Guest Column | October 24, 2017

Want To Lock In Project Success? Lead Your People There

By Elizabeth Dorey

The challenges being taken on by the water industry right now run a full gamut, from highly technical to logistically expansive and financially daunting. Just take a look at the Water Online homepage and the rigorous array of projects underway around the country. Water utilities, private businesses, states, municipalities — and new combinations of these stakeholders — are implementing highly ambitious agendas in unprecedented ways. They’re looking for new ways to detect contaminants, innovating to address water loss, working to deliver energy and cost reductions for treatment facilities, and inventing everything from filtration systems to new types of chlorine analyzers and water clarifiers — and much more.

As diverse as they are, these endeavors all have one thing in common when it comes to whether they succeed or not:  Leadership is the make-or-break ingredient. By this, I mean that you can intervene with leadership to help ensure successful project delivery. And very importantly:  the access to that intervention lies in your people.

No Substitute For Leadership

Whether you’re involved in a major capital project, a local water utility, or a laboratory tasked with generating water sector breakthroughs, you’re doing so in the context of a broader plan and bigger vision. And the execution of that plan is on the shoulders of the leaders involved. If you’re a CEO or Managing Director at the executive table or a department manager or a leader on the front lines, you’re the one ensuring that the day-to-day decisions being made and work being done are all in service of the broader mission.

So how do you deliver on that mission — and make sure the job gets done right, on time, and on budget?

You can defy the odds and deliver the performance required — and even beyond that — by focusing on the most important issues that drive or stop progress on projects: the people issues. That’s right; it means focusing on things like communications, engagement, teamwork, conflicts, and more. If you’re thinking: Why focus on these supposedly “softer” issues?  Because they will make or break your project. In fact, research says it’s issues such as people, organization, and governance that are responsible for 65 percent of delays and missing targets.

Leaders often tend to focus on technical design, project management processes, contracting, and procurement strategies as the route to improvement. They should. But with an additional focus on the human capital powering the organization.

People = Performance

My colleagues worked with an Australian water authority after new environmental regulations in a major metropolitan area prompted the need for a significant infrastructure overhaul. Because of new rules for handling stormwater, the agency faced a huge challenge: Work crews would have to dig up and upgrade more than 200 underground sewage pump stations located in neighborhoods throughout the city and its suburbs. Most of the stations were located under people’s yards and gardens or under the roads in front of their houses, and the project initially met with strong community resistance.

In light of the negative public reaction and regulatory pressure to complete the work without delay, leaders made a pivotal decision: to integrate community relations into the work being done by construction teams, and to elevate it as a key success factor. The construction crews began to “own” the community relations component of the work versus having it continue to be a siloed aspect of the project, only considered after community members had registered complaints. It was a smart, people-focused move. Although the pump stations being upgraded were located over divergent types of terrain, the construction tasks involved were relatively straightforward. What made the project complicated was community resistance that could jeopardize the project’s pace and overall success.

A Clear Line Of Sight To The Prize

As a result of these key calls made by leaders of the pump station project, all stakeholders had a clear understanding of the collective aspiration of an on-time, on-specification, on-budget system overhaul unimpeded by community resistance. Each of the 200 sewage pump upgrades became a project in and of itself — with new challenges based on the location and terrain, as well as unique resident concerns to address proactively. One pump station at a time and one community member at a time, the effort progressed steadily and seamlessly until it was delivered on time with $200 million in cost savings while meeting 100 percent of quality specifications.

Sure, they had the right technical, contracting, and procurement strategies in place. But front and center was a leadership focus on the people whose efforts would translate to either success or disappointment in delivering on their ultimate objective — the prize. Leaders at all levels of the effort were constantly communicating about performance targets, how they lined up with the broader mission, and what that meant in terms of day-to-day objectives. Work crews had a keen awareness of the significant and fundamental role they played in the effort, and they delivered.

Even When A Project Is In Jeopardy, There’s Hope

In another example of high-performance execution, we worked with the newly-appointed Managing Director of a rural water corporation in Asia Pacific as he dealt with a high-profile $2 billion irrigation infrastructure project in deep trouble. In addition to being behind schedule, cost overruns were drawing scrutiny and had the potential to drive up costs for customers who were already unhappy with the utility’s pricing structure.

The Managing Director took a bold stance, pulling together key leaders at all levels of the enterprise to establish new, bold targets — including $2 million a year in cost savings. Many of those leaders told him it simply couldn’t be done — at least initially. But as leadership teams worked to establish new principles for working together and communicating the importance of the water utility’s overarching objectives, their teams moved forward with their work in new ways. As a result, they were successful in developing and implementing new technologies that began to make the “impossible” targets possible. The cost savings were secured, the pricing structure was remedied, the project delivered a 160 percent improvement in performance, and the irrigation system will soon be operational.

Lead The Way

This kind of approach can be scaled up, or it can be scaled down. When it comes to human capital, having a direct line of sight to the organization’s aspirational objective is priceless. And it’s the leader’s job — on the front line, at the management level, and at the senior level — to keep the prize front and center, relentlessly. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish in your organization, you can make it happen by leading your people there.

Elizabeth Dorey is an author and capital projects consultant with special expertise in the water and energy sectors. In her work with clients of JMW Consultants, she helps leaders, teams, and organizations deliver large-scale and complex capital projects by strategically overcoming obstacles and elevating performance. Ms. Dorey also serves as business leader for JMW's Americas Group. She holds a bachelor's degree in finance with a minor in international business from Miami University at Oxford, OH, and is based in in Houston, TX.