When a project spins out of control, it’s too late to slam on the brakes

20 October 2017

In the next five to ten years, Australia’s engineering profession can expect about $70 billion in infrastructure spending. This boom in investment will bolster the nation’s competitiveness, but it inevitably brings the risk of cost and time overruns. And fatal mistakes.

Who could forget the spectacular disaster that unfolded on American live television? 73 seconds after liftoff, the Challenger space shuttle exploded into a fireball fifteen kilometres above Earth, as millions watched in horror.

The below-freezing temperature on the day had caused the rubber O-ring seal in a solid rocket booster to fail, creating a burning fuel leak that led to the catastrophic disintegration of the spacecraft. Although engineers had warned management about potential complications of the O-ring design in cold conditions, the launch had gone ahead anyway. An eagerness to stay on schedule had prevailed.

If a faulty O-ring can throw an entire shuttle program into a tailspin, no one involved in a project of any size can afford to be complacent. From concept to completion, we need appropriate checks along the way.

Associate Professor Chivonne Algeo, Course Director of the Master of Project Management at Monash University, weighed in at the Project Controls 2017 conference in Sydney. “Infrastructure Australia has recently added four projects valued at $6.02 billion to its Infrastructure Priority List,” she explained. “These mega projects will relieve productivity bottlenecks that threaten our standard of living, but Australian business leaders have expressed considerable concern about our capacity to deliver successful outcomes.”

What skills and knowledge facilitate the management and delivery of mega projects across multiple sectors? At what point does project control begin to stifle innovation? Can we engage opportunities while navigating an increasingly regulated environment? And how do we meet legal and ethical challenges?

To address these issues and more, we need specialist expertise. “Mega projects demand individuals with backgrounds in engineering, IT, business and law who can offer strategic leadership,” says Algeo. “Leading companies both here and overseas seek project managers trained in best practices to meet the highest standards of performance, efficiency and safety. In any context. And they want teams who can develop innovative approaches.”

A rocket-shaped monument stands six metres high outside Los Angeles. A tribute to the crew members who lost their lives aboard the Challenger. The memory of such events has now inspired the US and the UK to formalise controls on project delivery. With Australia to follow suit. For all those passing by, the monument serves as a poignant reminder that, whenever we reach for the stars, we must be bound by hard lessons of the past.

Monash’s new Master of Project Management starts in 2018. Designed to provide specialist project management expertise, the course delivers the training, language and tools to be a leader in a rapidly growing field.


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