Projects are a lot like ocean liners. It may look like it’s all smooth sailing to the naked eye, but what is really going on below deck and how can sponsors get a clear-eyed view of how managing risk influences success?

To be a great boat captain, you need a great first mate.  And if you think of projects like ocean voyages, then you need to set sail with the right crew  – with exceptional leadership, fit-for-purpose tools and the right processes. Otherwise you’re going to find yourself sinking (and quickly).

And most importantly of all, it’s critical to maintain consistency in your project’s crew, particularly the leadership, as far as possible. While personnel shifts and changes are always inevitable, project sponsors are frequently tempted to move high-performing staff from project work to other high-priority projects as they arise – particularly when the project is going well. However, this is a risky strategy, for both ship captains and project sponsors.

Think about an ocean liner or cargo ship. What we see with the naked eye (usually with a bird’s eye view) is a majestic vessel, cutting smoothly  through the water to its destination. There may be some activity visible on deck, however, it’s mostly what you’d expect from a large ship going about its day-to-day: perhaps passengers enjoying the sunshine, or a crew member performing routine maintenance or cleaning.

Yet, this visible part is just a small fraction of what is really going on to keep the ship afloat. Below the deck, the vast majority of technical expertise and grunt work is happening around-the-clock: from the navigation work on the bridge, to the engine rooms, to passenger services and communication systems. It’s actually a complex ecosystem of activity which is invisible to most eyes.

Now think about a project of at least moderate complexity. What’s visible on the deck of a well-run project is just a fraction of its entire reality.  What might look like a majestic ocean liner gliding across the surface, will in fact have much more going on underneath. An adept project team will make it look efficient and seamless, with issues and complexities managed as they arise.

What’s less obvious to the casual observer is the skill and experience of the project’s leadership team, and their role in steering it to success, despite the complexity of the activity below deck.

The illusion of a smooth-sailing project

When a project seems to be progressing without a hitch, meeting its deliverables and navigating challenges seamlessly, it may seem that the project isn’t actually as complex or risky as originally conceived. That is usually untrue and undervalues the project management effort.

This is an illusion to guard against, particularly in higher-risk project delivery. The higher the stakes of a project, the greater the probability that things can—and will—go wrong. When there is a skilled team at the helm of the ship, unexpected challenges are usually caught early enough to course correct or address unexpected problems by bringing the right expertise in to resolve them.

There are very few projects that progress without issues. The higher the risk in the project, the more important it is to have a safe pair of hands.

Complex projects are inherently risky, but understanding the risk enables your team to navigate well

When the sponsor or stakeholders perceive that a project is running incredibly well, on time and without major challenges, most people will fall into the (very human) trap of becoming complacent about the whole thing. This is a very dangerous position and is likely to increase the project’s risk profile.

The reason for this is simple: projects that are perceived as being “at risk” will get more attention at the leadership table. It’s not good attention, of course, but that doesn’t change the outcome for other high priority projects, especially those with fewer perceived challenges.

Critically, the project sponsor will naturally divert their attention to other projects or priorities.  The result is that our high-priority project starts missing out on critical steering inputs or context that the project manager uses to navigate and plan for risks and challenges. Or they may find themselves challenged when it comes to making timely requests for support, resources, priority or guidance from the sponsor.

The key takeaway for the project sponsor is to dig a little deeper to find out why the project is running so smoothly. Is it in fact because there is less risk and complexity than originally scoped, or is it because of the work that’s being done below deck?

If it looks like people are coasting, it may not be because they are underutilised. Spreading their skills elsewhere may, in fact, be spreading them too thin – and that spells danger for the project.

Look below the deck for the full story

For senior project sponsors and executive leaders, this is your reminder to always look below the surface. No matter how smooth the project appears to be progressing, there will always be underlying challenges that are being expertly managed. It’s critical to always recognise the value of experienced project staff and the complexities they must navigate.

Any decision to change your crew mid voyage should be weighed against the potential risks of bringing those hidden challenges to the surface.

  • Perception vs. reality: The apparent ease of a project’s progress often masks its risk and complexity.
  • Value of experience: A seasoned project manager’s expertise is a critical asset in navigating the unseen challenges of a project.
  • Risk of leadership changes: Replacing an experienced resource with someone less seasoned can expose the project to risks at critical phases.
  • Strategic decision-making: Leaders must consider the hidden depths of project management when making strategic decisions about leadership changes.

Stay committed to your project leadership

Once again, the key message here is for project sponsors to appreciate the importance of making good, early decisions about project leadership. However, that attitude must remain throughout the life of the project, keeping in mind the unseen challenges that experienced project managers will deftly manage.

Remember, what’s going on beneath the surface is often more significant than what meets the eye.

To find out more about how Quay Consulting can help your team manage project risk in your organisation,  please contact us.

We believe that quality thought leadership is worth sharing and encourage you to share with your colleagues. If you’re interested in republishing our content, here’s what’s okay and what’s not okay.

About Quay

Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...