&S expert’s see all of the issues, problems and failings. They know what is not working! By the time information is summarised, sanitised and passed through several levels of middle management most of the nitty gritty nasties are filtered out and overall the organisation is shown to be doing OK. This filtering and summarisation process is a well recognised problem and was a primary cause of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster; but again, how do you get the right information to executives without burying them in detail??

Now let’s look at our profession. Project Management is relatively new and has significant technical specialisations. Most executives have never worked as project managers or in a projectized workspace. Most project fail through a combination of small issues, problems and changes. There is not one big issue and most of the details are filtered out as information moves up the hierarchy. Rather then recognising the hidden systemic causes of failure, it is simpler to assume the people involved have failed and blame the project managers!!

Lastly, as with OH&S, effective project management requires the expenditure of resources to develop and maintain effective systems that prevent problems. But you cannot value the problems that don’t occur because you have effective systems! Any expenditure to improve systems has to be based on a belief the outlays deliver value, possibly backed up by some generic trend data. But to believe, you need to appreciate and understand the value; how can this be imparted to senior management???

Given OH&S has legislated conformance requirements and project management does not, it is quite likely your organisations executives believe the organisation is doing as good a job of managing its projects as they evidently believe they are doing with OH&S (and their perceptions are their reality). The challenge facing project management professionals is advising upwards to change these perceptions in a positive way. The key question is how?

The techniques of advising upwards are the focus of my new book, publication due in September (see more on the book) ).

Defining the message to be advised upwards is more complex:

  • Part of the answer is Cobbs Paradox (see the post )
  • Another aspect is valuing our processes (see the post)
  • The rest is likely to be a combination of persistence and performance.

What do you think?

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