Understanding the project environment

We wrote this article for the first time a few years back but the concept is still applicable and we share here again.

In past articles about project management and the construction industry in the UAE (and the Region) we poised many questions for the reader to explore. In the most recent articles we closed with the following: “Delays, quality challenges, fires are not the problems rather they are the symptoms of much deep rooted issues so what are the root cause of these challenges?” So what are these challenges and what are we missing?

Also in the last article we mentioned the understanding the project environment, as one of the five areas of expertise required to effectively manage a project. The five areas of expertise are outlined in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, a standard that is published by the Project Management Institute (PMI®). Today, we will elaborate more on the Project Environment.

To simply explain the project environment we can consider building a house or four houses. Let us assume that our four houses will all be the same size, internal layout, number of rooms, size of rooms, etc. Now one house will be built in a desert, another on a mountain, the third in a crowded town or city, and the third on a beach area. Could these be designed and built the same way? Obviously NO! The beach house must consider the salty water environment and should include features to resist salt water corrosion. The mountain house should have a roof that could carry the weight of potential snow and should have good isolation for cold weather where as the desert house should have good isolation for cooling. If we build all four houses for the same standard, they would not last for a long time without significant maintenance and other issues. If we do not consider the environment of each house (project) then the outcome will not meet the objectives and hence we can see that the project is “challenged” or it might even “fail”. In this case, we have defined the Project Environment as it relates to the “Physical Environment”.

Other factors related to the project environment deals with culture and politics or the political situation in a given area. Implementing a project in an area where there is a risk of war is a major concern and should be considered. For example, many oil and gas projects suffered during the recent Regional War in Iraq because many of the equipment used in these projects are purchased globally and due to war concerns many “vendors” refused to send support staff to help in the installation or testing of these equipments. This fact led to many project delays and cost impact, not to mention possible quality impact as well. Same scenario as in the previous paragraph: those in project management who understand the Region we are in and the challenges posed or imposed on us are better equipped to handle those projects. On the other hand an international consultant or contractors working in the Region and not fully understanding the culture or political environment will have their projects possible negatively impacted.

One major environmental factor that is having significant impact on our projects today is the “market factor”. What we have seen in recent years is a large number of projects are being pursued or implemented – one only needs to look at the news from the recent Cityscape Conference to be amazed and see the market “hype”. The challenge is that organizations, management, and project management professionals have planned many of the currently ongoing projects, or recently completed ones, using “traditional thinking”. What do we mean? We want to build a tower and in the past such a tower will take 30 months to be realized. So? “We are going to build 20 towers – to be safe make the duration 34 months and we would be OK”. May be it would be OK but what we have failed to realized is the Project Environment. We did not realize that there might be 20 projects each with 1-40 towers. What we did not realize is we are not building a hospital we are building a medical city. What we missed is that we are not building a road rather a huge city with a major transportation system. Why is this an issue? Because all of these projects are happening in a small area and all are competing for the same resources whether the resource is material, equipment, or people. We are seeing sever shortages in highly qualified people at all levels from the labor in the field to professionals, project managers, and even senior management. The infrastructure cannot catch up with the speed of development and we hear about completed projects that cannot be opened for residents because there is no permanent power connected. We see and hear about fires, mostly due to the lack of proper procedures and lack of oversight by the contractors, the program managers consultants and the authorities because every one is stretched thin.

The reality we discussed above is nothing new to many readers so we hope that at least it should serve us to remember the project environment in all aspects as we planned our multi billion dollar / dirham projects.

Before we close, we will raise another environmental factor that will have more and more impact in the future, at least in the UAE for now and that is the Environment; here we are talking about sustainable development, energy efficiency, cleaner building, waste reduction, etc. In the past we have ignored these factors, we will not be able to do so in the future.

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About Mounir Ajam

A Project Management thought leader, who believes that project management touches all people, in all aspects of life; personal and professional.Initiated and led the formation of SUKAD Corp to develop the Uruk PPM Platform.An advocate of real-world, practical and applied project management.Champion of adaptive project management, tailored methods, and organizational project management.Available anywhere in the world to advise executives and organizations on the strategic value of project management. Ready to help organizations build and sustain the Project Management Function and the capacity to lead projects successfully.