Published here May 2004.


Musings Index

Projects, Politics and Process: Lesson Learned?
Large Projects and the 2010 Olympics

Perhaps we should have titled this piece "Conflict versus Continuity". Be that as it may, in November 2003, Vancouver here in Canada won the right to host the 2010 Olympic Games against international competition. Yet in February 2004 we learned that the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for the execution of this ambitious project (program?) had not yet been appointed. To be fair, shortly thereafter, the selection of a CEO for the 2010 Olympics was finally announced.

Our point is that there was a prolonged, and in the event unnecessary, hiatus while a leader for the next phase was sought through a complex selection process. This essential project milestone became not only three months overdue, but was embroiled in controversy between the leading lights of this Cdn$6-billion event. We could divert here and point to the potentially disastrous consequences of the roll-out effects of delayed early decision making. Figure 1 shows how, contrary to popular assumptions, a delay in implementation translates into serious completion delay and ultimately increased costs.

Figure 1: The Roll-Out effect of delayed decision making
Figure 1: The Roll-Out effect of delayed decision making

Or, alternatively, we could divert here and discuss the impacts of egos on project outcomes. But we wish to do neither. Rather, we wish to draw attention to the inevitable consequences of a flawed project life span process in which continuity of leadership from one major phase to another is overlooked. Simply put, the same people who "sold" the project in the first place should also be made responsible for seeing that it produces the promised outcomes. Otherwise, there is simply a lack of accountability for results. A classic mistake - especially prevalent on large public projects where equally large numbers of stakeholders are involved over a long project duration.

But don't take our word for it. Here is what the UK London & Continental Railways had to say about the construction of the US$7-billion Channel Tunnel Rail Link.[1] The wording has been edited to reflect the current context. The emphasis added is ours.

"The [project] has demonstrated that [such] projects are very much more complex than conventional public-private transactions in view of the large number of interfaces which have to be managed over the life of the project, particularly in the planning, design and construction phases."

"It is likely to be very difficult, if not impractical, to hand over a major [...] project to a completely new project team following a [...] competition."

"The project development team will almost certainly need to transfer to any new owners in order to preserve the project's relationships with external parties and retain intellectual capital."

"To prevent any hiatus in the project's development and to minimize the timetable for the project's implementation, the project [proposal] team will also need to continue taking the project forward ... ."

So, we may conclude that without a CEO over the three months of delay, the 2010 Olympics is already in some trouble. For the record, the Channel Tunnel rail operation is losing large sums of money annually, largely because the ridership is substantially below the original predictions upon which the economics of the project was based.

Indeed, perhaps there is yet another lesson here for the 2010 Olympics management.


It turned out that the same person who conducted the successful winning proposal was also appointed as the CEO for implementing the 2010 Olympics. So perhaps the project has gone some way to redeem itself. Even so, though the time delay may eventually be buried in the mists of the past, this time can never be recovered, nor can the unnecessary expense.

1. Channel Tunnel Rail Link: financing and risk transfer, Paper 13211, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Civil Engineering, Special Issue, 156, May 2003, p35.
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