The application of project management skills and experience not only saves money and time, but is also likely to improve the quality of the result, says Mike Lander, from


Based on many studies spanning over decades, the average over-spend on projects of all types across sectors is over 30 per cent, with the extremes being in the 100 per cents. Therefore, the application of project management skills and experience not only saves money and time, but is also likely to improve the quality of the result and reduce considerable tension between stakeholders.

I have been a project and programme director for over 25 years and have been involved in an incredibly wide variety of projects including putting display signs on blimps, building a special needs school from start-up to a successful exit, designing project management systems for global investment banks and renovating houses into beautiful homes. So, I can say with some confidence that I know a thing or two about the art and science of delivering projects on time, to budget to a high-quality standard.

This article covers the key principles, that in my experience, underpin successful projects and the common challenges faced.

Key principles:

In my experience, there are three fundamental reasons that make any business change project of a reasonable scale worthy of professional help from the outset (even if it means bringing in a PM contractor for 6 months):

  • Firstly, the design: the most effective way to maintain budget control throughout any project is to lock down the design before implementing any changes. This takes an experienced project manager to document comprehensive terms of reference including objectives, scope, methodology, deliverables, budgets, timescales and stakeholder expectations.
  • Secondly, project governance: The way in which the project is regulated through change control systems, reporting and risks assessments is key to smooth running.
  • Thirdly, once the project gets underway, the project managers role relies on several skills including scheduling, technical consultation, risk management, issue resolution, diplomacy, interface management and outright tenacity to get the job done.
Common challenges:

As you can see, this is clearly not a job for someone to do off the side of their desk just because they happen to have seen The Apprentice a few times and are adept with MS Project. The key challenges (rational and emotional) on most projects I have been involved in include:

  • Managing “scope creep”; this is always a challenge as stakeholders often can’t comprehend what the future will look like until something tangible is put in front of them, and then they decide it’s not what they expected, or now want
  • Managing stakeholders; we often say that project managers look inwards into the project/team and programme managers look outwards into the business. The reality is, in SMEs, the PM has to do both, hence the need for skills which can see the “big picture” and focus on “attention to detail”
  • Specification of deliverables before build; I have seen too often teams anxious to get started before a specification has been developed, syndicated and issued which always leads to increased cost, delays and quality issues
  • Projects go wrong at the interface; this links to the point about specifications, the challenge always is where several suppliers/teams are involved in delivery, the specification and hand-off points between those teams is critical to ensure smooth delivery
  • Keeping track of all the activities, deliverables and costs; this starts with the development of a comprehensive project Gantt chart of inter-connected activities/deliverables which is used to track progress against mile-stones; plus the development of a comprehensive spreadsheet tracking budgets, actual spend to date, variations, forecasts, etc.
  • Project Management is a discipline much like Finance and Operations and therefore professional experienced support should be deployed when the outcome matters
  • The role requires the ability to see the big picture as well as the smallest detail
  • Time, quality and cost are clearly critical parameters to track as your project progresses, the problem is, how to keep the three elements in sync as the above challenges present themselves
Mike Lander, Director and co-founder of , business consultant and writer