High profile projects carry more risk than those that get less attention. It is not that things are more likely to go wrong. But it’s the profile and attention that can amplify the consequences of mistakes.
And high profile projects tend also to be the subject of more speculation, gossip, and rumor. So, it isn’t just the risks that happen… it’s also the perceived slip-ups and false reports.
For these reasons, managing and leading high profile projects is one of the biggest challenges you can face in project management. While you may not be ready to take on projects with a massive public profile, it never hurts to understand the principles.
For our purposes, high profile projects are those that get a lot more attention than others around them. For example, this may be because they carry more:
Clearly, projects with a massive public profile will garner a lot of interest from the general population. They will feature in the press, television, and social media. Typical examples include:
We can see with all of these a number of common features that will inform our assessment of how to lead these kinds of project:
Your high profile projects may not attract the attention of the national media. They won’t, perhaps, be the subject of breakfast table conversations across the land.
But maybe, you will be working on a project that ignites a little more interest than others you have done. And possibly, it will be the one that people in your organization or community are most concerned about.
So, let’s consider what you need to do differently in these circumstances.
It would be quite reasonable (but wrong) of you to say:
Never mind ‘high profile’. I just need to do what I always do. If I do a professional job, then everything will go well.
This is wrong, because it’s naïve.
In a word… ‘politics’. Politics changes everything.
And politics is not just ‘politicians in chambers debating big issues’. Whenever you have two people in a room, and a significant topic of discussion, there’s politics. We’ve written about it before:
The fact that people take an interest in your project, and the fact that they have views that matter to them; these are important. They change the response you need.
To lead a high profile project, you need this formula:High Profile Project Leadership = Exemplary Management and Leadership + Exceptional Public Relations Click To Tweet
This formula addresses the three significant risks of a high profile project:
We cover each of these three challenges, highlighting the most valuable Project Mangement practices, and putting other disciplines into PM terms.
‘Exemplary Management and Leadership’ – that would seem to be an invitation to write a full guide to Project Management. And I would certainly recommend you take a look at our Core Course programs if that’s what you need!
But here, I want to focus on the elements of good standard project management that you need to give extra weight to. These are the ones that the high profile of your project pushes to the fore. Because these are the levers for addressing the incremental risks that high profile projects face.
We will look at each of these in turn.
Project governance is rarely considered to be at the ‘sexy end’ of our discipline. But it is where you get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of success versus failure.
A small amount of good governance goes a long way in preventing slip-ups and failures. Let’s answer the question, ‘what is project governance?’ before moving on.
Project governance is an important topic that encompasses three disciplines:
Each of these contributes to ensuring you get your project right. And, if ever there were a time when you need to get it right, it’s when you are the subject of a lot of attention.
Please do take a look at our feature article: ‘What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us? [Ans: A Lot]‘.
It is no coincidence that the British Government uses one particular mechanism above all for focusing good governance on its high profile projects. This is the Gateway
For small projects, the gateway review team (usually three people) are drawn from senior peers of the project sponsor, within the same Government Department.
As the scale and profile of the project ratchets up, so the Gateway review team increases its:
Increasingly, the members are
A series of scheduled and thorough reviews is one of the best ways to keep a high profile project properly on track.
To learn more about Gateway Reviews, do take a look at our article: ‘Why the Stage Gate Process will Make You a Better Project Manager‘.
By the way, British Government
High profile projects present higher risk levels. So, risk management must surely be a crucial area of focus for you.
We’ve published several articles about risk management (and doubtless will publish more in the future). The two I’d particularly
For high profile projects, you need to add a focus on the political, reputational, and stakeholder risks. In particular, think about:
Another factor that the high profile of your project will amplify is quality. Or, to be more precise, the impact of under-delivery on quality expectations.
I said ‘quality expectations’. Not quality standards.
Sure, if quality drops below the standards, that’s an issue. But, it’s one any project manager should be equipped to prevent and deal with if it happens.
But it’s the perceptions that are different as profile rises. Sometimes you will hit your carefully chosen quality standards, but some of your stakeholders will not believe those standards were correct. Or maybe, they will think you are working to a different set of standards.
I this case, you have succeeded against your own criteria, but still have a public relations problem, as some stakeholders are disappointed.
This is the key here. But even so, some stakeholder will know what o expect, and still not like it. So, at the point of delivery, they will then choose to fight you on the standards you delivered. Your two friends here will be:
So, in some ways, this whole article comes down to stakeholder engagement. As I often say (as one of my 12 Project Management Rules You’d be Wise to Note):Stakeholders will Determine the Success, or Not, of your Project Click To Tweet
In fact, several of my 12 Project Management Rules You’d be Wise to Note are about stakeholders!
We’ve published plenty of guidance on stakeholder engagement already. Take a look at some of these articles:
There’s a great quote form President Kennedy…
The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest; but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.President John F Kennedy
Commencement Address at Yale University, 11 June 1962
Am I alone in seeing the deep irony of this quote, considering the wealth of speculation and conspiracy theories surrounding his death?
As soon as you sense your project will have a high profile, you need to start your public relations activities. This is likely to be towards the end of the Project Definition stage.
Public relations serve a number of roles:
Is the role of PR to persuade, or is it about just providing facts? The answer is ‘neither – and both’.
For sure, there is always a need to provide accurate information about your project. But facts never persuade anyone of anything. They only create a justification for the beliefs we choose to hold or the decisions we want to make.
So, good PR needs to combine a trustworthy stream of information with advocacy and argument that appeal, appropriately, to emotion as well as logic. You need to create a PR program that starts by establishing your trustworthiness and authority. And you must maintain the integrity of your information and editorial
This means distinguishing between factual information and interpretation or advocacy. This can be a full-time responsibility
Many PR specialists are ex-journalists, with substantial experience of the media. Increasingly, you’ll find them with a lot of social media experience too. Their role is to analyze
A full exploration of PR is outside the scope of this article. But, in summary, there are many forms of PR. You’ll probably need several of them:
etting to know and meet stakeholders who are directly affected by your project. Your purpose is to inform, win support, and counter any problematic perceptions and objections. Note that PR does not include the wider stakeholder engagement role of consulting and learning from your stakeholders.
Also called ‘Employee Relations’, this is looking after the perceptions, morale, and loyalty of your staff.
For large, publicly-listed corporations, there will be an internal PR team that looks after the needs of its shareholders. Principally, this will be the institutional shareholders. Often, they will work closely with the Media Relations PR team who deal with
Dealing with the media (usually mainstream TV, radio, and press) to create positive coverage for your project, and to counter incorrect stories.
This is now such a big and complex source of commentary and perception that it merits its own specialists. especially as the ‘rules of the road’ are subtle, unwritten, and fast-changing. It is far easier to get this badly wrong than nicely right. Yet refusing to engage can be a hazard too.
This is an extension of community engagement that seeks to give something positive back to communities that are affected by your project. This is particularly important if some of the necessary effects are adverse.
This is a euphemism for lobbying! It’s about winning over public authorities to your point of view. Often it’s about securing necessary concessions (like planning permits) or even grants. This is a rather specialist area of PR.
We’ll talk about this in the last main section of this article. When something big goes wrong, this is the specialized branch of PR that will aim to protect the reputation of the client organization.
As your high profile project assumes a greater and greater public profile, the need for leadership of the PR function increases.
As project leader, your public relations program is key to perceptions of your success. You will need to take an active role in understanding, winning, and tracking internal and external confidence in your project. Yes, you will be guided by your PR team. But you must retain strategic leadership of this function. And you must also fully involve your project sponsor.
One last point.
Honesty is not the best policy…
it is the only policy.
Integrity and professional ethics are essential at all times. Especially when things go badly wrong. But think abut it…
When things do go badly wrong, you will need – more than ever – for people to trust you.
And by then, it will be too late to build trust from scratch. This is why you need to start the trust-building process from Day 1 of your PR campaign, and maintain your integrity throughout.
So, with that said, it’s time to consider…
It sounds like a truism, but it is good advice. Clear thinking will be essential.
Your first priority will be to stabilize the situation to ensure it doesn’t get worse. Then, you’ll need to work the problem to make it better. You’ll need to decide whether to get back to your plan as soon as possible, or whether your plan is now dead.
Plan Continuation Bias is the name that accident investigators give to the ‘tunnel vision’ that makes us want to just carry on with our initial plan – even in the presence of overwhelming reasons not to. Apparently, airline pilots sometimes call it ‘get-there-itis’. It’s the ‘one last push’ approach, which drives us to stick to an out-of-date plan.
The two immediate priorities that arise are the need to manage the situation, and the need to manage perceptions. The situation management boils down to:
You’d do both of these whether your project has a high profile or not. So we are going to focus on the second priority: managing perceptions.
Reputation Protection (RP – curiously, PR backwards) is the name for the PR effort that follows a crisis or disaster. This is a highly specialized discipline, so all I can do is give you a flavor of the components that it involves.
Please do share your experience and advice in the comments below. We’ll look forward to responding to every contribution.
And if you are taking on a high profile project in the near future, are there any questions we haven’t answered? Let us know, and we’ll do our best to help you.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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