Management / Rene Carayol: What my road trip through Malawi tells us about project management

Rene Carayol: What my road trip through Malawi tells us about project management

On a trip to Malawi in November of last year, we landed at Blantyre airport and were driven in the comfort of a large, brand-spanking-new four-wheel-drive wagon. It appeared perfectly equipped for whatever conditions the beautiful but rugged African countryside could throw at us.

It would be a long and taxing drive, and we were prepared for the worse, but the wagon was our insurance on getting there safely and in time.

As we left Blantyre and headed to the stunning and huge Lake Malawi, the main road was excellent and we sailed past the bustling towns and small villages at either side of the dead-straight and flat main highway.

After an hour or so, however, the road just abruptly disappeared. In its place was a red dirt track that had many potholes from the recent rainy season, and our state-of-the-art wagon was now being put through its paces.

We were crawling through the terrain at a snail’s pace as the experienced driver picked his way carefully and cautiously through the treacherous winding and undulating track.

The two hours allocated for the drive came and went, and now darkness fell upon us. If it was already fraught before the streetlights completely disappeared, it was now clearly dangerous to carry on, and we had been bumped and jogged out of our sleepy stupor.

This particular African road trip felt synonymous with the unhelpful environment some of the exciting new thinking and techniques in the fast-changing world of project management are having to contend with. No matter which of these systems you are considering implementing, preparation of the environment is essential.

The incumbent culture, organisational structures and infrastructure can be as damaging and as impenetrable as our dirt track was for our “cutting-edge” wagon in Malawi.

The wagon is unlikely to last long trying to traverse such impassable terrains in future. However, once the highway is fully completed, most vehicles will sail along to Lake Malawi.

The same is true of whichever project management approach is selected. Without the appropriate preparatory work and investment, the approach usually fails for all the wrong reasons – no matter how gifted the chosen project managers or the quality of the methodology.

The mountaineer Eric Shipton once said, “No, it is not remarkable that Everest did not yield to the first few attempts; it would have been surprising and not a little sad if it had, for that is not the way of great mountains.” Good that he remained a climber and not a project manager.

Whether it be Lean, Agile, Waterfall, Scrum, Per, Prince2… – I could go on – they will struggle to deliver when the odds are stacked against them.

There are few project management accolades to be won without changing the environment to become far more conducive to the chosen methodology. It requires much more than perseverance and determination. Change the game by doing all you can to make the environment far more accommodating to the new method of project management before you commence.

On my next trip Malawi, we will fly into Lilongwe airport in the north of the country, and drive to Lake Malawi from there. It will be much longer as the crow flies, but in actual fact it will take far less time as the highway is so much better from there. Then we will really enjoy the benefits of a new-age vehicle that can really show off all of its “extras”.

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