Michael Ocock, FRICS, FAPM
Conspectus specializes in providing support to the strategic planning, governance and management functions in projects.
Michael is the Conspectus director responsible for the company’s participation in the development programme for the GRASP methodology which is now researching applications beyond major projects.
What is GRASP?
GRASP is technically a soft-systems methodology that uses multi-stakeholder perspectives to make it easier for any management team to determine what should be done to ensure its projects go forward successfully, its strategic planning is sustainable and its critical decisions more likely to gain widespread support. The methodology makes it easier to identify less obvious but nonetheless important opportunities, search for underlying causes of risk to the project and better define the inevitable uncertainties and assumptions present in all projects. In short, the methodology is for deciding on the best way forward for a project’s sponsor, its management team and for the project itself, always given the prevailing circumstances and however critical the project’s true situation.
The GRASP methodology has been documented in the form of a facilitator’s guide and introduction to the methodology. Projects are temporary human-activity systems set up to deliver outcomes sought by project sponsors and promoters, so the guide’s introduction also makes reference to the reasons why a project could become an unstable system and so fail to deliver.
GRASP has its origins in discussions and side-debates held during the UK’s ESRC / LSE 1991 Seminar series “Rethinking System Failure, Hazard Management and Institutional Design”. The methodology provides project practitioners with a means whereby they can quickly arrive at an understanding of what exactly is happening with their project that needs fixing and what external influences could block their efforts or cause unexpected and serious difficulties. By the way this is done GRASP also makes it easier for them to see the relevance of available guidance on managing and delivering successful projects. The project’s management can then put right what is under its immediate control and bring to the attention of those responsible for matters that fall outside of the project team’s remit that could greatly affect the health of the project.
Our on-going practitioner-led collaboration with likeminded project management professionals and academics in the fields of decision-making and organisational dynamics has resulted in the development and refinement of GRASP, an aid for management teams that takes the form of an adaptable and very practical methodology for management decision-making and strategic management planning for projects, encouraging teams to see their projects’ strengths and weaknesses through different eyes.
GRASP in use
Adopting GRASP does not mean that teams have little choice but to subject themselves to a lengthy process with endless debates. When time is short and there is an urgent need to reach a consensus on the way forward a GRASP session of two to three hours is entirely feasible. In some circumstances an across-the-table session will suffice pending in-depth GRASP exercises, with or without an associated programme of interviews.
Because problems concerning the management and governance of a project cannot be excluded from GRASP exercises the issues considered by following the methodology will often be sensitive and sometimes reveal management shortcomings both within and without the project. However GRASP creates an environment of openness and a positive attitude to both problem identification and problem solving. Teams will not only see their projects from different perspectives but should better appreciate the difficult environment in which many projects exist, so that a consensus is more easily reached as to what is going or might go wrong and how it can be fixed.
As projects are systems it should be of little surprise that factors generally understood to cause system failure are also present in failed projects. Formal inquiries that make strenuous efforts to discover the underlying root causes of project failure inevitably report that organisational and cultural factors are frequently responsible for edging projects towards disastrous outcomes. Research studies undertaken by the UK’s Major Projects Association, the National Audit Office and many similar bodies support these conclusions.
Public institutions and sometimes private sector organisations generally react to failure by issuing guidance on best practice, frequently calling for different approaches to governance arrangements and for wholesale changes to the way management coped in the past; all intended to ensure the next major project is successful. The resulting drift towards reliance on predominantly mechanical management processes is disturbing, especially when projects are delayed or failing in other ways for lack of understanding of how the project system works in the real world. The problem is usually not so much what should be done to give projects a smoother passage (everyone purports to know that) but how it can be done.
Unfortunately for practitioners much guidance, whether offered by academics, professional bodies or standards institutions, or even governments themselves, is written assuming that for a project’s management team the project environment will be relatively benign and controllable, the many organisations involved will set aside their interests and all will work together in complete harmony with a common purpose. The reality is different, as anyone managing a project will know. Vested interests constitute a major source of potential risk. Stakeholders have their own motivations, expected gains, values and beliefs, as well as differing perspectives on risk and the project, all of which drive behaviour and decision-making, much of which can impact adversely on a project.
The development and promotion of Critical Path Analysis and PERT as an everyday project-workplace tools (with their origins in early systems thinking and Operational Research) has shown what can be done for the efficient programming of projects. GRASP as a process and methodology does a similar job for risk-based strategy planning in the project environment.
Typical outcomes and benefits from employing GRASP
GRASP exercises have made it possible for management teams working at many different levels within projects to identify and then deal constructively with management challenges arising from:
- project governance structures, strategic planning and decision-making processes and management styles employed at all levels.
- organising and coordinating of project activities, especially difficulties with information, communications and authority for decision making.
- lack of awareness and understanding of a project’s ‘true’ situation and the root causes of risks confronting project teams.
- complexity, inflexibility and prolonged nature of some projects.
- lack of understanding of the full extent of the system that is the project, especially those projects with multiple and influential stakeholders.
- wholly inappropriate procurement strategies and processes.
- the common but mistaken belief that a project team must solve every problem regardless of the limitations of its defined authority or the responsibilities of others.