PMTips: Here with us today is Karlene Agard, who is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management and an award-winning Strategic Risk and Value Management expert.
Karlene, welcome and thank you for doing this interview.
Karlene Agard: Thank you for having me, Ana.
PMTips: You have a vast experience in the transport sector, having worked on several multi-million and multi-billion pound projects, like Thameslink and Crossrail 2. Can you tell us more about your experiences, your professional development and maybe some of the challenges you faced during those times?
Karlene Agard: Sure. So if I could start with when I graduated from university I was in a really bad place because I felt lost, I didn't know what to do. I’d picked my degree, which is in Engineering Business Management, because I liked physics and I was good at maths, but I didn't enjoy the degree at all and so I actually got quite depressed during that time. And I didn't do well in my degree, so I was really – it wasn't a great time for me, I was lost, I didn't know what to do, and I graduated during a recession. So I had an opportunity to temp at Network Rail. I hadn't enjoyed studying engineering. I had enjoyed working in engineering organizations previously, so I thought would be a good fit for me, and I spent some time there as a Safety Reporting Assistant and worked my way up. Eventually, I went on to do change project management, which I really enjoyed and gave me a broad overview of the business and what different people within the business were doing.
And then I went on to be a Risk and Value Analyst, which was where I really found my passion, and that was before starting mega projects with successes in risk and value management. So I had a chance to work on some of the most exciting projects within the sector. I worked on Crossrail 2, as you mentioned, I worked on Thameslink. I had a billion pound portfolio that I looked after from the risk and value management perspective. I really enjoyed the challenge of helping to get clear on what it was they wanted to achieve within those projects, that they could spend more time on focusing on that and use their resources really effectively to deliver those objectives. Though, there were some times when I found myself overwhelmed with the workload because I had a lot to do, but I was able to speak with people and get some help on how I should prioritize. That's a really key skill, being able to prioritize effectively. And as a result of the work I did there I won a number of awards and I was shortlisted for some awards. Then I moved on to Transport for London where I worked as a Risk Manager – look after the Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines, and the projects that were delivered from those business areas.
After that, I had a year of working on the International Trade Select Committee within the House of Commons in the UK Parliament. Now that I really enjoyed because it was a real divergence from what I'd done historically and my knowledge and expertise, but I thought with globalization and Brexit it would be really a useful skill to be able to understand more about international trade. And that was before starting my business, which is Aravun, which I began in 2018 and had spent time there really picking up on what I most enjoy and am passionate about doing, which is using risk and value management to start make a project small success. So it's been quite a journey, and during that time I've been able to write for a number of publications and share my risk and value knowledge with others, which has been enjoyable.
PMTips: You are on the steering committee for the IRM Risk Agenda for 2025, an initiative by IRM with the aim to investigate what the future of risk management could look like in 2025. In your professional opinion, what might the future of risk management look like?
Karlene Agard: So that was a really interesting project to take part in, because we were able to survey a number of business leaders and risk leaders to have a look at what the business environment might be like in 2025, and also what risks specifically would look like in that time. And it was expected that technology will obviously pay a greater role within the future, but also that there’ll be greater ownership of risk management by the Business Unit Managers. So in 2017, when we published the report, 23% of respondents expected that risk management would play a key role in helping their organization to manage disruption and strongly agreed with that statement. Whereas by 2025 was expected that nearly 60% of respondents expected that risk management would play a key role in helping their organizations manage disruption. So in terms of the impact of risk management, that was something that people felt would increase strongly. Almost half of respondents thought that risk management would be pivotal in helping their organization to adapt quickly, to take advantage of new business opportunities, so obviously living in the world that we live in and things change quite rapidly, but it's anticipated that risk management will play a part in that, and a greater part within the future.
PMTips: How demanding is it to work on multi-million and multi-billion pound projects? What differentiates those projects from other smaller projects?
Karlene Agard: So I focus particularly on megaprojects, which are greater than a billion dollars in terms of the cost of delivering the project. And for those really large projects, the fact that is coming to play is that they tend to be extremely complex and they also tend to be transformational in terms of the way that people have to behave differently within the future. So when you're working on those types of projects, particularly in the Public Sector, which is where the vast majority of my experience has been in, you get a lot of public pressure and scrutiny that is placed on those. So if something goes wrong, it goes over budget or if a key milestone is delayed, then the press are all over that and they're really interested in it. And of course there's a public interest in the money being spent wisely and properly, and there's always a tension between doing this you know big sexy project and then doing the other things that a country needs to function properly. So things like just the day-to-day business of healthcare or education, so there's a really big interest from the media and then you get scrutiny. And you also have the tension within a project, so because of the complexity in the scale, it's hard for people to know exactly who does what and oftentimes you have different organizations working on different elements.
PMTips: Considering your experience as a Strategic Risk and Value Management consultant, can you tell us how the combination of the two can affect the project outcome?
Karlene Agard: So, with value management – the concepts of values originated in America, by a man called Lawrence Miles – so value is about understanding the ratio between the function, what the project does or must do, the functions that are delivered, and the resources that go into achieving that. So oftentimes you have: cost is one of the measures that is looked at in terms of that value ratio. With value management you're looking to get the right ratio between the functions that you need and the resources that go into delivering that. At the beginning of a project, you have to be clear about what it is that you want it to achieve, so what are the core outcomes that you want in the project. And you would probably think that this is obvious and known by all parties, but quite often that tends not to be the case. So, you’ve got a room of 20 people and you ask them ‘What are we trying to achieve with this project?’ you can get twenty different answers, which is not right especially when you have such a large project, and it can be difficult to get everybody on the same page in terms of what the goals are and make sure you're working and pulling in the same direction.
So value management enables you to be clear on what your outcomes are and then focus on activities and resources throughout the project and achieving that. At the outset, you get that clear framework for what it is you're looking to achieve. As you're coming to develop the options you can brainstorm ways in which you might go about achieving it. And value management has a specific technique called Functional Analysis System Technique or FAST, which enables you to capture what those core functions are and then you can use that to brainstorm, because rather than focusing on a specific solution it will enable you to focus on the outcome that's needed and fill you up to consider innovative ways that you may go about achieving that outcome. And then as a project develops you have specific options to consider. You can look at the value ratio in relation to each of those options and see which one gives you the right balance, and then later on in a project you can assess the specific options that you've selected and developed and then look at how you can get greater value out of that specific option. And of course at the end of a project you can go back and say ‘Have we delivered the functionality that we needed to deliver?’ and if we haven't then what more needs to be done by the operational team. So that's the value management side of things.
Risk is about understanding the uncertainty associated with the project. With a megaproject, it’s guaranteed that things will go wrong. There's a really high rate of failure within mega projects, so Bent Flyvbjerg from Oxford University and his colleagues has found that 17-19% of the mega projects have cost overruns, so there's a real issue in terms of the planning that we have and being able to stick to that planning. So one of the things that he advocates is to use Reference Class Forecasting which is an approach where you take a reference class, which is other similar projects that have occurred, and have a look at the time scales in which they took place and have a look at the budgets that were spent on those projects to give you a realistic overview of what your project spending might be. You tend to have a bottom-up approach, when you're estimating time scales and cost, but taking this top-down approach of comparing what other similar projects have spent takes away some of the optimism bias that you have and gives you something, helps you to refine your estimate to be slightly more accurate. But if you look at what might go wrong, and plan for what might go wrong, and allot resources and budget to address things and better yet prevent from those things and, then you have a better chance of achieving the project successfully.
So when you have risk management and value management, particularly at the start, it helps you to set a framework for what it is that you want to achieve. Make sure that you're getting your resources aligned to achieving that in the most effective way, and making sure that it will give you the outcomes needed, and also that the risks will be mitigated as well, so you'll have less likelihood of things going wrong, but will cause the project to fail and not meet those objectives, so ultimately those things together can help to save you money and also help to deliver in a more timely manner.
PMTips: What are the most common risks that can happen during a project’s lifecycle? What are the best approaches that project managers can use in order to manage those risks?
Karlene Agard: So the most common risks really depend on the type of project that you're looking at, but I think one of the areas of risk that is common to all projects is the people element of risk. So understanding what the different tensions are between stakeholders and what priority you as a project would place on achieving the objectives they want from the project. So you'll find that different stakeholders will want different things, and it's not always easy – generally it's impossible to deliver everything that everybody wants to the extent that they want it, so you've got this tension between your resources and achieving those desired benefits and functions for different people. And then you've got the internal people mechanics of how people perform, how people interact with each other, the communication that you have within projects. And so these are the risks that are common to every type of project that takes place.
PMTips: You are actively involved in the mentoring of women from emerging countries as part of the Women in Business Programme at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. How did you decide to join the initiative and what are your impressions so far? Moreover, what kind of benefits does this initiative offer aspiring women entrepreneurs?
Karlene Agard: So I heard about the Women in Business Programme through a fellow colleague who works in project management and she mentioned that it’s something that she did, and I looked into it and I thought it seemed like a great thing to get involved in. I really liked the idea of working with people and helping to support them in building their business. Now I have a number of friends who are entrepreneurs and we help each other, and a few of them admitted to me that I was able to really help them in terms of supporting them and building their business and improving their mentality in terms of what they think is possible, and help them to get over challenges that they faced internally in terms of not feeling like they were able to achieve certain things. So I really like that feeling of helping my friends and I thought if that's a skill that I have, it will be excellent for me to help somebody else who's in a different country to develop their business.
So I've been doing that for a number of months so far and I'm really enjoying it. It's good to be able to connect with a woman who actually lives in India. I wouldn't have the chance to speak with someone like her. She works in a completely different business environment from me and working with her has given me a lot of insight into culture and the challenges that she faces in a business context – she's based in India. So I've really enjoyed having that opportunity to learn about what she's working on, and have the chance to help her develop a business. It’s really rewarding having someone say ‘Oh, I applied that thing that we discussed and my business has improved significantly as a result,’ so I definitely recommend it to anybody else said who’s interested – they're looking for people who have business skills and can support female entrepreneurs in different countries, in developing countries.
PMTips: You have been an active contributor for several different online magazines like Forbes and Entrepreneur, where you share actionable insights from multi-billion-pound megaprojects to help readers get the most out of their resources and manage risks more effectively. What led you to actively share your experience and knowledge with others?
Karlene Agard: I think that project management is really important. And I think that value management, in particular within the UK, is not as well understood and I wanted to have the chance to share about value management in key business publications. So pursuing those opportunities has been something that I’ve enjoyed doing. I also generally enjoy writing, but having pursued a STEM education, I didn't have the chance to write that much earlier on in my career, although I've done a lot more writing recently. I think it's important that the profile of project management is raised – I was reading a report by McKinsey that estimates that the world needs about 57 trillion dollars’ worth of infrastructure by 2030 to enable the anticipated levels of GDP Growth globally, so the megaprojects will be a key part of delivering that. So having that chance to share with a general business audience – as opposed to a specific project management audience, who understands and appreciates these things – was something that I thought was important and I should pursue.
The Association for Project Management recently did some research into the impact of project management and they found that within the UK 156.5 billion pounds of Annual Growth (Value Added) is contributed by the project management sector, which represents 8.9 % of the UK's for Price Value Added overall. So it's a really important field and I think the wider business is beginning to appreciate it more, but there's a lot of work to be done on that overall, so I was happy to be able to contribute.
PMTips: How can professionals who work on megaprojects manage the stress that comes with their everyday responsibilities? Are there tactics that they can use to reduce stress or maybe even entirely prevent it?
Karlene Agard: Yes, there definitely are. There are a few resources that I'd recommend for people who feel that they are stressed or suffering from anxiety or depression. And within project management there's a lot of go-go-go, a lot of high pressure and when things need to be done they need to be done yesterday. So I think there's an increasing awareness of the impact of mental health and the fact that employers have a part to play in ensuring the mental health of their employees, or supporting the mental health of their employees. So one book that I'd recommend is SOS: Help For Emotions by Lynn Clark, which is great in terms of looking at how you deal with situations and what you tell yourself about them. So one of the things I talk about is the ABC method, which is an activating event, so something that occurs, that could cause you to feel some distress. And then you've got the B, which is the beliefs and self-talk, and then you've got the C which is the emotional and behavioral consequences. So some people think that may feel a certain way because something has happened to them, whereas it's actually the B – the beliefs and self-talk that impact how you deal with the things emotionally. So it's not because something has happened to you feel a certain way, but it's what you tell yourself about what happened to you that impacts how you feel.
And that's one of the many reasons why people can go through horrible situations and still feel happy and others can have a relatively privileged life and still not feel satisfied. So that's one book that I recommend, that talks about examining the way that you talk to yourself about things that have happened and having a better way of processing what's happened in order to get a better result both emotionally and in terms of what we do and then that tends to lead to a better result in the external world in terms of real-life consequences.
PMTips: If you could give yourself advice, look back and talk to a younger version of yourself, let’s say right when you started working on your very first project, what advice would you give? Also, is there any advice you would give to young professionals who wish to become project managers?
Karlene Agard: So one of the things I would say for people who are new to working in projects is it’s really important to keep in mind the goals that you're trying to achieve overall within the project and also specifically within your day-to-day tasks. So if it's not clear to you why you're doing what you're doing, you need to find out why, because oftentimes – well, there are a few reasons. So one of them is that it might be that you can think of a more effective, more efficient way to do it that hasn't been considered previously. And there's a benefit in having a fresh pair of eyes, as I say, because you bring that additional perspective and you may have been exposed to things that other people within the project haven't been exposed to. And then there's also sometimes, oftentimes within organizations you get bureaucracy and you have ways of doing things that aren't effective. So if you ask the question ‘Why are we doing this?’ or ‘Why are we doing it in this manner?’, then it can cause people to realize that what they're doing is not the most useful thing or the most effective thing, and look up alternative ways to do it, or if it's not really serving a purpose, then stop doing it and focus on the things that do matter. So be really clear about the goals that you're trying to achieve overall within a project and specifically within the task that you're doing.
I would also say – if you're wishing to become a project manager, then try and speak to as many different people within the profession as possible, because project management is so broad. There are so many different areas that you can go into, so many different sectors. It's really important that you speak to different people and understand what options are available to you and also different ways that people have of doing things because there's value and learning from others, there's great value and learning from others. And another thing I would say, in terms of building a career overall, is not to be afraid of failures and to have clearly defined goals in terms of what you want to achieve, but look at – if opportunities come to you that may be beneficial and aren't necessarily what you've anticipated, to go for it, because you can get a lot of benefit from that. So the succumbent on the International Trade Select Committee was not part of my plan at all, but when I saw the opportunity I went for it and I learned a lot from that experience and that really helped me in future endeavors.
PMTips: Karlene, thank you for joining us today, for providing advice, and for sharing your professional experiences with our readers and listeners.
Karlene Agard: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Karlene can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as on her company ARAVUN’s Twitter.
Interview conducted by Ana Mitevska