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the story of a tunnel

When we talk about professions, we like to know if someone is good at the profession or if he’s bad. A good professional should probably be successful more than the bad one, or? So what about project managers? What is the definition of a good project manager. He should be successful at managing project, then. But what is successfully managing projects? Does this mean that the management should be successful or that the project should be success? But what does it mean to successfully manage a project and what is a successful project? This post focuses on the latter statement: the successful project. In many definitions, you take requirements, budget and time (and sometimes quality) and look before and after. If you can check as many of these groups as “as planned” then the project is a success. But then there is the sense of success. This should not be understated.

We in Sweden can be proud to be on the top three list of building projects. The problem is that it’s not the best but the worst building projects in the world. Just after the opera house in Sidney, we find the soon to be completed building of the tunnel of Hallandsåsen. So, why has this tunnel made it into a list just two places below the Panama canal?

For you who are not up to date with Swedish politics, it all started with the railroad and the heavy industry in Western Sweden. In order to ship all the heavy goods, they wanted the railroad to go through the hill created in the last ice age, instead of over it. This would not only cut time but also enable heavier train loads. It was a sure thing but also a political necessity. It was important to show that we spend money on trains and not just cars.

The problem is that the hill was not helping out here. When they started to drill, it also started to rain in ground water into the tunnel. Not little, but a lot. And the wells in the surroundings were drenched and the tunnel needed to become more water proofed. Then the cattle on the hills started to become sick and die. The water became contaminated by the material they used to seal the tunnels. Also, it was not as easy to drill as they had expected. It was slower and harder. I don’t think anyone disagrees with me when I say that during this time, everyone saw the project as a failure. So there were haltings of the project, companies were sued and there was also legal proceedings regarding the spoiled water.

The projected was halted and then restarted. In 2015, the tunnel is predicted to be opened, 23 years after they started on the tunnel. I mean, Apple started selling the IPod one year after he launched is idea to his team and here it takes 23 years to dig a tunnel which is 8,6 km long. The tunnel was originally thought to cost 1 BSEK but will probably cost at least 12 BSEK in the end. Cattle died, people had to get new water supplies and of course we had all the scared people when we had the poisoning scandal.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a TV documentary about this project and it was interesting to listen to how people involved saw the project. The engineer who saw this as the most interesting thing he’d ever done. He loved the technical challenges and probably saw the project as a success since they’d been able to overcome all these technical problems. We had the farmer who’d found his dead cattle one morning, who definitely saw the project as a failure: all that wasted money and of course the sadness over his lost animals. Then there was the project manager, focusing on the target: getting the tunnel DONE. He was a bit disturbed about the failed time plans, missed budgets etc but his work (even if there were probably many project managers along the way) was to be completed. They had not given in. The politician then. He was the most interesting person to listen to, from my perspective anyway. He also saw they project as successful, since it would be completed. But here comes the interesting part; he felt that it had been mandatory to complete the tunnel, even if it meant spending all that money since otherwise the spent money would have been waste. Come again? If you’ve wasted 2 BSEK, this money will still be waste even if you spend 10 BSEK more. But if they would have cut the project, then they would have spent the money but would not have a tunnel. Now we spend 12 BSEK and we get a tunnel. That is of course true, but think of all things you can do for 10 BSEK…

Finally, the reported turned to the potential customers. The heavy industry guy. As we all know, they don’t sit down for 23 years and just wait. They’ve found other ways and he didn’t see any big use of the tunnel.

The funny thing is that different stakeholders in a project can have such different opinions on the successfulness of a project. But who’s opinion matter?

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Categories: Agile, Business, Leadership
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