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Project Legacy – What is it, why is it important and can it ever really be planned for?

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Legacy is something I hear often being talked about, but is it really understood by those that speak it? And more than that, can it ever really be understood or a common definition ever be found and can legacy ever really be planned for? Before establishing my own consulting business in 2013, I worked at Siemens for 28 years, 9 months and 4 days….not that I was counting. As my time with Siemens was drawing to a close and I began to reflect on all I had achieved; one thing got me thinking and began to stick in my mind. In my time there, I had managed many challenging and complex projects, programmes and change initiatives. I had held senior leadership positions, led multi-cultural teams and worked with some fantastically talented individuals. But had I – or they – really thought deeply about the topic of legacy and what it was that was being created by our collective efforts? I believe there cannot be a legacy without first having a purpose. What that purpose is, is a question seldom asked by many but when it is – and is thought about deeply, it can create a lasting impact through all of time. Perhaps one of the best examples of where the question of legacy and purpose was asked – and asked well – was the London Olympic bid for the 2012 games. It was the promised legacy the games would create that ultimately convinced the Olympic committee that London should host the games of 2012. Here is just a little of what was said about legacy and the games at the time. “With the destiny of the games on a knife-edge, and dark horses Madrid emerging as genuine contenders alongside favourites Paris, (Sebastian) Coe delivered his passionate final plea to the (Olympic committee) voters in Singapore. Plans for a new Olympic park based around the deprived area of Stratford in London’s East End presented a powerful case for transforming the social and sporting landscape of the capital. Legacy was the word, and it was used often to deliver the message – give us the games, and one of the world’s great capital cities will be transformed”. And so it was that a legacy promised became the difference between London winning the bid to host the games over Paris.

When you are initiating your projects legacy should be a very important consideration for you too, but only after thinking first, long and hard as to your project’s purpose, and by that I don’t mean only to deliver it to ‘time, to cost and to quality’. What is the legacy you wish to create? What do you want to remain long after the scope has been delivered, the schedule achieved and the final invoices issued? How will you know you achieved your intended legacy and especially with the passing of time? Perhaps one of the greatest examples of explaining what I mean as to time and legacy is the Sydney Opera House. Instantly recognisable, the Sydney Opera House is more than ‘just a building’; indeed a UNESCO world heritage report in 2007 summed it up far better than I could when it said; “It stands by itself as one of the indisputable master-pieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th Century, but of all human-kind.” But its immediate legacy was very different. That difference included the sacking of its Project Manager; the resignation of its architect, Jorn Utzon part way through; continual political interference, persistently changing scope and designs, spiralling costs, street protests, and an opening which was ten years later than planned. When the opera house eventually opened in 1973 in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II; Jorn Utzon was not even invited to the opening ceremony. Nor was his work acknowledged and neither was his name allowed to be mentioned in Her Majesty’s presence!

As time passed, the Opera House sitting proudly against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour with a growing and enhanced reputation; Jorn Utzon was invited back in 1999 to act as a guide for future changes and design principles to the building. In 2003 he was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the highest honour in international architecture. In 2004 the reception hall was renamed the ‘Utzon room’ in his honour and when Utzon died aged 90 on 28th November 2008, the flags on the Sydney Harbour Bridge were flown at half-mast as a sign of respect. Perhaps his legacy – and that of the Sydney Opera House – is captured in the words of the American Architect Louis Khan who said simply this: “The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building”. And so my point is this, when thinking about legacy and its importance, there is a paradox. It is important to ensure legacy is thought of in just the same way as you would think about your risks and opportunities or your stakeholders and your schedule. Plan for what you wish that legacy to be and then review, re-calibrate and re-plan at every stage of your project. But here is the paradox; remember, when planning your plans may be rendered worthless by those things you cannot plan for and that is how other people may think or feel, the passing of time, a change in culture or environment, a new political system or adaptations in community values or ethics. And so you must plan for what cannot be planned and you must accept that you cannot control the uncontrollable – and that is the dimension of time.

It is my view that it is better to let control be determined naturally when planning legacy than to try to take control, but that does not mean not thinking or planning for it or not working out a way for you, and those who follow you, to determine whether the legacy you hoped would be achieved was achieved.

- Author of this post

Paul joined Siemens in 1984 as a graduate trainee and within two years entered the world of Project Management. His enthusiastic approach and project business success was recognised in his project management of some key projects; most notably in the then government owned British Rail; the implementation of communications infrastructure programme for London Undergrounds’ Jubilee Line Extension and a major telecommunications refresh programme across the Government Department of Social Security as well as in leading the communications implementation project for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. From February 2006 until June 2013, he was responsible for leading the PM@Siemens programme (Siemens global programme addressing project business) across the UK and North West Europe where his motivational and inspirational leadership style led to even greater levels of project and programme business success. His efforts led Siemens UK plc in 2008 to become the first corporate organisation in the UK to receive accreditation from the Association for Project Management. This was in recognition of Siemens UK plc’s commitment to professional project and programme management development. In April 2009, Paul was nominated by ‘Project Magazine’ as one of ten ‘key influencers’ in the UK in relation to the profession of project and programme management. This recognition placed him in the company of the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone and Sir David Normington, the then Permanent Secretary to the UK Government Home Office. In July 2013 he established his own business, Paul Hodgkins Project Consultancy, where he has already begun to help businesses “unleash the power of projects and programmes”. He continues to be recognised for his contribution in developing the project management profession and has written articles for and appeared in numerous project management publications. Paul was appointed as a Fellow of the Association for Project Management (FAPM) in October 2009 and represented Siemens as part of the PMI Global Executive Council and APM Corporate Leaders Advisory Group. Paul also guest presents as part of University College London’s MSc on the Strategic Management of Projects.

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28 responses to “Project Legacy – What is it, why is it important and can it ever really be planned for?

  1. You’re right Paul, Legacy is not only extremely important it is rarely understood. When creating a case for future legacy in the case for the Olympic games in London was indeed the great selling point to local people, but the way it was communicated gave the impression it was for the great and good of the UK, in reality it was sadly local and it is indeed fading into the background quickly and miserably (national politics overtook the effect). The skill of the Project Manager is to recognise the positive longevity of such a legacy, embedding into the fabric of the project to extend the positive after effect as long as possible regardless of the size or complexity. It’s a very interesting subject which I am sure we could debate for a long time. Superb content as usual Paul, many thanks

    • Thanks Paul and you are spot on as to the Project Manager recognising legacy and embedding that thinking into the fabric of the project.

  2. Great article Paul, as always. I believe that longer term, and bigger impact thinking is often washed away with the constant drumbeat and need for activity. The world is getting forever more complex and in our daily roles we need to constantly be addressing small, often annoying details to move towards even intermediate goals. In contrast to this in conversations with senior leaders they reference the need for reflection and consideration to those daily, necessary actions. Totally on point thinking. Thanks

    • Thanks Anthony for your kind comments and much appreciated. You are right, we all should take more time for reflection and consideration.

  3. Dear Paul,
    Great topic for a discussion.
    I think a legacy in general may take many forms and it can be a part of you. I totally agree with you about importance of the Project legacy. I feel this is even more important than a project purpose. This is fundamental element which enables us to live with different emotions fully in the present, learn from the past (lessons learned) and building for the future. It enables us to do our best we can do and to create a meaning and spirit around you and others. Thinking about the every project I have done at some point is a part of someone else’s project legacy in different forms and time perspective.
    Daina Ciudariene
    Head of PMO

    • Thank you very much for your comments Daina and I agree, legacy means learning from the past, present and the future as much as it does as to what will be learned from what we – and our projects – leave behind.

  4. The opportunity of creating a legacy I agree is indeed powerful. Paul your two examples of the Olymipic games and the Sydney opera house are great partly because everyone has heard of them, they are great brands. Brands offer people a chance to be part of a legacy, whether this is consumer goods, buildings, historic sporting events or well known companies etc. It got me wondering how individual legacy i.e. the mark someone has left on the world (that they and or others see), is related to brand legacy and how important being part of something big and well known relates to an individuals / other view of an individuals legacy????

    • Very many thanks David for your comments and I agree that legacy is a powerful thing. Whether we try to create a legacy (and we should, even though as I said in the blog, we cannot control the uncontrollable) or whether one is created for us by others. I think your connection of brand and legacy is a very good one and the two go ‘hand in glove’. Whether your brand is world renound as a major business for example, or you have your own personal brand; legacy and brand will always be connected.

  5. What personal legacy do we leave? How will our project colleagues remember us, in the good times and when things were more challenging during project delivery? Did we lead from the front, set the highest professional standards, and were sympathetic when necessary?

    In the 1980’s series Cheers, the lyrics to the introduction said ‘where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came’.

    Paul is right that legacy is important, the legacy of a physical delivery and the legacy of how we made our colleagues feel.

    Will they look back on the legacy of the project and think ‘we’re always glad you came’?

    • Thanks John for your comments. Legacy is not just a ‘physical’ thing as you say; it is also about how we made people think and feel and therefore, our legacy is the one they place before us, not the one that we would necessarily like to be placed before us. I like to describe personal legacy as “meaning something, to someone, sometimes at different times”

  6. Great article. I think that understanding why we do what we do is so important. So many of us get caught up in being busy and doing lots of things but without the understanding of why we’re doing what we are doing how do we know if we are headed in the right direction? To really engage people in a project, we all need to know what we are doing and why we are doing it.

    • Very many thanks Ben. As you have said, understanding what we do (and why) is important; in other words, determining our project’s purpose and from its purpose the intended legacy we collectively are trying to create. If we do not know what ‘direction’ our projects are travelling in and do not have an idea of the ‘destination’ we are headed for then any road will take us there. My experience is that in that situation, our ‘destination’ often ends up being the furthest place away from where we hoped we would be and one that had no purpose!

  7. Dear Paul,
    The best words I can say reflecting on your impressive article is a slightly changed quotation from Russian poet Fedor Tutchev
    We cannot guess the way of project
    In real world, how it’ll return, …
    (in original text – We cannot guess the way of word)
    A legacy for a project manager and for the other project team members, for their company – yes, it has to be planned.
    But for the whole world – see above 🙂

    • Thank you Vladimir for your comments and relating the topic of project legacy to the poem’s of Fyodor Tyutchev was impressive! I hope you are well and life continues to treat you kindly.

  8. Paul
    Great topic which is important but not often considered.
    At the time of planning, execution and closing of the project, the focus is on the Scope, Costs, Schedule, Quality and Risks.
    Why are the benefits of the Legacy not considered? Is it a lack of time, tools or methodology to identify and evaluate the Legacy?
    Your posting gives us an opportunity to thing about our own Project’s Legacy.
    Many thanks for this.
    Rémi

    • Very many thanks Remi for your comments and observations and yes, why is project legacy not always considered? I am certain the answer lies in the questions asked and also that perhaps we have a tendency to focus predominantly on the project’s outputs and not so much on it’s outcomes

  9. Nice article, Paul! I fully agree with Vladimir Rudnev.
    Project legacy is something that we should think about and that should extend to the view of PMs and business managers alike whilst setting project targets.

  10. That’s a thought-provoking article, Paul. And the question that it raises in my mind is this: To what extent can the Project Manager (rather than the Programme Manager or Business Owner) really influence Legacy?

    As you know, most of my career has been in mobile telecoms. At a basic level, I have played a role in delivering many projects that built components of mobile networks, and none individually create much of a legacy. In fact, most of what I have worked on in my life is already obsolete and has been decommissioned! And yet I am fortunate in that my career coincides with the transition from nobody having a mobile phone to almost everyone in the world having a mobile phone – and I am proud to have played a very small part in that process. I think that’s a pretty good legacy!

    • Pleased to hear you found the topic thought provoking Russell and my feeling is, whether a Project Manager, Programme Manager, or Business Owner we all of us should think about legacy planning even if ultimately we know it can not truly every be planned for as a result of the things I mentioned in the blog. Granted, the degree to which we can directly affect or influence may be – to an extent – determined by our role on the project, but as you have said yourself even though – and to use your words – most of what you have worked on…..is already obsolete, the part that you played, no matter how small or now obsolete, has helped to create a legacy today where more than 80% of the world’s population has a mobile device and which is set to grow to more than 90% by 2020!! And so, yes your projects and role in mobile telecoms have undoubtedly helped to create that legacy and you should therefore be very proud!

  11. Paul, as always an insightful and interesting article. Made me think about my projects and the legacy I aim to leave.

    The subject is very timely for me as I am currently working on the ETCS project which will influence the UK (potentially global) rail industry.

    How many project managers look at their projects and think about where it will be in 10, 20 or even 50 years not many I think.

    • Very many thanks Sohail for your comments and I am pleased my post helped you in your thinking as to legacy. If it helps in some small way as to your and the project’s thinking about legacy in relation to the ETCS project, then that will be a great legacy for us both!

  12. Dear Paul, I found your article an inspiring read and it got me thinking. I started to reflect which of my projects went on to have a lasting legacy after realisation. I started to struggle, then I turned my thoughts on my personal projects. It suddenly dawned on me that parenting is a project with a life lasting legacy, by passing on life experiences gained from difficult situations over decades. Maybe Jesus understood the concept of project Legacy? Especially letting control be determined naturally over time and having ability to be followed.

    • Very many thanks Paul for your comments and I am very pleased the article got you thinking and reflecting! Your comment as to parenting and it being akin to a ‘project’ was a really great example. I agree parenting is indeed a ‘project’ that creates a legacy by what we ‘leave behind’ of ourselves through our children whilst also laying the foundations for our children of a future ‘life lasting’ legacy for them.

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