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There’s a lot of, frankly, very boring stuff written about project management. (Oi, you at the back. Wake up!) All those things we know to be important – planning, estimating, change control, risk management, etc – get rehashed and trotted out over and over again. It’s all very worthy stuff and – it goes without saying – we all apply those good practices, don’t we? And yet so many projects still go awry.

For what it’s worth, my own mantra for good project management would be “It’s the people, stupid.”

OK, so I have pinched Bill Clinton’s soundbite “It’s the economy, stupid” for his 1992 presidential campaign against George HW Bush. While Bush was riding high on a groundswell of popular support following the invasion of Iraq, Clinton reminded voters there were more pressing issues closer to home – in particular, the economy. And he won.

So what’s this got to do with project management? Bear with me.

I like listening to experts talk about their own particular specialism, especially if they are articulate, entertaining and able to explain how their work makes the planet a better place. I get my own little eureka moment from understanding something I hitherto just didn’t get.

Last week it was a fascinating talk delivered to an appreciative audience at our local library by Dr John Rhodes, Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, who has been at the forefront of immunology and vaccine research at the US National Institutes of Health and the University of Cambridge. He was formerly Director of Strategy at GSK.

Rhodes ran through the success story that is the history of vaccination and the fight against smallpox, polio, TB, malaria, HIV-AIDS and other devastating diseases. The evidence he presented was clear; vaccination saves millions of lives. It just works. And yet . . .

There is lately a small but significant pushback against vaccination in some parts of the developed world. In the USA some parents are resisting the public health message about the importance of getting their kids vaccinated against measles. Some states have seen dramatic falls in vaccination rates such that so called “herd immunity” is approaching a critically low level. All this in a country which announced the elimination of measles back in 2000.

It’s as if the Project Manager for measles eradication – if such a person actually exists – while leading from the front in a logical, professional fashion, has failed to take into account the messy reality of dealing with human beings. People have deeply felt personal, cultural, religious, philosophical or just downright cussed reasons for not behaving as you might expect. Whether it’s an unwillingness to see past short term pain (this guy wants to stick a needle in my kid’s arm) to the long term gain (no more measles). Or not liking big government telling them what to do. Or a mistrust of science. Or, indeed, just sheer cussedness. Whatever the reason, the project manager would seem to have lost credence with and influence over some of the very people he/she is trying to help.

Look at it as a parable.

Every day of every project, you should remind yourself that supposedly logical, reasonably minded people will sometimes behave unreasonably or simply withhold their support for your initiatives. They will do the opposite to what you expect. They will dig in their heels and resist the change you are trying to bring about. By the time this happens it is often too late for you to respond with logic or reasoned argument. Emotion will have taken over.

People issues can kill good projects. And – to my mind – when this happens the project manager must bear some of the blame. He or she has either ignored or overlooked the biggest risk of all, “It’s the people, stupid”.

So think about all those messy people issues which might derail your grand plans. You might be lucky and only have to deal with people who behave logically. Then again, you might not.

And look up John Rhodes, “The End of Plagues: The Global Battle against Infectious Disease”. It’s a good read.

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