Dodgy Politics, Murder, and Project Management

By Ian Webster

Note: This post (as well as all other posts on PM Hut) represents the opinion of the author and not that of PM Hut.

There’s no shortage of people and professional project management bodies prepared to tell you that up to 90% of successful project management is concerned with effective communication. Even politicians (rarely so in touch these days) recognize its importance.

In 1989 (shortly before he was murdered by the IRA) the late Ian Gow, an affable UK Tory MP, highlighted the key role of effective communication in the first live parliamentary TV broadcast. In it he suggested that the effectiveness of one’s communication was primarily concerned with your personal image (55%) and your tone of voice body language (38%). Only 7% seems to depend on what you actually say.

If, like me, you’re far too young to remember 1989, I would encourage you to view his speech here (the clip should start 1 min 50 secs in – if not scroll through to 1:50). His piece on communication is only a couple of minutes long and highly entertaining.

Now, back then Mr Gow seemed like a very nice man. These days, however, we have a new breed of career politicians – the so-called political elite classes, born with an attitude of entitlement that sees them do no meaningful work other than campaign for public office (or criticize and oppose those already holding it).

Once appointed, we are then asked to trust these people (most of whom have absolutely no real world management experience whatsoever) to run massive budgets and execute some of the largest, most complex capital projects the world has ever seen. What does the average MP know about Project Management?

Now, if we started appointing politicians based on their experience of running countries, managing massive budgets, and as importantly, their proven ability to deliver huge change effectively (which is what they all claim to be able to do in their pre-election manifestos), half of the those currently in office wouldn’t have got the job in the first place.

In the real world, as Henry Ford pointed out, you simply can’t build a reputation on something you say you are going to do in the future. I tried it at an interview once – I didn’t get the job.

So how do politicians get a job that should really be selected for by a process that would challenge the most experienced and accomplished program director – a process that asks deep, searching questions about where they’ve done something similar in the past, doesn’t tolerate flannel, and insists words are backed by empirical proof?

The reality is that all successful politicians are rather good at communication (whether you actually believe a word of what they say for their 7% is up to you). Rarely, if ever, are they challenged on their proven ability to actually deliver change (unless they’ve messed up big-style in a previous government, which is rarely an impediment to them getting another go at it – yes, I’m talking about you, Peter Mandelson).

So it doesn’t follow that a career politician, once elevated to the dizzy heights of minister, will be any good whatsoever at sponsoring and steering some of the largest projects ever. However, they’re probably already particularly accomplished “communicators” so on paper they should be 90% effective project managers already (if you believe my opening statement).

Ian Gow is no longer with us and today’s politicians now do business with those who murdered him. However, if 90% of project management really is about effective communication, maybe the less-scrupulous would-be project manager could learn a thing or two from politicians after all?

Ian Webster, PMP runs blogramme. Blogramme is a new blog offering fresh, original thinking, opinion and content around the core subjects of project management, program management and business change.

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