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Project Management

Project Legacy: delayed benefits, or serendipity?

ROH_SydneyMy colleague Paul Hodgkins has had an article published in the Summer 2016 edition of Project Magazine where he wrote about Project Legacy.

This is a really interesting topic and certainly makes you think more deeply about what “success” means for a project or programme.

Paul gives the example of the Sydney Opera House which was a disaster from a pure Project Management perspective. It was years late and miles over budget. The PM was fired part way through and its designer, Jørn Utzon, didn’t even get an invitation to the opening ceremony. Yet, today, virtually everyone would acknowledge that the building is iconic and is probably one of the major reasons people visit Sydney, if not Australia. In 2007, it was declared a World Heritage Site.

Another, more contemporary example, is the London Olympics. The UK won the bid partly on the basis of the legacy they promised. I believe there is something like a 100-year timeline showing the full lifecycle from conception of the London Olympics, through construction, delivering the Games and then delivering a legacy. I guess it might be quite an interesting role to be accountable for achieving that legacy, particularly if you’re unlikely to be around to see what it looks like 10s of years from now. [The government has a webpage devoted to 2012 Legacy updates]

All this got me thinking about what is “legacy” and how does it differ from “benefits”? At a simplistic level, you could argue that legacy is simply delayed benefits. Alternatively, legacy might be the value that emerges further down the benefits chain, with a less direct cause and effect linkage.

PM_LegacyThe issue it raises is where does a project or programme define its end-point in terms of value created? If you define the end-point too far in the future, will the proposed benefits simply be a work of fiction and who will be responsible for measuring them?

For the London Olympics, an immediate benefit was the revenue generated through additional visitors to the UK. Another benefit might have been the “feel-good factor” created across the UK, at a time when we were emerging from the 2008 financial crisis. The 2012 legacy is supposed to be about more participation in sport (“inspire a generation”) and regeneration of the East End of London, among other things. The early signs are that the former is not matching expectations and the halo effect of 2012 that encouraged participation is now tailing off.

Another question about legacy is can it be planned for? I can’t imagine Van Gogh planned the legacy of his paintings; he simply wanted to make a living, but his outputs became his legacy. The same is true of many other creative “projects”. Tony Hancock’s and Victoria Wood’s legacies are archives full of timeless, classic comedy. This certainly wasn’t planned.

My conclusions:

  • The outputs from a project or programme may be delivered by good, bad or indifferent project management
    • They can be defined and planned
  • The benefits can also be defined and planned for, but their achievement depends completely on the extent to which the outputs get used
    • They may be well-defined and measurable in the short-term, or more aspirational in the longer-term
  • The legacy is almost certainly more aspirational and may, in some cases, be completely unexpected or unintended
    • Therefore, legacy cannot be defined, nor planned for, in detail
    • In many cases, the actual legacy will emerge, cannot be anticipated and may be unexpected, or serendipitous

The history books are filled with examples of projects where legacy probably wasn’t even on the radar; nuclear power stations, construction using asbestos, film, television; the list goes on. Is “Project Legacy” a useful concept, as Paul Hodgkins argues? Yes, I think it is; those setting up projects should be thinking about the long-term consequences of their projects, but don’t expect your Project Manager to be able to plan for them in detail and s/he is unlikely to be around to blame or congratulate, whatever the legacy turns out to be.

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