Author Archives: Lynda Bourne

Good Governance, Good Outcomes!

Good governance is focused on setting the ‘right’ rules and objectives for an organisation, management is about working within those rules to achieve the objectives. Prudent governors also require assurance that the rules are being followed and the objectives achieved (for more see the six functions of governance)

Within this governance framework, getting the ethics and culture of an organisation right comes before anything else – it has far more to do with people, and culture than it does with process and policing! But crafting or changing culture and the resultant behaviours is far from easy and requires a carefully crafted long term strategy supported from the very top of the organisation. The journey is difficult, but achievable, and can pay major dividends to the organisation concerned. One interesting example of this approach in practice is the implementation of effective major project management by the UK government.

The problems with megaprojects[1]

The challenges and issues associated with megaprojects are well known, we recently posted on one aspect of this in the reference case for management reserves. The source materials used in this post clearly show that UK government has been acutely aware of the issues for many years as does any review of the UK National Audit Office’s reports into failed government projects.  At the 2016 PGCS symposium in Canberra, Geraldine Barker, from the UK NAO offered an independent and authoritative overview of the UK perspective and experience from her review of the Major Projects Authority, on the approaches, challenges, and lessons to be learned in improving the performance of major projects at individual and portfolio levels. While there were still major issues, there had also been a number of welcome developments to address the issues including:

  • Improvements to accountability with greater clarity about the roles of senior responsible owners;
  • Investment by the Authority and departments to improve the capability of staff to deliver major projects, with departments reporting to us that they are seeing benefits from these initiatives;
  • Increased assurance and recognition of the role that assurance plays in improving project delivery; and
  • Initiatives to prevent departments from getting locked into solutions too early.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said in a report to the UK Parliament on 6 January 2016, “I acknowledge that a number of positive steps have been taken by the Authority and client departments. At the same time, I am concerned that a third of projects monitored by the Authority are red or amber-red and the overall picture of progress on project performance is opaque. More effort is needed if the success rate of project delivery is to improve[2].

The major challenges identified in that report were to:

  • Prevent departments making firm commitments on cost and timescales for delivery before their plans have been properly tested;
  • Develop an effective mechanism whereby all major projects are prioritised according to strategic importance and capability is deployed to priority areas; and
  • Put in place the systems and data which allow proper performance measurement.

The latest report from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – IPA (formally the Major Projects Authority) has allowed the UK government to claim an improvement in its delivery of major projects, with the number of those at risk reducing from 44 to 38 in the past year.

The report says that there are 143 major projects on the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP), worth £455.5bn and spread across 17 government departments.

The data shows a steady improvement in the way that government is delivering major projects:

  • More than 60% of projects by whole-life cost are likely to be successfully delivered;
  • Since last year’s report, the number of at risk projects has reduced from 44 to 38, which continues to be an improvement from 48 the previous year;

The data shows signs of steady improvement in the way government is delivering major projects. The question is how was this achieved?

The answer is ‘slowly’ looking from the outside there seem to be three parallel processes working together to change the culture of the UK civil service:

  • The first is making project management ‘attractive’ to senior executives. Since 2000 the government has been working to develop the internal skills needed to allow the deployment of capable ‘Senior Responsible Owners’ (SRO) on all of its major projects including establishing a well-respected course for SROs. The Major Projects Leadership Academy was developed in 2012 (first graduates 2013) and is run in partnership with the Saïd Oxford Business School and Deloitte. The academy builds the skills of senior project leaders across government, making it easier to carry out complex projects effectively. In the future, no one will be able to lead a major government project without completing the academy programme.
  • The second has been making the performance of its major projects public. This includes an on-going challenge to acquire realistic and meaningful data on performance (still a challenge) and is most obvious in the annual report from the Major Projects Authority. Their fifth report is now available for downloading.
  • Finally skills development and robust challenges are put to departments to ensure adequate front end planning is completed before government funds are committed to a project.

This process is not quick and given the risky nature of major projects will never deliver a 100% success rate, but the steady change in attitudes and performance in the UK clearly show that ‘good governance’ backed by a sound multi-faceted strategy focused on the stakeholders engaged in the work will pay dividends. Proponents advocating for this type of improvement have many challenges to deal with, not the least of which is the fact that as data quality improves, the number of problems that will be visible increase – add the glare of publicity and this can be politically embarrassing!  However, as the UK reports show, persistence pays off.


[1] For a definition of megaprojects see:

[2] See:


Defining Project Success using Project Success Criteria

Everyone likes a successful project but the big question is what makes a project successful??  A good example is the Sydney Opera House; was the Sydney Opera House successful or not?

Was the Sydney Opera House a success or not?

The project ran significantly over budget finished very late and was technically less than perfect; $millions are currently being spent rectifying many of the technical deficiencies in the building. But can anyone say Sydney Opera House is not one of the most recognised and therefore successful buildings in the world?[1]

Success is an ephemeral concept! Different people will have different perspectives and judge the success or failure project differently. Neither a project nor a program manager can control many of the factors that have made the Sydney Opera House worldwide icon but they can address the concept of success with their stakeholders and then work to deliver a successful outcome based on these discussions.

So what is success? There are probably three key elements, but these frequently create a paradox that requires a balanced approach to success. The three fundamental elements are:

  • The Iron Triangle (Scope + Cost + Time)
  • Benefits realised (or maximised)
  • Satisfied stakeholders (but, when??)

One of the key paradox is a myopic focus on the Iron Triangle particularly time and cost can frequently destroy benefits and leave the stakeholders unhappy, but focusing on keeping stakeholders happy can frequently have detrimental effects on the Iron Triangle. There are no easy solutions to this problem[2].

In my view, the successful delivery of a project or program requires:

  • Achieving the overall goal for the project;
  • Delivering its objectives; and
  • Meeting its success criteria.

But, to achieve success you need to define and agree the project goal, the project objectives, and the project success criteria with your key stakeholders with a view to achieving a combination of stakeholder satisfaction and value created. The goal and objectives frame the project’s work and direction. The success criteria frame how the objectives are achieved.


The Project Goal

Goals are high-level statements that provide the overall context defining what the project is trying to achieve. One project should have one goal (if there are multiple goals you are most likely looking at a program of work[3])!  For example:  Within 180 days, reduce the pollution in the rainwater runoff from a council tip by 98%.

The goal is a key statement in the Project Charter[4] and if the project is to be successful, all key stakeholders need to agree the goal.  The goal needs to be specific and should define the project in a way that focuses attention on the key outcomes required for overall success from a technical and strategic business perspective[5].


Project Objectives

The objectives are lower level statements that describe the specific, tangible products and deliverables that the project will create; each objective (and the overall goal) should be SMART[6]. For the runoff project the objectives may include:

  • Develop wetlands to trap 99.8% of sediment
  • Install channels to collect and direct the runoff
  • Install screens remove floating debris
  • Etc….. There will be a number of objectives……

Each objective requires defining and specifying with clear performance criteria so you know when it has been achieved. This may be done by the client or by the project team during the scope definition process. The performance criteria may be defined by a set of precise specifications that are specific and measurable or may be defined as a performance requirement with either:

  • The external contractor to provide the specific details of how the objective will be achieved, or
  • The internal project team to develop the details in consultation with the client

The defined objectives are the building blocks that facilitate the achievement of the goal and the creation of the benefits the organisation is expecting from the project[7]. The benefits need to be realised to create value.


Success criteria

Success criteria are different they measure what’s important to your stakeholders. Consequently, they are the standards by which the project will be judged at the end to decide whether or not it has been successful in the eyes of its stakeholders. As far as possible the stakeholders need to be satisfied; this includes having their expectations fulfilled and in general terms being pleased with both the journey and the outcome (in this respect scope, cost and/or time may be important).

Success criteria can be expressed in many different ways some examples include:

  • Zero accidents / no environmental issues;
  • No ‘bad press’ / good publicity received;
  • Finalist in the project achievement awards;
  • Plus the goal and all of the objectives achieved (yes – you still need to do the work).

For any project, the success criteria should be split between project management success criteria which of related to the professional aspects of running the project; plus project deliverable success criteria which are related to the performance and function of the deliverable.

Documenting the success criteria is important, it means you can get project stakeholders to sign up to them, and having them clearly recorded removes ambiguity about what you are setting out to do. The four basic steps to create useful success criteria are

  1. Document and agree the criteria; each criteria should include:
    1. The name of success criteria,
    2. How it is going to be measured,
    3. How often it is going to be measured, and
    4. Who is responsible for the measurement.
  2. Use continuous measurements where possible. For example, rather than ‘finish the project on time’ measure progress continually ‘no activity completes more than 5 days after its late finish date’.
  3. Baseline today’s performance.
  4. Track and report on your progress.

As with any performance indicators, the art is to select a few key measures that represent the wider picture if there are too many success criteria defined the impact will be severely reduced. For example, the effectiveness of meetings, communication and stakeholder attitude could be measured scientifically using the ‘Index Value’ in the Stakeholder Circle[8] or pragmatically by measuring the number of open issues against a target (eg, no more than 5 high priority open issues).



Goals and objectives are the building blocks required to allow the realisation value from the project’s outputs; they are essential ingredients in a successful project but are insufficient on their own.  The role of success criteria is to direct the way work at the project is accomplished so as to meet stakeholder expectations, and to craft a perception of success in the stakeholder’s minds.

Project success is an amalgam of value created for the organisation and your stakeholders being satisfied with the journey and the outcome.  This concept of success may seem subjective, but it does not have to be. Successful organisations work to take the guesswork out of this process by defining what success looks like and agreeing these definitions with the key stakeholders, so they all know when the project has achieved it.

This means the key to stakeholders perceiving your project as successful lays in understanding the criteria they will measure success by, incorporating those measures into your project success criteria, and then working to achieve the criteria. But even this is not enough, to engage your stakeholders you need to communicate the criteria, communicate your progress and communicate your success at the end. For more on effective communication see:



[1] For more on the success or failure of the Sydney Opera House see Avoiding the Successful Failure!:

[2] For more on paradox see:

[3] For more on differentiating projects and programs see:

[4] For more on the project charter see:

[5] For more on project success see:

[6] SMART = Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-framed.

[7] For more on linking objectives and benefits see:

[8] The Stakeholder Circle® index value see:

Differentiating normal, complex and megaprojects

The days when projects were simply projects and project success was defined by the ‘iron triangle’ are long gone.  The intention of this post is to try and bring together four aspects of current thinking and their embedded concepts into an overall model of project management in the 21st century.  The starting point is traditional project management as defined in the soon to be published 6th Edition of the PMBOK® Guide; the major change (incorporated in the 6th Ed.) is ‘Agile Project Management’.  The two significant extensions to traditional project management that go beyond the PMBOK® Guide are ‘Complex Project Management’ and ‘Megaproject Management’. The focus of this paper is on the skills and competencies needed by the ‘managers’ of these different classifications of ‘projects’ rather than the scope of the different concepts (more on this later).

As a starting point, there seems to be a generally accepted view that the competencies needed to be a successful project manager underpin all of the other concepts. There are some distinctly different techniques used in Agile, only some of which flow into traditional project management, but in other respects ‘agile’ and ‘good project management’ are very closely aligned.  Managing complexity requires a significant additional set of competencies that build onto the traditional requirements.  Then, whilst many complex projects do not meet the definition of a ‘megaproject’, every megaproject is by definition a complex project with an additional layer of management capabilities needed to deal with its impact on society.  This basic framework is outlined below:


All forms of project management recognise the importance of the project stakeholders. Projects are done by people for people and the ultimate success or failure of a project is defined by people – all ‘stakeholders’.  My work on the PMBOK® Guide 6th Edition core team was very much focused on enhancing the sections on stakeholder engagement and communication (which is the primary tool for engaging stakeholders). And as the scale of projects increase, the number of stakeholders and the intensity of public focus increases dramatically.

A heuristic suggested by Prof. Bent Flyvbjerg is as a general rule of thumb: ‘megaprojects’ are measured in billions of dollars, ‘major projects’ in hundreds of millions, and ‘projects’ in tens of millions or less. To quote the late Spike Milligan, ‘Money can’t buy you friends but you do get a better class of enemy’ – and while many stakeholders may not be ‘enemies’, the ability of stakeholders to organise around a megaproject tends to be far greater than around a small internal project. Consequently, the focus on stakeholders should increase significantly in excess of the increment in cost as you flow from small to megaprojects.

However, regardless of size, the need to identify, engage, manage, and deliver value to stakeholders, through the realisation of beneficial change, is consistent through all of the concepts discussed below. This and the temporariness of each ‘project organisation (ie, team)’ are the two consistent factors that underpin the concept of project management; and ‘temporariness’ is the key factor that separates projects and programs from other forms of management and ‘business as usual’.


Traditional Project Management.

The recognised guide for traditional project management is the PMBOK® Guide augmented to a degree by ISO 21500. The publicly released information on the 6th Edition highlights the need for flexibility in applying its processes, including the requirement to actively consider ‘tailoring processes’ to meet project requirements, and the value agile thinking can bring to the overall management of projects (see below).

The frame of traditional project management starts once the project is defined and finishes once the project has delivered is objectives. While this scope is somewhat limited and there may be a need to expand the scope of project management to include project definition at the ‘front end’, and benefits realisation and value creation after the outputs have been delivered (this will be the subject of another post), the knowledge, skills and competencies required to manage this type of project management are well understood.

Each project has four basic dimensions, size (usually measured in $), technical difficulty, uncertainty and complexity (these are discussed in detail in: Project Size and Categorisation). In the right circumstances, Agile can be an effective approach to resolving uncertainty. However, at an undefined point, the increase in complexity reaches a point where the concept of ‘complex project management’ becomes significant and really large projects are the realm of ‘megaproject management’. But the underpinning capabilities required to manage all of these extensions remains the conventional project management skills.


Agile Project Management

Agile has many facets. The concepts contained in the Agile Manifesto basically reflect a shift away for a ridged focus on process towards a focus on people (stakeholders) and adapting to change to achieve a successful outcome.  These concepts are now firmly embedded in the PMBOK® Guide 6th Edition and apply to every project. Where agile projects separate from traditional projects is recognising that in a range of soft projects, including software development, taking an iterative and adaptive approach to understanding the scope can often achieve a better outcome. Understanding what is actually helpful to the client develops based on learned experience from earlier iterations and these needs are incorporated into the next iteration of the development allowing a better outcome to be delivered to the client. This is not significantly different to much older concepts such as ‘rolling wave planning’ and progressive elaboration – there really is little point in making detailed plans for work you don’t know much about. The difference is Agile actively expects the scope to be adapted to the emerging requirements of the client, the other approaches seek to add detail to the plans at an appropriate point in time whilst the overall scope remains fundamentally unchanged.

Agile does not even need a project to be useful. Many of the Agile techniques work in any situation where there is a backlog of work to get through and can be effectively used outside of the concept of a ‘project’, this particularly applies to routine maintenance work of almost any kind.  A discussion on the value of Agile, and its limitations, are contained in our paper Thoughts on Agile.

However, for the purposes of this post, the key aspects Agile brings to the discussion, that are essential for effectively managing most types of project, are contained in the Manifesto – a preference for:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

The Manifesto recognises there is value in the items on the right, but values the items on the left more.


Complex Project Management

Complexity is a facet of every project and program. Complex project management skills become important at the point where complexity becomes a significant inhibitor affecting the delivery of a successful outcome from the project (or program). This point may occur well before ‘complexity’ becomes the defining feature of the project.

Complexity is a very different concept to a complicated project, technically complicated work can be predicted and managed; launching a new communication satellite is ‘rocket science’, but there are highly skilled rocket scientists available that undertake this type of work on a routine basis. As with any traditional project, the costs, resources and time required can be predicted reasonably accurately.

The dominant feature of complexity is the non-predictability of outcomes. Non-linearity, ‘the tipping point’, and emergence describe different ways outcomes from a slightly different starting point can vary significantly compared to previous experience or expectations (for more on the concepts of complexity see: Complexity Theory).  Complexity arises from various forms of complex system, these may be organic (eg, a river’s eco-system), man-made (eg, an overly complicated system-of-systems such as too many interconnected software applications automatically interacting with each other), or interpersonal (eg, the web of relationships within and between a project team and its surrounding stakeholder community).  In all of these situations, the ‘system’ behaves relatively predictably, dealing with the effects of stresses and stimuli up to a point (and normal management approaches work satisfactorily); but after that point adding or changing the situation by a small increment creates completely unexpected consequences.

Interestingly, from the perspective of managing a project, these three areas of complexity are closely interlinked, the complex behaviour of the environment and/or man-made systems-of-systems feeds back into the perceptions of stakeholders and the activity of stakeholders can impact on both the environment, and the way complex systems function. Similarly, dealing with emerging anomalies in the environment or in a complex system needs the active cooperation of at least some of the project’s stakeholders. Consequently, the focus of complex project management is dealing with the consequences of the inherently unpredictable and complex behaviours and attitudes of stakeholders, both within the team and within the surrounding stakeholder community.

Some projects and programs, particularly large ones, are obviously complex from the outset and can be set up to make effective use of the ideas embedded in complex project management. Others may be perceived as non-complex ‘business-as-usual’ and tip into complexity as a result of some unforeseen factor such as a ‘normal accident[1]’ occurring or simply because the perception of ‘straightforward’ was ill-founded. Underestimating complexity is a significant risk.

Where the project is perceived to be complex from the outset, a management team with the competencies required to deal with the nuances of managing a ‘complex project’ can be appointed from day one (and if appropriately skilled people are not available, support and training can be provided to overcome the deficiencies) – this maximises the probability of a successful outcome.  When a project unexpectedly falls into a state of complexity the situation is far more difficult to manage primarily because the people managing the work are unlikely to be skilled in complex project management, will try to use normal management techniques and most organisations lack the resources needed to help rectify the situation – skilled complex project managers are in short supply globally.

One initiative designed to overcome this shortage of ‘complex project managers’ and build an understanding of ‘complex project management’ is the International Centre for Complex Project Management (ICCPM).  ICCPM’s approach to complex project management is to see this capability as an extension of traditional project management (as inferred in the diagram above). The ICCPM view is that while traditional approaches are insufficient to effectively manage a complex project on their own, you cannot manage a complex project without a strong foundation based on these traditional skills and processes. The relationship is described by the ICCPM as:

What changes is in part the way the traditional capabilities such as scheduling and budgeting are used, overlaid with the expectation these artifacts will need to adjust and change as the situation around the project changes, augmented with a range of ‘special attributes’ particular to the process of managing a complex project. These ‘special attributes’ are valuable in the management of any project but become essential in the management of complex projects.  These capabilities and competencies are defined in the ICCPM’s Complex Project Manager Competency Standard available from:

Complex projects can vary in size from relatively small undertakings involving factors such as updating a complex systems-of-systems, or a high level of political sensitivity, through to the megaprojects discussed below. A complex project may not be a megaproject or even a major project, but every megaproject and many major projects will also be a complex project requiring complex project management capabilities for a successful outcome.


Megaproject Management

Megaprojects are defined as temporary endeavours (i.e. projects or programs) characterised by:

  • A large investment commitment;
  • Vast complexity (especially in organizational terms); and
  • A long-lasting impact on the economy (of a country or region), the environment, and society.

They are initiatives that are physical, very expensive, and public. By definition, megaprojects are complex endeavours requiring a high degree of capability in the management of complex projects.  In addition megaprojects typically involve a number of other facets:

  • Megaprojects are by definition a program of work (see: Defining Program Types).
  • Many are implemented under government legislation, requiring skills and knowledge of government processes and the ability to operate within the ambit of ‘government’. This is a very different space in terms of accountability and transparency compared to private enterprise.
  • Most interact with a range of government agencies at all levels of government from local to national. These stakeholders often have a very different set of agendas and success criteria compared to the organisation running the megaproject.
  • The size of a typical megaproject involves large amounts of money and therefore increases the risk of corruption and other malfeasance – governance and controls need to be robust[2] to maintain high ethical standards.
  • The ‘political attractiveness’ of doing a megaproject (eg, hosting the Olympics) distorts decision making; care in the megaproject development process is required to reduce the effect of optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation (see: The reference case for management reserves).
  • Megaprojects are financially fragile[3] and fragility is typically irreversible. Once broken the fragile entity cannot be readily restored to its original function. Financial (or investment) fragility is defined as the vulnerability of a financial investment to becoming non-viable, i.e., losing its ability to create net economic value. For example, the cost risks for big dams are significant; the actual costs more than doubles the original estimate for 2 out of 10 dams; triples for 1 out of every 10 big dams. But managers do not seem to learn; forecasts today are likely to be as wrong as they were between 1934 and 2007.

Recognising the scope and complexity of managing a megaproject and training people appropriately can mitigate the risks, the UK experience around Terminal 5 and Cross Rail (both £4 billion projects) suggest that achieving a good outcome is viable provided the organisation commissioning the megaproject is prepared to invest in its management. It’s probably no coincidence the management of megaprojects and their associated risk has been the focus of the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford for many years.



The competencies needed to manage projects grows in line with the increase in complexity and the increase in size. There are definitely additional elements of competency needed at each step in the framework outlined above.  What is far less clear is how to demarcate between normal, complex and megaprojects! Every project has a degree of complexity and a degree of size.  The values suggested above to separate normal, major and mega projects are arbitrary and there is even less clarity as to the transition between normal and complex projects.

I suspect the domain map demarcating the different disciplines will end up looking something like this but there’s a lot of research needed to define the boundaries and assign values to the axis (especially in terms of measuring the degree of complexity).  Hopefully, this blog will serve to start the discussion.



[1] Normal accidents are system accidents that are inevitable in extremely complex systems. The three
conditions that make a system likely to be susceptible to Normal Accidents are:
–  The system is complex
–  The system is tightly coupled
–  The system has catastrophic potential
The characteristic of the system leads to multiple failures which interact with each other, despite efforts to avoid them.

[2] For more on governance and ethics see:

[3] From: Big Is Fragile: An Attempt at Theorizing Scale, in Bent Flyvbjerg, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

The reference case for management reserves

Risk management and Earned Value practitioners, and a range of standards, advocate the inclusion of contingencies in the project baseline to compensate for defined risk events. The contingency may (should) include an appropriate allowance for variability in the estimates modelled using Monte Carlo or similar; these are the ‘known unknowns’.  They also advocate creating a management reserve that should be held outside of the project baseline, but within the overall budget to protect the performing organisation from the effects of ‘unknown unknowns’.  Following these guidelines, the components of a typical project budget are shown below.

PMBOK® Guide Figure 7-8

The calculations of contingency reserves should be incorporated into an effective estimating process to determine an appropriate cost estimate for the project[1]. The application of appropriate tools and techniques supported by skilled judgement can arrive at a predictable cost estimate which in turn becomes the cost baseline once the project is approved. The included contingencies are held within the project and are accessed by the project management team through normal risk management processes. In summary, good cost estimating[2] is a well understood (if not always well executed) practice, that combines art and science, and includes the calculation of appropriate contingencies. Setting an appropriate management reserve is an altogether different problem.


Setting a realistic management reserve

Management reserves are an amount of money held outside of the project baseline to ‘protect the performing organisation’ against unexpected cost overruns. The reserves should be designed to compensate for two primary factors.  The first are genuine ‘black swans’ the other is estimating errors (including underestimating the levels of contingency needed).

The definition of a ‘black swan’ event is a significant unpredicted and unpredictable event[3].  In his book of the same name, N.N. Taleb defines ‘Black Swans’ as having three distinct characteristics: they are unexpected and unpredictable outliers, they have extreme impacts, and they appear obvious after they have happened. The primary defence against ‘black swans’ is organisational resilience rather than budget allowances but there is nothing wrong with including an allowance for these impacts.

Estimating errors leading to a low-cost baseline, on the other hand, are both normal and predictable; there are several different drivers for this phenomenon most innate to the human condition. The factors leading to the routine underestimating of costs and delivery times, and the over estimating of benefits to be realised, can be explained in terms of optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation.  The resulting inaccurate estimates of project costs, benefits, and other impacts are major source of uncertainty in project management – the occurrence is predictable and normal, the degree of error is the unknown variable leading to risk.

The way to manage this component of the management reserves is through the application of reference class forecasting which enhances the accuracy of the budget estimates by basing forecasts on actual performance in a reference class of comparable projects. This approach bypasses both optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation.

Reference class forecasting is based on theories of decision-making in situations of uncertainty and promises more accuracy in forecasts by taking an ‘outside view’ of the projects being estimated. Conventional estimating takes an ‘inside view’ based on the elements of the project being estimated – the project team assesses the elements that make up the project and determine a cost. This ‘inside’ process is essential, but on its own insufficient to achieve a realistic budget. The ‘outside’ view adds to the base estimate based on knowledge about the actual performance of a reference class of comparable projects and resolves to a percentage markup to be added to the estimated price to arrive at a realistic budget.  This addition should be used to assess the value of the project (with a corresponding discounting of benefits) during the selection/investment decision making processes[4], and logically should be held in management reserves.

Overcoming bias by simply hoping for an improvement in the estimating practice is not an effective strategy!  Prof. Bent Flyvbjerg’s 2006 paper ‘From Nobel Prize to Project Management: Getting Risks Right[5]’ looked at 70 years of data.  He found: Forecasts of cost, demand, and other impacts of planned projects have remained constantly and remarkably inaccurate for decades. No improvement in forecasting accuracy seems to have taken place, despite all claims of improved forecasting models, better data, etc.  For transportation infrastructure projects, inaccuracy in cost forecasts in constant prices is on average 44.7% for rail, 33.8% for bridges and tunnels, and 20.4% for roads.

The consistency of the error and the bias towards significant underestimating of costs (and a corresponding overestimate of benefits) suggest the root causes of the inaccuracies are psychological and political rather than technical – technical errors should average towards ‘zero’ (plusses balancing out minuses) and should improve over time as industry becomes more capable, whereas there is no imperative for psychological or political factors to change:

  • Psychological explanations can account for inaccuracy in terms of optimism bias; that is, a cognitive predisposition found with most people to judge future events in a more positive light than is warranted by actual experience[6].
  • Political factors can explain inaccuracy in terms of strategic misrepresentation. When forecasting the outcomes of projects, managers deliberately and strategically overestimate benefits and underestimate costs in order to increase the likelihood that their project will gain approval and funding either ahead of competitors in a portfolio assessment process or by avoiding being perceived as ‘too expensive’ in a public forum – this tendency particularly affects mega-projects such as bids for hosting Olympic Games.


Optimism Bias

Reference class forecasting was originally developed to compensate for the type of cognitive bias that Kahneman and Tversky found in their work on decision-making under uncertainty, which won Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics[7]. They demonstrated that:

  • Errors of judgment are often systematic and predictable rather than random.
  • Many errors of judgment are shared by experts and laypeople alike.
  • The errors remain compelling even when one is fully aware of their nature.

Because awareness of a perceptual or cognitive bias does not by itself produce a more accurate perception of reality, any corrective process needs to allow for this.


Strategic Misrepresentation

When strategic misrepresentation is the main cause of inaccuracy, differences between estimated and actual costs and benefits are created by political and organisational pressures, typically to have a business case approved, or a project accepted, or to get on top of issues in the 24-hour news cycle.  The Grattan Institute (Australia) has reported that in the last 15 years Australian governments had spent $28 billion more than taxpayers had been led to expect. A key ‘political driver’ for these cost overruns was announcing the project (to feed the 24-hour news cycle) before the project team had properly assessed its costs.  While ‘only’ 32% of the projects were announced early, these accounted for 74% of the value of the cost overruns.

The Grattan Institute (Australia) has reported that in the last 15 years Australian governments had spent $28 billion more than taxpayers had been led to expect on transport infrastructure projects. One of the key ‘political drivers’ for these cost overruns was announcing the project (to feed the 24-hour news cycle) before the project team had properly assessed its costs.  While ‘only’ 32% of the projects were announced early, these projects accounted for 74% of the value of the cost overruns.

Reference class forecasting will still improve accuracy in these circumstances, but the managers and estimators may not be interested in this outcome because the inaccuracy is deliberate. Biased forecasts serve their strategic purpose and overrides their commitment to accuracy and truth; consequently the application of reference class forecasting needs strong support from the organisation’s overall governance functions.


Applying Reference Class Forecasting

Reference class forecasting does not try to forecast specific uncertain events that will affect a particular project, but instead places the project in a statistical distribution of outcomes from the class of reference projects.  For any particular project it requires the following three steps:

  1. Identification of a relevant reference class of past, similar projects. The reference class must be broad enough to be statistically meaningful, but narrow enough to be truly comparable with the specific project – good data is essential.
  2. Establishing a probability distribution for the selected reference class. This requires access to credible, empirical data for a sufficient number of projects within the reference class to make statistically meaningful conclusions.
  3. Comparing the specific project with the reference class distribution, in order to establish the most likely outcome for the specific project.

The UK government (Dept. of Treasury) were early users of reference class forecasting and continue its practice.  A study in 2002 by Mott MacDonald for Treasury found over the previous 20 years on government projects the average works duration was underestimated by 17%, CAPEX was underestimated by 47%, and OPEX was underestimated by 41%.  There was also a small shortfall in benefits realised.


This study fed into the updating of the Treasury’s ‘Green Book’ in 2003, which is still the standard reference in this area. The Treasury’s Supplementary Green Book Guidance: Optimism Bias[8] provides the recommended range of markups with a requirement for the ‘upper bound’ to be used in the first instance by project or program assessors.

These are very large markups to shift from an estimate to a likely cost and are related to the UK government’s estimating (ie, the client’s view), not the final contractors’ estimates – errors of this size would bankrupt most contractors.  However, Gartner and most other authorities routinely state project and programs overrun costs and time estimates (particularly internal projects and programs) and the reported ‘failure rates’ and overruns have remained relatively stable over extended periods.



Organisations can choose to treat each of their project failures as a ‘unique one-off’ occurrence (another manifestation of optimism bias) or learn from the past and develop their own framework for reference class forecasting. The markups don’t need to be included in the cost baseline (the project’s estimates are their estimates and they should attempt to deliver as promised); but they should be included in assessment process for approving projects and the management reserves held outside of the baseline to protect the organisation from the effects of both optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation.  As systems, and particularly business cases, improve the reference class adjustments should reduce but they are never likely to reduce to zero, optimism is an innate characteristic of most people and political pressures are a normal part of business.

If this post has sparked your interest, I recommend exploring the UK information to develop a process that works in your organisation:


[1] For more on risk assessment see:

[2] For more on cost estimating see:

[3] For more on ‘black swans’ see:

[4] For more on portfolio management see:

[5] Project Management Journal, August 2006.

[6] For more on the effects of bias see:

[7] Kahneman, D. (1994). New challenges to the rationality assumption. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical
Economics, 150, 18–36.

[8] Green Book documents can be downloaded from:

Two exceptional workshops at PGCS 2017 – 1st May

PGCS 2017 is offering workshops by Dr. Lynda Bourne and Dr. Keith Joiner in Canberra on Monday 1st May. Both offer a unique international viewpoint on very different aspects of project management.

My (Lynda’s) workshop ‘Leading Successful Teams’ focuses on collaborative teams which are key to success in any business activity. The most effective teams consist of individuals who can work independently on their own tasks, but also recognise the need to work collaboratively with other team members toward the activity’s goal and the organization’s success.

The leader of the team contributes significantly to team success through inspiring all team members to work together to achieve this goal, but must also intervene to reduce conflict and to motivate team members to continue to work collaboratively.

This session will focus on the needs of first-time team managers and will consist some theory, and a little practice, on the following topics:

–  Motivation

–  Delegation

–  Giving feedback

–  Resolving conflict.

This full day workshop is based on my Master’s course I’ve been running at EAN University in South America for the last 5 years and offers exceptional value at $450 (catering and GST included)

Keith’s workshop ‘methods for test design and analysis prescribed in U.S. Industry & Defence’ will introduce and illustrate the new methods in test design and analysis are, and how they are used to:

– screen for significant design factors;

– model design factors;

– screen for operational factors;

– model operational factors; and

– where equipment is taken off-the-shelf, improve the efficiency of validating performance.

Participants will use an instructional toy system and study several example uses to reinforce how the methods work.

This half day workshop is great value at $330 (Afternoon tea and GST included)

Both workshops offer exceptional value and are open to everyone – you do not need to attend the PGCS symposium to enjoy these process…… For more information and bookings see:

How the chair can make a meeting ineffective

The chair of any meeting has a unique ability to destroy the value of the meeting!

Eight of the key ways to reduce the meeting’s value are:

  1. Playing favourites. Bad chairs tend to shut down some attendees whilst allowing others they see as politically important to occupy most of the speaking time. The outcome from this behaviour tends to be poor decision-making; bad chairs don’t care. Their interest is to stay the good books of the people they see as politically important.
  2. Changing the rules. Bad chairs keep the rules to themselves and change the rules when it suits them. They don’t give advice on what preparation attendees need to make or advise how the meeting will be conducted. While this trait may appear to appear to be a gambit to leave the chair in control, in reality it means the meeting is likely to be less than useful.
  3. Showing bias. When there is a vigorous debate between various groups in the meeting a bad chair will obviously be supporting one side.  Good chairs remain neutral whilst they may feel strongly about subject their primary function is to ensure the meeting reaches a consensus, not that the meeting reaches a decision that they predetermine as being optimum (although they need to be part of the consensus).
  4. Failing to define its purpose. Bad chairs do not define a clear objective for the meeting, fail to set priorities, and don’t circulate an agreed agenda. Good chairs define the purpose of every meeting with crystal clarity so attendees can come prepared and stay focused.
  5. Losing control. The hallmarks of a bad chair during the meeting include running over time, getting off track, get rattled, and allowing discussion to descend into personal arguments. Good facilitators keep their hands firmly on the reins consistently and politely guiding discussion back to the purpose of the meeting.
  6. Failing to communicate. Bad chairs tend to display no sense of appreciation for the points made by contributors to the discussion and tend to ignore many of the attendees. Good chairs are great communicators remember everybody’s name, include newcomers, and are excellent at active listening and summarising points to ensure everybody has a clear understanding of the current state discussion[1].
  7. Failing to make decisions. Deadlocks happen in most meetings, bad chairs cannot solve them. A good chair will either take a vote, extend discussion for a set (limited) period, set up a working party, or call an extraordinary meeting to deal with the item later; any of these options are better than allowing the meeting to waffle on allowing tension and confusion to grow.
  8. Failing to engage with meeting participants outside of the meeting. Bad chairs are missing in action, too busy to be involved with the delegates other than during the meeting. Good chairs recognise the meeting is part of a continuing process that requires responsive input and support between meetings.

Meetings are an expensive resource often costing thousands of dollars an hour to run. If you are the chair of the meeting, or are responsible for calling a meeting, you need to ensure the meeting is managed effectively to maximise the opportunity for success.  This is important for every type of meeting from a short team ‘stand-up’ through to company board meetings – the further up the hierarchy the greater the cost of ineffective meetings. Unfortunately ‘bad chairs’ seem to be common at all levels; the idea for this post came from an article by Kath Walters in the AICD March 2017 magazine focused on the behaviour of dysfunctional boards of directors.

Recognising poor performance is one thing, doing something about it is another; for more on managing effective meetings see:

Meeting management and effective communication also feature in our PMP and CAPM courses – the next 5-day intensive course starts 20th March, see:


[1] For more on active listening see:

The Yin and Yang of Integrated Data Systems

yin_yangIntegrated project management information systems (PMIS) are becoming more common and more sophisticated ranging from ‘web portals’ that hold project data through to the potential for fully integrated design and construction management using BIM[1].  The benefits derived from using these systems can be as much as 20% of the build price on complex construction projects using BIM.

pmisThe advantages of this type of information storage and retrieval system include:

  • Ready access to data when needed via PDAs and ‘tablets’ significantly reducing the need for ‘push’ communication and the existence of ‘redundant data’[2].
  • One place to look for information with indexing and cross-referencing to minimise the potential for missed information.
  • Audit trails and systems to ensure only the latest version of any document is available.
  • Cross-linking of data in different documents and formats to assist with configuration management, requirements traceability, and change control.
  • Controls on who can ‘see’ the data, access the data and edit the data.
  • Workflow functions to remind people of their next job, list open actions, record actual progress, etc[3].
  • A range of built-in functions to validate data and avoid ‘clashes’, including locking or ‘freezing’ parts of the data set when that information has been moved into ‘work’.

These benefits are significant and a well-designed system reduces errors and enhances productivity leading to reduced costs, but the ‘yin’ of well-designed PMIS comes with a ‘yang’!

People increasingly tend to believe information produced from a computer system, this is true of ‘Facebook’, Wikipedia and flows through to more sophisticated systems. There also seems to be a steady reduction in the ability of younger people in particular to critically analyse information; in short, if it comes from the computer many people will assume it is correct. Add to this the ability of many of the more sophisticated PMIS tools to transpose and transfer information between different parts of the systems automatically or semiautomatically and there is a potential for many of the benefits outlined above to be undermined by poor data. This issue has been identified for decades and has the acronym GIGO – garbage in, garbage out.

The question posed in this blog is how many projects and project support organisations (PMOs, etc.) consider or actively implement effective data traceability.  Failed audits, overruns from scope oversights, and uninformed or ill-informed decision-making are just a few of the consequences project teams suffer from if they do not have full traceability of their project management data. This issue exists in any information processing system from basic schedule updating, through monthly reporting to the most sophisticated, integrated PMIS. If you cannot rely on the source data, no amount of processing will improve the situation! And to be able to rely on data, you need to be able to trace it back to its source.

tracabilityTraceability is defined as ‘the ability to trace the location, history and use of each data element’. This sounds simple but in reality can be very challenging, and the results of poor visibility can be devastating to a project. Some of the key questions to ask are:

  • Where did this data or these actuals come from?
  • What is the authorizing document and when did it get signed/approved?
  • Has everyone approved the change request or action item?

Traceability does not happen by accident! Project management information systems have to be designed with traceability as a key element in each of its aspects.  As information comes into the system the author or the origin of the information has to be recorded (preferably automatically). Depending on the nature of the information it may need to be quarantined until appropriate checks have been carried out and/or approvals have been obtained and then there needs to be traceability of any subsequent changes. The foundation of traceability is the combination of processes (people) and data management.

Therefore, the ‘yang’ of a sophisticated integrated project management information systems is that as the systems become more integrated and sophisticated people will come to rely on the information provided and ‘trust it’ whilst the source and veracity of the data used becomes less obvious.

Resolving this is partly process and partly people. The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) has produced the Time and Cost Management Contract Suite 2015 focused on complex construction projects using BIM.  This contract defines a number of key support roles (largely independent of the parties) focused on managing the information flows into and out of the system to ensure its accuracy and validity. Similar roles and responsibilities are essential in any effective PMIS.

My latest post on the PMI ‘Voices blog’, From Data to Wisdom: Creating & Managing Knowledge highlights the importance of data as the underpinning of all reporting and communication.  So the question is, how much focus does your project team or PMO put on ensuring the data it is using is timely, complete, accurate and traceable?


[1] BIM = Building Information Modelling, see:

[2] For more on planning project communication see:

[3] A discussion on how these capabilities can enhance project controls is at: