31 October 2012

Stephen Carver - Lecturer in Project & Programme Management at Cranfield University…

Stephen, can you please tell us a bit about your career and the work you now do at Cranfield University?

I started my career (well, adventure really!) in the oil business where I spent many happy years spending millions of dollars of other people’s money on technical “kit” which was every boys dream. Halliburton then packed me off to undertake an MBA and was somewhat miffed when - upon completion - I took a sabbatical to go and work for Richard Branson. The mad cap idea was to put Harrods into a four masted clipper and then sail the whole thing over to the USA to make money out of Americans – I was the Project Manager and it was one of the craziest schemes I have ever been involved with.
Halliburton then grabbed me back and I worked my way up through projects eventually reporting directly to the CEO in Europe/Africa as Head of Programme Strategy. The experience here was invaluable as I saw how projects, programmes and portfolios have to be aligned with overall global strategies or else they are a wasted effort. After several years, I got bored with the inane politics of corporate life and decided to launch myself as a Project and Programme Management Consultant and I was lucky enough to find clients that ranged from banks to airline manufacturers and lawyers to advertising agencies. Along the way, Cranfield asked me to share my views of PPM with MBAs and I have shared my time between lecturing and consulting ever since.

You’re in demand as a speaker on Project and Programme Management. How did that come about and how long have you been doing it?

PPM is seen by most people as a stunningly dull subject so I made it my mission to show how them how it is - in fact - one of the most exciting subjects in the whole management arena as it shows how to turn strategy into reality. Whilst I can lecture for hours about the PPM tools of critical path analysis, work breakdown structures or even earned value, I find that most people fall asleep fairly rapidly!  So now often I use storytelling as a way of showing how the future could be and how it can be visioned and realised.  I never thought that I would use such a unique medium but increasingly, even journals such as Harvard Business Review are proving that a mixture of reasoning and storytelling is the ultimate method to inspire both people and organisations to achieve their strategic goals.

What kind of businesses or organisations do you think most benefit from your insight?

The wonderful thing about PPM is that it applies in all organisations and all businesses. The need to be able to manage change in a non-chaotic way is critical to success in all endeavors of life. I have worked with construction companies to banks, lawyers to the armed forces and they are all run by people who are challenged by change. I find that most people fall in love with their dreams (call it strategy or objectives) but they find the journey to achieve them (the project) fraught with risk and disaster.

It’s well known that you feel particularly passionate about Change Management – why is that?

Think of change as a flight. When lecturing and consulting in Project and Programme Management, the use of analogies and stories can be very powerful. Of all the analogies that I use, the one that seems to have the most impact and lasting impression is that of flying.

Most change projects fail and most experts use figures like 70%. So, if they arrive at all, they are often late and over-budget and of those that are completed, many fail to deliver the benefits they promised. In short, if projects were civil aircraft we would be living in a world where jumbo jets regularly fall out of the skies, airport runways would be strewn with wreckage and passengers, who would be waiting endlessly in lounges, would be rightly terrified of the prospect of boarding the plane! Put simply, managing projects is rather like flying – to succeed you have to be a real professional, still love adventure and finally remember that take-offs are easy but landings are tricky!

In the current economic climate, what do you think are the real ‘hot topics’ around Project and Programme Management (PPM)?

Upto four years ago I was getting very bored and frustrated with most organisations as they routinely failed to professionally manage change but the resultant lazy cost overruns could simply be lost in the deep pools of cheap money. Now the realities are very different and cash control is at the top of the agenda with stakeholders demanding real benefits from change projects. As a result, there is a growing realisation that PPM Management is a vital skill and that furthermore many of the old methodologies and ways of working are breaking down. Hot topics now are stakeholder management, complexity and human factors – all of which are really exciting and challenging concepts.

In your presentations, you state that 68% of projects fail – why is that statistic so high?

It depends on how you measure success and failure. I have seen many projects that ran over budgets and timescales but were seen as successes – just think the Sydney Opera House. And – conversely - many that ran on time and budget but that were perceived as failures such as the opening of Heathrow T5. However, in most cases of actual failure the reasons are boringly predictable: poor communication, poor planning, poor leadership, poor stakeholder engagement and optimism bias.

Do you have a set of ‘top tips’ on what makes for a successful Project and Programme Management campaign?


  • Take projects and programmes seriously
  • Employ professionals
  • Use systems and tools appropriately
  • Be hard on the problems but gentle on the people
  • Have fun!

Finally, any words of wisdom for readers of Perspective who may be looking to launch a Project or Programme Management initiative?

Simply – do it! Without change, your organisation is heading for extinction so start small and build your PPM capabilities incrementally and with care. I leave you with a quote of a former CEO of Guinness: “Strategy will involve change and change is something that is here to stay. People throughout the organisation have got to realise that change management is a core skill and as such PPM will become a key building block in their career. Go to it!”


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