Project managers are the root cause of human error, right?

Well not exactly. If we look at a lot of the cases of human error that have occurred in New Zealand, and worldwide; they focus on IT. We at HFEx Ltd see daily reports on confidentiality breaches, data security and compliance issues all attributed to human error. So surely if we were to conduct a root-cause analysis, it comes down to how the project delivering the relevant IT system was delivered right? Wrong! Well, actually, it depends!

Having recently delivered a lecture to a group of university post graduates on "Human Factors in Project Management", it gave us the opportunity to really look at this in more detail. Karl, our director and experienced project manager, had the opportunity to deliver some of his war stories and human factors learnings. He believes human factors and project management co-exist – this may be stating the obvious seeing as projects are dependent on people. However, very little work has been done into looking at the human factors issues around aspects such as decision making, situational awareness, socio-technical systems and interpersonal elements that can make or break project success.

During the lecture, Karl drew on his own experiences that challenged project success and made similarities to other industries where human factors is better established. Some of the key areas that work against the project manager, appear to lie with other people and systems. A few examples include, the ever prevalent danger of scope creep coupled with resistance to accept cost/time impacts, the changing resource availability, a complex project delivery framework and last minute decisions by business systems owners that come back to bite them.

However, assuming everything in a project goes according to plan, still there are chances of human error occurring later on. Training, testing and support on new systems are often treated as an afterthought at a time when there is little money left over to pay for these crucial services. It usually comes down to the end-user having to work out what to do (and more importantly what not to do). This is complicated further if the system was not fully delivered or not fit for purpose and many odd workarounds have been implemented.

To put this into a personal context, just think about anything that you own at home that has a few quirks (no not your partner). It could be your car, your PC operating system, your entertainment system, your food processor – anything. Now imagine if we did an upgrade on it but in doing so introduced a few new quirks. It would take you time to figure out what they are and how it affects you. A few mistakes will be made by you, no doubt, until you learned the new ways of operating it correctly every time. This is what people involved with provisioning, IT support, customer services and even IT security face every day. Even, if everything in a project was delivered according to plan – no quirks – we live in a sea of change. The systems get improved, the products get upgraded, the security measures get improved and the end users have to constantly play catch-up. It is not surprising then that on the occasion the end-user gets things wrong, bad things generally happen to the customer or the general public.

So to summarise, projects can be the hotbed where bad decisions are made but these are usually driven by constraints either based on the people or the systems project managers rely on to deliver a successful project.

If you have any comments or would like to know more, please email us atinfo@hfex.co.nz. We would love to hear from you.​