Comparison of Coal-bed Methane to Other Energy Resources

Comparison of Coal-bed Methane to Other Energy Resources

By Jurie Steyn


Our team has been working on a coal-bed methane (CBM) to power project in Botswana for many months.  The other day, a colleague asked me just how clean an energy source CBM really is.  A simple enough question, but perhaps not so easy to answer.

The only way to do this, is to compare the environmental and social impacts of CBM to that of other, non-renewable, energy resources.  Even then, one must keep in mind that every energy project is unique in terms of scope, location and impact.  Any direct comparison of energy resources will thus depend on some level of generalisation.

Although there are many different energy resources, I’ve decided to limit my comparison to the following five:

  • Coal and coal mining;
  • Oil extraction from reservoirs;
  • Coal-bed methane (CBM) from coal seams;
  • Shale gas (SG) from shale formations; and
  • Conventional gas (CG).

In this article, I’ll describe each of these resources briefly, consider some energy predictions, give an overview of the approach followed for the comparison, and present the findings.  Having spent 40 years in the petrochemical and energy industries, I feel confident that I have the experience to attempt a comparison of this nature.

Energy predictions

Global economic growth is partly supported by population growth, but is primarily driven by increasing prosperity in developing economies, led by China and India (BP plc, 2019).  BP plc (2019), in their latest Energy Outlook, predicts a steady growth in primary energy consumption to fuel this growth over the next 20 years, in what they refer to as the Evolving Transition scenario, as shown in Figure 1.

Note: 1 toe = 1 ton oil equivalent = 1 metric ton of oil = 1.4 metric tons of coal = 1270 m3of natural gas = 11.63 megawatt-hour (MWh) = 41.868 gigajoules (GJ).

Figure 1:  Primary energy consumption by fuel (BP plc, 2019)

Coal consumption is expected to decline by 0.1% per annum over the period, with its importance in the global energy system declining to its lowest level since before the industrial revolution.  This is supported by the fact that it is extremely difficult to obtain finance for energy projects based on coal.

BP plc (2019) estimates that renewables and natural gas will account for almost 85% of the growth in primary energy.  Renewable energy is expected to grow at 7.1% per annum and is the fastest growing source of energy.  Natural gas, at 1.7% growth per annum, grows much faster than either oil or coal, and overtakes coal to be the second largest source of global energy by 2040.  Oil consumption is expected to increase at 0.3% per annum over the next 10 to 15 years, before plateauing in the 2030s.

Calculating the percentage, or share, contribution of each or the energy sources of the total energy demand, allows one to generate Figure 2. Figure 2 more clearly shows the actual and anticipated decline in the share of total primary energy of coal and oil. Figure 2 also shows the actual and anticipated rise in the shares of natural gas and renewable energy.  The natural gas share represents the total of conventional gas, coal-bed methane and shale gas.

Figure 2: Shares of total primary energy (BP plc, 2019)

Description of energy resources

Coal and coal mining

Coal is a solid fossil fuel that was formed in several stages as the buried remains of land plants that lived 300 to 400 million years ago were subjected to intense heat and pressure over many millions of years. Coal is mostly carbon (C) but contains small amounts of sulphur (S), which are released into the air as sulphur dioxide (SO2) when the coal burns. Burning coal also releases large amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and trace amounts of mercury and radioactive materials.

Coal can be mined from underground mines using a bord and pillar approach, where pillars of coal are left standing to support the roof structure, or with a continuous miner, where all the coal in the seam is extracted and the roof is permitted to collapse behind the mined-out area.  Coal can also be mined from open-cast mines where the covering layers of topsoil and rock are removed by drag-lines to expose the coal seams for blasting and collection.  An alternative to the latter approach is strip mining, where the coal is sequentially exposed in narrow bands, to reduce the environmental impact.Geological conditions determine the most cost-effective method of mining. 

Mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Coal miners are exposed to noise and dust and face the dangers of cave-ins and explosions at work.  Note that in this comparison, only the environmental and social impacts of the mining, preparation and storage of coal are considered, not including the downstream impacts of coal utilisation.

Oil extraction from reservoirs

Crude oil is found in underground pockets called reservoirs. Oil slowly seeps out from where it was formed millions of years ago and migrates toward the Earth’s surface. It continues this upward movement until it encounters a layer of rock that is impermeable. The oil then collects in reservoirs, which can be several thousand meters below the surface of the Earth.  Crude oil is frequently found in reservoirs along with natural gas. In the past, natural gas was either burned or allowed to escape into the atmosphere.

Drilling for oil, both on land and at sea, is disruptive to the environment and can destroy natural habitats. Drilling muds are used for the lubrication and cooling of the drill bit and pipe. The muds also remove the cuttings that come from the bottom of the oil well and help prevent blowouts by acting as a sealant. There are different types of drilling muds used in oil drilling operations, but all release toxic chemicals that can affect land and marine life.  Additionally, pipes to gather oil, roads and stations, and other accessory structures necessary for extracting oil compromise even larger portions of habitats. Oil platforms can cause enormous environmental disasters. Problems with the drilling equipment can cause the oil to leak out of the well and into the ocean. Repairing the well hundreds of meters below the ocean is extremely difficult, expensive, and slow. Millions of barrels of oil can spill into the ocean before the well is plugged.

Sulphur is the most common undesirable contaminant of crude oils, because its combustion generates sulphur dioxide, a leading precursor of acid rain. ‘Sour’ oils have more than 2% of sulphur, while ‘sweet’ crude oils have less than 0.5%, with some of them (especially oils from Nigeria, Australia and Indonesia) having less than 0.05% S.

Most oil spills are the result of accidents at oil wells or on the pipelines, ships, trains, and trucks that move oil from wells to refineries. Oil spills contaminate soil and water and may cause devastating explosions and fires. Many governments and industry are developing standards, regulations, and procedures to reduce the potential for accidents and spills and to clean up spills when they occur.

CBM from coal seams

Methane recovered from coal beds is referred to as CBM and is a type of natural gas that is trapped in coal seams. CBM is formed by microbial activity during coalification and early burial of organic rich sediments (biogenic process) and by thermal generation at higher temperatures with increasing depth of burial (thermogenic process). Methane is held in the coal seam by adsorption to the coal, combined with hydrostatic pressure of water in the coal cleats (cleats are natural fractures in coal). Production is accomplished by reducing the water pressure, allowing methane to be released from the cleat faces and micro-pores in the coal.

Coals have moderate intrinsic porosity, yet they can store up to six times more gas than an equivalent volume of sandstone at a similar pressure. Gas-storage capacity is determined primarily by a coal’s rank. Higher-rank coals, bituminous and anthracite, have the greatest potential for methane storage. CBM is extracted by drilling wells into the coal bed of coal seams of up to 500 m deep, that are not economical to mine.

Concerns over CBM production stem from the need to withdraw large volumes of groundwater to decrease coal seam hydrostatic pressure, allowing release of methane gas.  This water may contain high levels of dissolved salts and must be treated. In some cases, the coal seam is stimulated by limited hydraulic fracturing in order to improve methane movement to the well. Surface disturbances, in the form of roads, drilling pads, pipelines and production facilities impact regions where CBM extraction is being developed.  Subsurface effects from typical CBM extraction practices must also be considered. Because of the shallow depth of many CBM basins, the potential exists that well stimulation may result in fractures growing out of the coal seam and affecting freshwater aquifers.

Proper environmental management practices can minimise the effects of CBM production and make it more socially acceptable.  Innovative drilling technologies reduce damage to the surface. Better understanding of the surrounding rock properties improves stimulation practices. These options, plus responsible management of produced water, will lessen the impact of CBM extraction on existing ecosystems.

SG from shale formations

Shale gas (SG) is a form of natural gas found in sedimentary rock, called shale, which is composed of many tiny layers or laminations. Gas yield per well is low compared to conventional gas wells and many more wells are typically required for the same volume of gas production. 

SG is extracted from shale formations of between 1 and 4 km below the earth’s surface.  Because of the low permeability of shale rock, SG wells are drilled horizontally along the shale beds and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of the shale is always required to liberate the gas and create channels for it to flow through.  Fracking involves the injection of fracking fluid (water, sand, gel, enzyme breakers, surfactants, bactericides, scale inhibitors and other chemicals) at high pressure down and across the horizontally drilled wells.  The pressurised mixture causes the shale to crack.  The fissures so created, are held open by the sand in the fracking fluid. 

Fracking of shale rock requires much larger volumes and chemical loading than the hydraulic stimulation of CBM seams.  The vertical growth of fissures can be up to 100m, compared to 4 to 10m for CBM. However, SG is typically extracted significantly deeper than CBM and, provided the geology and hydrogeology of the region is understood and considered in the fracking process, this need not have any detrimental effects on the surface or the potable water aquifers.

Surface disturbances in the form of roads, drilling pads, pipelines and production facilities, impact regions where SG extraction is being developed. The expected life of an SG well is much shorter than that of a CBM well.

Conventional gas

Natural gas obtained by drilling into gas reserves, is referred to as conventional gas (CG), to distinguish it from CBM or SG (unconventional gases). CG is trapped in porous and permeable geological formations such as sandstone, siltstone, and carbonates beneath impermeable rock. Natural gas was not formed in the rock formations, but has migrated and accumulated there. Conventional natural gas extraction does not require specialized technology and can be accessed from a single vertical well.  It is relatively easy and cheap to produce, as the natural gas flows to the surface unaided by pumps or compressors.

Natural gas deposits are often found near oil deposits, or with oil deposits in the same reservoir. Deeper deposits, formed at higher temperatures and under more pressure, have more natural gas than oil. The deepest deposits can be made up of pure natural gas. Natural gas is primarily methane, but it almost always contains traces of heavier hydrocarbon molecules like ethane, propane, butane and benzene. The non-methane hydrocarbons are generally referred to as ‘natural gas liquids’ (NGL), even though some of them remain gases at room temperature. NGL are valuable commodities and must be extracted, along with other impurities, before the gas is considered ‘pipeline quality.’

The benefit of CG is that it is cleaner burning than other fossil fuels. The combustion of natural gas produces negligible amounts of sulphur, mercury, and particulates. Burning natural gas does produce nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are precursors to smog, but at lower levels than fuels used for motor vehicles.

Approach followed for comparison

Parameters for comparison

The different energy resources were compared using 12 different parameters divided into two categories.  The first category consists of environmental parameters, as follows:

  • Air Pollution: This covers dust generation, greenhouse gas emissions during production and contribution to acid rain;
  • Water pollution: This considers the potential impact of the operation on surface waters and the effect on water users;
  • Groundwater impacts:The potential for cross contamination of water aquifers and the depletion of groundwater sources and its impact on current users;
  • Soil pollution: Potential impact of the operations on soil quality and use.  Does it impact the ability of the soil to be used for irrigation and livestock farming;
  • Visual impacts: This considers the overall size, longevity, lighting and dust impact of the operation on passers-by;
  • Biodiversity: The potential impact of the operation on the surrounding ecosystems, flora and fauna.

The second category consists of social, and socio-economic parameters, as follows:

  • Health risks: Are health risks to the workers and community due to the impacts the operation, identified and properly understood, and can these be mitigated;
  • Noise impact: Is noise from the operation expected to be a nuisance to the surrounding communities
  • Worker safety: What is the safety performance of similar operations elsewhere in terms of worker fatalities and disabling injuries;
  • Cultural impacts: What is the potential of the operation to impact on areas of high cultural significance to indigenous people;
  • Infrastructure: What infrastructure (roads, schools, clinics, fire station, etc.) is required to support the operation and what will it contribute to the community; and
  • Job creation: How many direct and indirect jobs will result from the operation and how sustainable is it.  In this case, more is better.

Forced ranking

An approach of forced ranking was used, whereby the different energy sources were ranked from best to worst for each of the 12 parameters described above. The best performer for each parameter was given a score of one and the worst performer a score of five.  Those in between, were given scores of two, three and four, depending on their rank.

In exceptional cases, where the impact of two, or more, of the sources were considered to have comparable impacts, the individual scores in question were totalised and averaged.  In other words, if energy sources ranked in positions two and three were considered to have almost identical impacts, each would be allocated a score of 2,5.

Elimination of bias

In any comparison, the elimination of bias is essential.  One way to reduce bias is to evaluate the different options against many parameters, as was done with the 12 parameters described above. 

Another way is to use several assessors, say four to six, when doing the evaluation, and reaching consensus on the ranking.  However, in this case it was not done and therefore I’m the only one to blame if my findings do not correspond with your opinions.  I have tried to be as fair as possible in ranking the energy sources.

Discussion of findings

The results of the evaluation of the energy sources against the environmental parameters are presented in Figure 3 as a 3-D column chart.  Remember that the impacts are not given absolute values, but results based on the ranking process.

Figure 3: Environmental impact assessment for various energy sources

From Figure 3, it is obvious that coal and oil score badly in terms of impact on the environment.  This is followed by natural gas from different sources, with conventional gas assessed as having the least impact.  CBM has a lower environmental impact for most parameters than SG, but because it is accompanied by high yields of mostly saline water from relatively shallow wells, the impact on the water and soil could be greater.

The results of the evaluation of the energy sources against the social and socio-economic parameters are presented in Figure 4. From Figure 4, the picture is not so clear.  Coal and oil again score the highest for most of the parameters considered.  However, in terms of number of jobs created and associated infrastructure requirements, they score the lowest, which means they require more personnel (a positive) and infrastructure.  CG is considered more dangerous than CBM and SG, because of the higher operating pressure and the known cases of blowouts.

The cumulative impacts of the energy sources are presented in Figure 5. In this case, the total score for the six environmental parameters for each of the energy sources was calculated and plotted. Similarly, for the six social parameters.  Lastly, the total score as shown by the grey column in Figure 5 reflect the totals for the environmental impacts’ score plus the social impacts’ score.  Coal is shown to be the least desirable source, followed by oil, SG, CBM, and CG.

Figure 4: Social impact comparison for various energy resources

Figure 5: Cumulative impacts of energy sources

Concluding remarks

Natural gas remains the energy source with the lowest negative social and environmental impacts.  Therefore, natural gas, is estimated to grow at 1.7% per annum, i.e. much faster than either oil or coal, and overtakes coal to be the second largest source of global energy by 2040 (BP plc, 2019).  Natural gas is a combination of CG, CBM and SG.  CG recovery is the overall winner in this comparison with the lowest social and environmental impacts.  In the second position we have CBM, followed by SG.  Even though SG is normally recovered at greater depths than CBM, the extent of fracking required to release the methane in shale is significantly more extensive.

Next in line is oil recovery from geological reservoirs. This is understandable when one considers the oil-related environmental disasters we have witnessed.  Associated gas is also continuously flared from drilling operations.  However, low yielding (i.e. nearly emptied) oil reservoirs can be used as a suitable geological formation for storage of carbon dioxide.  The action of injecting carbon dioxide into a low yielding well will temporarily boost oil production from such a reservoir.

It comes as no surprise that coal is the energy source with the greatest negative impact on the environment.  In terms of negative social impact, it also rates the highest, but by a very small margin.  This result helps us understand the current furore over coal and the difficulty to obtain finance for coal-based projects.


BP plc, 2019, BP energy outlook, 2019 edition.  Electronic document available from on 10 April 2019.

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Can Anybody be a Project Manager?

Can Anybody be a Project Manager?

By Koos Taljaard

Opening remarks

Can anybody be a project manager?  The easy answer is yes, everyone can be a project manager, and probably already is: everyone uses project management skills in their day-to-day personal and working life as they are doing ‘projects’ all the time.

The more pertinent question is, if everyone can be an effective project manager, and do they require a different set of skills to manage projects?  To answer the question, it is important to understand what a project is and in so doing better understand what project managers are required to do, their required skill sets and knowledge attributes.

The objective of project management is to complete projects which comply with the client’s business objectives. According to the PMI PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2017) a project is “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”. A project is thus temporary in that it has a defined start and finish date, and therefore defined scope and resources (including cost). A project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. Project teams often include people who don’t usually work together, people from different organisations and across multiple geographies, bringing their own systems, cultures and aspirations.

Projects and project management

Examples of projects can include the development of software for an improved business process, the construction of a building or bridge, the relief effort after a natural disaster, the expansion of sales into a new geographic market, and the establishment of a new petrochemical complex. This stands in contrast with business as usual (or operations), which are repetitive, permanent, or semi-permanent functional activities to produce products or services.

Project management then, is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet specific project requirements. Projects must be expertly managed to deliver results on-time and on-budget, with minimal or no scope changes, whilst still meeting the original strategic intent or business need.

Many tend to think of project management as a new approach for growth and development. However, project management has been around for thousands of years and was involved in the planning, coordination, and construction of the Ancient Wonders of the World. Throughout the history of project management, the basic principles of project management have always remained the same. In the late 19th century, the need for more structure in the construction, manufacturing, and transportation sectors gave rise to the modern project management tactics we use today. However, it must be remembered that although project management has always been practiced informally, it only began to emerge as a distinct profession in the mid-20th century.

In today’s fast-paced business world, the need for effective project management has become a necessity rather than a luxury. Any formal project, unlike a random set of tasks, requires professional management, and implies teamwork and accountability to finish on time, on budget, and meet quality requirements. Therefore, we have at least two essential roles: the people doing the actual project work and delivering the required outcomes, the team members, and the person directing and leading the project work whilst ensuring that management goals are met, the project manager.

The project manager function

Though specific responsibilities vary depending on industry and project type, a project manager is broadly defined as someone who leads the larger-scale projects, doing everything from ensuring clarity around the scope of work, to onboarding and educating other individuals essential to the project, to project coordination, managing the timelines, scope and budgets associated with the undertaking.

Project managers work closely with individuals of different organisations, ranks, departments and stakeholders, thereby ensuring effective planning, coordinating the efficient and flow of information among all project stakeholders. Depending on the industry and organisational structure, projects managers may either focus on a single project at a time or manage multiple projects with their respective timelines and responsibilities.

As you can probably tell by the description, this role is essential in nearly all industries and fields of work, meaning the actual types of projects managed can take nearly any shape and form. Most project managers, however, choose to specialise in a specific industry to ensure they’re equipped to handle its unique challenges.

The job of a project manager includes three broad areas:

  • Assuming responsibility for the project as a whole;
  • Employing relevant project management processes; and
  • Leading the team.

Skills required

To understand what an effective project manager is, we need to unpack the skills and attributes of a project manager. The key and most important skills required to be an effective project manager are:

  • Strong leadership: Effective project management means having strong leadership qualities such as being able to motivate the team and other stakeholders and lead /direct them to maximum performance, so that they can achieve challenging project goals;
  • Competence:Good project managers can initiate new projects as well as face the challenges that come with it.  They follow a formal stage-gated process and are fully competent with the requirements of all project steps during the different project stages;
  • Project management technical expertise:Since project management software systems, procedures and other related programs are essential in accomplishing the project goals, an effective project manager needs to have sound technical project management knowledge to understand the issues that are related to the technical aspect. You need good processes and project systems to be effective as your projects get larger;
  • Communication skills: Good project managers are good communicators so that they can connect with people at all levels inside or outside their organisation. The project manager must clearly explain the project goals as well as each member’s tasks, responsibilities, expectations and feedback. By some estimates, more than 50% of a project manager’s time is spent in some aspect of communication. This includes meetings, status reporting, emails, phone calls, coordinating, talking to people, and completing documentation. Some studies have even suggested that verbal and written communication takes up 80% of the job;
  • People and team-building skills:It is necessary that a team works in unison, otherwise the project will undergo various relationship challenges that might hinder its success. Project managers must make each of their team members realise the importance of their contribution and focus on their positive traits. He must be fair and just in the way he treats team members. If you prefer to stay in your office and focus on your own work, you may not have the collaborative ability to be a good project manager. Effective project managers need to spend a lot of time with clients, stakeholders, and team members;
  • Decision-making skills: An effective project manager needs to have decision-making skills because there will always be decisions that need to be acted on, often with time constraints;
  • Coordination and delegation skills: Many people like to work on the project details. We need people like that. But when you’re a project manager, you must rise above the details and become more of a delegator and coordinator. You must be able to rely on others for much of the detailed work, but must still be able to do the mundane and detail work when required;
  • People management skills: To be a good project manager, you need to be able to manage people. You won’t have 100% responsibility for staff members, but you will need to show leadership, hold them accountable, manage conflict, etc. Some project managers say they could do a much better job if they didn’t have to deal with people. If that’s how you feel, project management is probably not for you;
  • Planning and execution skills:When a client gives you a project, what is your immediate inclination? If your first thought is to get a team together to start executing the work, you may not have a project management mindset. If you don’t want to spend enough time to be sure you understand what is required, and what is the best approach to achieve results, the role of project manager is likely a bad fit for you;
  • Organising skills:People who have poor personal organisational skills and techniques usually don’t make good project managers. If you’re going to manage multiple people over a period, you must be organised, so you can ensure that everyone is doing what they should be doing as efficiently as possible; and
  • Reporting skills:You don’t have to love reporting status and progress to be a good project manager, but you can’t hate it either. Most, if not all, aspects of project management require extensive documentation and document control, including project charters, execution plans, status reporting, communication plans and scope change management.

The process of becoming a project manager is unique because there isn’t one single prescribed path to becoming one. Some decide they want to be a project manager and take classes and get a project management qualification, while others, with unrelated degrees or experience, find themselves taking on the responsibilities of a project manager with no formal project management training.

Attributes required

Over and above skills which can be learned, developed and improved, effective project managers require specific inherent attributes. Here are some attributes of good project managers:

  • Get to know their team and how they work: Understand that a project isn’t about the project manager. He understands that knowing how to communicate with the project team and establishing a system that works for everyone is crucial to the project’s success. With a structure that accommodates the team, he gets everyone on board to focus on what’s important;
  • Inspire a shared vision:An effective project manager understands the project’s vision very well and can articulate the vision to his team members and other stakeholders. A visionary person can lead his people to the right direction as well as easily adapt to the changes that come along the way. They are good at enabling people to experience the vision as their own;
  • Keep stakeholders in the loop: The project manager continuously communicates with all stakeholders verbally and in writing. He looks forward to coordination sessions with his team to talk about what’s happening, what has been accomplished, and what steps to take next;
  • Identify and establish parameters: The project manager makes sure that everyone understands the project objectives and works within the agreed and approved scope of the project. This way, he can set reasonable expectations, feasible tasks and goals;
  • Present and prepared for anything: As deadlines approach, the project manager checks in regularly to see if the team will be able to deliver on time and if there are questions or problems that need to be addressed. He is ready to deal with the pressure of delivering on time, even if it means realising mistakes have been made, and doing everything possible to correct them;
  • Confidently speak on behalf of the team: Clients will want the project manager on the phone or at a meeting at any time to discuss progress, updates, and changes that need to be made. Because the project has a well-defined scope and the project manager has checked in with his team on a regular basis, he will be able to take those calls or attend client meetings with the relevant information to share;
  • Not easily swayed: A client, partner, or team member may approach and present the project manager or team members with new ideas, requirements, or questions. The project manager needs to be open to hearing these new ideas, but make sure to keep in mind the original scope of work and project requirements. If they align or improve on the original scope in terms of safety performance, he is willing to discuss things further. If not, he is not afraid to turn down those ideas and present valid reasons for doing so;
  • Seek out and consult with subject matter experts: Effective project managers know their own limitations. They know that when clients have specific concerns, to seek out knowledgeable people and consult with them. The project manager thereby acknowledges that, with their level of experience and knowledge, the subject matter experts are the best people to answer those questions; and
  • Encourage and congratulate others for a job well done: The role as a project manager goes beyond monitoring progress and checking in on deadlines. He “owns and supports the process” of putting together and bringing the project to fruition. He cheers his team members on and congratulates them for every successful milestone achieved, yet at the same time he is not afraid to ask questions or raise issues that he may anticipate.

Thus, project management is far more than just management. If you haven’t already guessed it, these attributes show that project management isn’t solely about managerial skills and know-how.

Comparing Project Management and General Management

There are strong views that any good general/operational/technical manager will always be a good project manager and vice versa. This is not true, and it is a rarity for a person to have the skills and attributes to be able to effectively manage both types of work.

A general/operational/technical manager has a wider scope of responsibility than the project manager, and the operations/technical role is permanent while the project manager role is temporary. Operational management is an ongoing function in an organisation that performs activities that produce products or services. Operations are ongoing; some examples include accounting and human resources. An organisation needs those roles no matter what initiative(s) they may be working on.

The very fact that the role of a project manager is temporary implies that a project team is basically a ‘short-term’ association. In a fixed operations/technical management team, the team members report directly to the manager who leads that team and those member roles in the team will generally be long-term. The manager is responsible for creating good team work and setting the norms and behaviours of the team. He/she needs to build trust and respect in the team, encourage the sharing of information, opinions and feelings for the benefit of the team, and set targets to appraise the performance of the team members.

A project team will consist of people from different departments across different sites of the organisation and/or contracting establishments. Sometimes, project team members may still report to their functional departmental manager, as well as reporting to the project manager. As the priorities of the other departmental managers change, the project team’s stability can waver, but it should never compromise the project outcomes. Where team member report to more than one manager, appraisal of his or her work may pose problems. Here the project manager needs to find the right balance between constructive team building initiatives with an emphasis on open and honest communication.

The skills needed by the project manager are different to those needed by operational managers. General differences between general/operational/technical management and project management are shown in Table 1.  Simply put, project management is unique and highly planned, yet unpredictable. The principal difference between project management and operational management is that the project manager has a temporary role, which leads to some specific differences and difficulty in the case of team building effort.

Insight 061 - Table 1

Table 1: General/operational/technical management vs. project management

Personality types best suited to project management

What personality type fits best into project management? It will depend largely on the type, scale of the project and the experience of the project team. There are many models used to describe personalities. One of the most prevalent is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (Myers & Briggs Foundation, 2019). Based on the answers to the questions on the questionnaire, people are identified as having one of 16 personality types. The goal of the MBTI is to allow respondents to further explore and understand their own personalities including their likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, possible career preferences, and compatibility with other people. 

The questionnaire itself is made up of four different scales, namely:

  • Extraversion – Introversion: Projects are about people and teams, so good project managers tend to be at least somewhat extroverted. Introverted project managers may find their projects wandering out of control because they are insufficiently engaged with the people responsible for the work;
  • Sensing – Intuition: A second scale considers the dichotomy between a preference for observable data and a preference for intuitive information. Projects are best managed using measurable facts that can be verified and tested;
  • Thinking – Feeling: A third scale relates to whether decisions are based on logical objective analysis or on feelings and values. Projects, especially technical projects, proceed most smoothly when decisions are based on consistent, analytical criteria; and
  • Judging – Perceiving: The fourth MBTI scale is the one most strongly aligned with project management, and it describes how individuals conduct their affairs. On one extreme is the individual who plans and organises what must be done, which is what project management is mostly about. On the other extreme is the individual who prefers to be spontaneous and flexible. Projects run by these ‘free spirits’ tend to be chaotic nightmares and may never reach completion.

Project managers need to be ‘technical enough’. For small, technical projects, it is common for the project leader to be a highly technical subject matter expert. For larger programs, project managers are seldom masters of every technical detail, but generally they are knowledgeable enough to ensure that communications are clear and that status can be verified. On small, technical projects, the project manager may be a technical guru, but that becomes much less important and often problematic as the work grows. Large-scale projects require an effective leader who can motivate people and delegate the work to those who understand the technical details.

Finally, good project managers are upbeat and optimistic. They always need to be liked (mostly not, however) and trusted by project sponsors and upper management to be successful. They communicate progress honestly, even when a project runs into trouble. Retaining the confidence of your stakeholders in times of trouble also requires communicating credible strategies for recovery. Effective leaders meet challenges with an assumption that there is a solution. With a positive attitude, often, they find one.

Closing remarks

Although the processes of effective project management have only been recognised for around 50 years, project management has been around since the dawn of mankind. From amazing feats of engineering and construction in ancient times to the complex projects we see today, the history of project management is vast, extensive, and ever-growing.

It can clearly be seen that the project manager requires a very wide skills base to be effective, making them more of a generalist than a specialist. Many of these skills cannot be taught and are revealed more naturally in the person. Training will enhance and improve these skills. However, project management is not for everyone. Many people have some of the traits to be a good project manager, but they may also have qualities that make them a bad fit for the position.

Project management, especially for larger projects, is a highly demanding and a time-consuming job. The project manager needs to be skillful and experienced in a wide sphere of the working environment, from very strong leadership, communication and people skills to very strong project and technical skills.

Effective project managers have a lot in common with all good managers. Good project managers are people oriented and will quickly establish effective working relationships with their team members. However, the skills required is very wide ranging and somewhat different from normal management.  Project management is definitely not for everybody.

A quote to consider when contemplating this career path is the following by Tom Kendrick (2011): “Everyone cannot be an effective project manager, and not all project managers will be successful in all types of projects, but if you believe you have the traits described above go for it. It will be very challenging and most times rewarding”.


Kendrick T.,2011, 101 Project management problems and how to solve them. Published by AMACOM.

Myers & Briggs Foundation, 2019, MTBI basics. Available from on 28 April 2019.

PMI, 2017, A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide), 6th edition, Project Management Institute, Newtown Square, PA.  


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Third Generation Modularisation

Third Generation Modularisation

By André Kok and Freek van Heerden


The development of modularisation in the process industry, from Generation 1 (G1) to Generation 3 (G3), was discussed in an earlier Insight Article (Steyn & van Heerden, 2015). The authors described the drivers, benefits, disadvantages, and risks of process modularisation. The advantages of a modularised approach generally lead to an improved return on investment and project nett present value (NPV) because of a lower total installed cost and shorter construction schedule.

G1 modules have been constructed since the early ‘90s and were limited to main pipe racks with the main piping pre-installed.  G2 modules were built from early 2000. This involved the installation of piping and main equipment in the modules, primarily all steel equipment. This approach reduced the field work by approximately 30 to 40%. G3 modules take the concept further to describe modularised process units. These process unitscontain 95% of steel work, up to 85% of the electrical installation and up to 95% of the instrumentation. This enables loop checking to be done in the module yard. G3 modules effectively relocate 90% of the field work to the module yard.

In this article, we build on that 2015 article and discuss G3 modules in more detail.  We focus on the more salient and practical issues during the development of a modular approach and explore the benefits of G3 modules. We also look at the appropriate approach, the risks and when not to do modularisation. Finally, case studies are presented of the outcome of modularisation work in which the authors were personally involved.

History of G3 modules

Fluor played a leading role in developing G3 modularisation (Haney, 2012; Chandler, 2013; Fluor Corporation, 2015). In early 2009, the Fluor team examined barriers to increasing modularisation beyond G2 to create a real step change, like the change from G1 to G2 modules. Their work process included the following steps:

  • Brainstorming to identify opportunities;
  • Reviewing methods and techniques used in offshore modules;
  • Considering the number of interconnects between modules with the intent to develop modules that incorporate full unit operations with a minimum number of interconnections between modules;
  • Distribution of electrical and instrumentation hubs throughout the facility to give each module distributed instrumentation, control and electrical functionality; and
  • Reviewing other enabling technologies (e.g. cable connectors such that instrumentation and electrical connections can be done simply and easily).

Fluor’s Fred Haney and his team subsequently patented the concept of the modular processing facility, their G3 approach, in 2012 (Haney et al, 2012).  An example of a G3 module is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Third generation module for an LNG plant

Key requisites for modularisation to work

A modularisation philosophy needs to be developed very early on for the project. At the end of the feasibility study (FEL2), the overall concept must already be well entrenched. Meyer et al (2012) highlight the need for early modularisation definition and logistics requirements. In developing the philosophy, the logistic constraints and site-specific conditions must be clearly understood and considered. Many modules will arrive at some nearby harbour. The size of modules and the weight that can be accommodated both in the harbour and en-route to the site will have a major impact on the overall philosophy.

If the site is not close to a port with good access to the site, it may be required to deliver the modules in subsections and have a staging and final assembly yard close to the final placement site. The necessary infrastructure can be made available to assemble and test a module at the assembly yard before it is moved to its final position on site. Staging facilities at site are anyway necessary, as modules will not arrive in a ‘just-in-time’ fashion, such that they can be moved into their final position upon arrival.

Fabrication facilities must be available with module manufacturing capabilities, whether in country, or overseas. The project team must do their own research on the location and capability of module yards globally to ensure that up to date information is available. The move toward modularisation is accelerating rapidly and up to date information is essential.

Figure 2 shows a module offloading berth with a crane unloading a module onto the berth and the module being moved along the road.

Figure 2:  Modules being offloaded and transportation of module to site

G3 modular execution


The advantages gained from a G3 approach generally lead to an improved return on investment and project NPV because of a lower total installed cost and shorter construction schedule. The key benefits are cost reduction, cost and schedule certainty and improved safety and quality, as described in more detail below:

  • Installed cost reduction: Moving activities off site to a module yard results in improved productivity and lower labour rates. Because modules can be fabricated in various module yards, labour is more distributed, making it easier to source scarce resources and reduce the peak manpower load at the site significantly.  A result often not properly understood or evaluated is the reduction in overall plant footprint, especially for G3 modules. Bulk materials like piping, cabling and structural steel for pipe racks are significantly reduced because of the reduced footprint.
  • Cost and schedule certainty: Because modules are being constructed in controlled environments with the necessary facilities, cost and schedule are found to be much more certain as compared to a stick-built facility.

Improved safety and quality: Module yards are set up to handle large modules and provide safer conditions with the right infrastructure during fabrication. For example, access for working at heights can be much more safely provided when compared to the normal practice of extended scaffolding on site. As module yards are set-up with a long-term mindset, issues like quality control, both of incoming materials and fabrication, is generally more effective.

Layout/Plot plan

A key difference in the G3 work process is that modularisation drives plant layout, rather than the G2 approach where the plant layout was typically like a stick-built plant.   For G2, the modules were then determined by ‘cutting’ the layout into sections called modules. This approach led to numerous interconnections for piping, cabling, etc. In comparison, a G3 approach requires:

  • Minimal input and output connections: Combine all the equipment for a specific unit operation into a single module (e.g. a crude distillation unit). The objective is that the module receives one feed and deliver one, two or three final products. All operations to achieve this is contained within the module. Utilities need to be supplied to the module, as required;

  • Team approach to plot plan development: It is essential that the plot plan development is a team effort. All disciplines need to collaborate as an integrated team. This development is typically an iterative process. If the integrated approach is not successful, it will result in huge interdisciplinary impacts (and cost/schedule delays).  The ‘best’ layout is one with maximum modularisation and a 4- to 6-week period should be allowed to finalise the layout; and

  • Early design freeze: At this stage, it must be clear to the reader that, in order to be successful, earlier than normal ‘freezing’ of key equipment/concepts and a rigorous change management process is essential. It is also necessary that individual process block model reviews are completed before the overall plot plan review.

Design engineering requirements

In order to achieve the key objectives for a G3 module the engineering team needs to approach the design in a very different manner. This is not always easy, as one tends to revert to the familiar. The project leader(s) will need to keep challenging the team and make sure that the change management process is used (especially for a team where these concepts are new). The following list highlights key differences (Haney, 2012):

  • Interconnecting pipe racks are not used;

  • Offshore design practices are utilised, where practical;

  • Schedule interdependencies are critical to success;

  • Vendor data (particularly with packaged units) to support the design critical path is required early on. Thus, the selection and involvement of key vendors early in the design;

  • The need for future expandability needs to be agreed upfront (you cannot add on in the future);

  • Weight management of modules is critical to success and using an effective “load shedding” plan is required;

  • Process design cannot change after completion of Front-End Engineering Design (FEED). Success depends on finalising process design at the end of FEED;

  • Finalising of process datasheets is critical to support early vendor selection and involvement;

  • Process control finalisation is required much earlier than normal. This is especially critical on packaged equipment; and

  • Early constructability input into the development of the plot plan is critical because it helps ensure future access for operations and maintenance requirements; addresses module/equipment rigging and field erection issues; and facilitates development of equipment arrangement to ensure arrangement supports vendor/supplier layout requirements.

The owner’s personnel need to buy into G3 modular concepts and owner’s operations personnel are required to participate during FEED to validate the design layout. This is a particularly important point as the owner personnel need to accept the facility from the constructor and be able to operate it for the next 20 to 30 years. Owner personnel not familiar with the design, layout and operations and maintenance techniques used on this type of facility will not accept the design as workable. It may be necessary to have key personnel seconded to such a facility for an extended period (3 months, at least). They need to work in similar jobs to see, feel, taste, and learn before they become part of the owner team ‘back home’.

Material handling studies are very important during design validation and each activity (e.g. catalyst change, heat exchanger tube bundle removal) needs to be worked through step by step to ensure the activity can be performed. Because of the compactness of the modules, normal maintenance procedures like using a crane to remove a pump can generally not be done. Special davids, crawl beams, local hoists, etc., are often required to enable effective operation. If, during start-up or later in operation, it is discovered that special tools are required, if is very difficult, if not impossible, to install.

Practical Examples

The benefits of footprint reduction are often not properly understood when considering modularisation. In a complex plant (e.g. refinery) consisting of various processing units, plot space required can be subdivided into two aspects, namely the area required for a single unit (example 1) and the area required for the complete facility (example 2).

Example 1 – Process units

As G3 modules integrate complete processing units into single large modules, there is a great opportunity to reduce the area required for a processing unit. In the example shown in Figure 3 (based on an actual project), it was found that the footprint of the unit could be reduced by 35%. This was somewhat less than what was expected as the area required for the air coolers was limiting.

Figure 3:  Plot space required for processing unit

Considering the location of the site and access, it was required to split the integrated module into 7 sub-units and 26 sub-assemblies, or modules. These modules were assembled in various module assembly yards. The maximum size and weight of the modules are given in Table 1.

Table 1: Detail for modules

A detailed bottoms-up estimate showed that the end-of-job cost could be reduced by 12 to 15.5% as compared to a stick-built plant and by 7 to 8.5% as compared to G2 modularisation. Very significant is also schedule reduction of 4 to 5 months in an overall schedule of 48 months. This could be achieved by distributing the work amongst various experienced module yards.

Example 2 – Complete facility

The facility consisted of several large processing units, steam and power generation, as well as other utilities and infrastructure.

The overall plot space could be reduced by 40% and on-site labour reduced by 50 to 60%. The overall NPV of the project (as compared to stick-built) increased by between 300 and 370 million US$ and the IRR between 0,9 to 1,3%, as illustrated in Figure 4. 

Figure 4: Overview of saving achieved for total facility

Know when not to modularise

After all the discussion and preaching the benefits of modularisation, one needs to be aware that modularisation is not the golden bullet that solves all project cost and schedule issues. There are instances when this approach should not be used, as described below:

  • Unproven process technologies: The process needs to be proven commercially, otherwise design cannot be frozen early in the FEED process. An untested or new process step has the risk that process modifications may be required during commissioning or operation. The normal practice of having a ‘start-up modifications’ budget allowance is not practical. If a jump-over is needed for start-up, it needs to be designed in from the start.
  • Location limitations: If the location limits site access severely and only very small modules can be moved, it may be more effective to revert to G2 modules. Inland locations can easily halve the savings.
  • Inexperienced engineering contractor: It is essential to use an engineering contractor with modularisation experience. If this is not possible do not consider modularisation. The risk is too high and there are many horror stories and business school case studies of how not to execute a modular project.
  • Impossible to mobilise resources early in project: Successful modularisation requires more upfront detail engineering and capital expenditure. If the stakeholders cannot be convinced of the need for earlier cash flow and resource mobilisation, modularisation may not be possible. 25% of detail engineering needs to be complete by the final investment decision, vs. perhaps 2 to 3 % for a stick-built plant.
  • Impossible to pre-select key contractors: If the company’s commercial practices require strict competitive bidding for EPC contractors, or for key equipment and packages, modularisation may not be the preferred approach. Modularisation requires early selection of key contractors and vendors that need to work in a partnership mode throughout the project. Continuity of key personnel is essential.

Concluding remarks

We hope that this article has at least sparked an interest in considering G3 modularisation on your next project. It is certainly worthwhile to consider and, if executed properly, can improve the project outcome significantly.

We have also pointed out that modularisation should not be tackled half-heartedly and that it is not for the faint-hearted.  An absolute conviction as to the benefits, rigour, attention to detail and effective change management is required to make a G3 modularised project a success.

As shown, there are occasions when modularisation is not advised. Do not try to commercially prove an untested technology using a G3 modular approach.


Chandler, G., 2013, Smaller, better, faster – Fred Haney’s vision turns modern construction theory on its head, Oilsands Review.

Fluor       Corporation,    2015,    3rd    gen    modular    executionsm,    Available    from Accessed on 24 March 2019

Haney, F.,2012, Training session to SASOL on Modular Execution, Feb. 9, 2012, Fluor Corporation.

Haney, F., Donovan, G., Roth, T., Lowrie, A., Morlidge, G., Lucchini, S. & Halvorsen, S., 2012, Patents EP2516759A1, Modular processing facility, Google Patents. Available from Accessed on 24 March 2019.

Meyer, B., Kluck, M., Kok, A., Diekmann, J., O’Connor, J., Foster, C.,2012, CII Annual Conference on Industrial Modularization.

Steyn, J.W. & van Heerden, F.J., 2015, Insight Article 019: Select topics in value engineering – Modularisation in the process industry.Pdf download available from  Accessed on 25 March 2019.

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The Elusive Project Sponsor

The Elusive Project Sponsor

By Jurie Steyn


All projects are risky ventures: the larger and more complex the project, the higher the risk of an unsuccessful outcome.  It is generally accepted that a critical success factor for any megaproject (projects > $1 billion) is the presence and participation of an effective project sponsor (Barshop, 2016).  In fact, the Project Management Institute reports that the top driver of projects meeting their original business goals is an actively engaged executive sponsor (PMI, 2018).

According to the Association for Project Management (APM, 2006), the project sponsor is the primary risk taker and owner of the project’s business case.  The sponsor is tasked with ensuring that all benefits of a project are realised by the organisation’s top management.   The sponsor chairs the project steering committee, ensures that risks are properly managed, that obstacles faced by the project are dealt with, and is the person to whom the project manager is accountable. The project sponsor focuses on project effectiveness, while the project manager focuses on project efficiency (APM, 2006).

An average of 38% of projects do not have active executive sponsorship, which highlights the need and opportunity for executive leaders to be more involved in the realisation of strategy (PMI, 2018).  Barshop (2016) maintains that the main reason why companies lacked strong project sponsorship was that senior management of these companies did not understand the project sponsor’s role in project governance.

In this article, we consider several scenarios for the executive sponsorship of projects and suggest ways to deal with problematic or absent sponsors.

Four scenarios

Several books (Englund & Bucero, 2006; West, 2010), and many more articles (Christenson & Christenson, 2010; Schibi & Lee, 2016), have been published on project sponsorship which describe personality traits, required training, as well as the role and responsibilities of project sponsors.  Whilst it is true that an effective sponsor is essential for project success, it is also true that not all sponsors are equally effective.

Four scenarios regarding the effectiveness and availability of project sponsors are described, with ways to deal with potential problem. The scenarios are described in some detail in Figure 1.

Figure 1:  Four sponsor scenarios

The four sponsor scenarios are:

  • Effective sponsor: The effective sponsor knows what to do and has the executive power and resources to do it;
  • Ineffective sponsor: The ineffective sponsor can have gaps in his training and/or may be at a too low level in the organisation;
  • Missing sponsor: The missing sponsor has either left the project for other responsibilities or has not been appointed yet; and
  • Reluctant sponsor: The reluctant sponsor may meet all the requirements, but doesn’t want to accept the responsibility.

Each of these scenarios is discussed in more detail in the following sections. 

The effective sponsor

According to West (2015), the value of an effective project sponsor is the product of the value of the project to the organisation, and the role that the project sponsor plays in a successful project.  He states that above all else, it is the effectiveness of the project sponsor that is critical to a successful project.

Truly effective sponsors are hard to find and should be nurtured by their owner organisations and appreciated by the project manager and project team.  The effective sponsor will be of appropriate seniority in the organisation, work closely with and mentor the project manager, understand the basics of project management, negotiate support and resources for the project, and be able to make decisions based on facts. Depending on the size and complexity of the projects, the effective project sponsor may be able to sponsor more than one project. In most organisations the project sponsor will have other responsibilities which may lead to time constraints. The effective sponsor will be able to manage his/her time properly and obtain assistance when required.

An effective sponsor has some key requirements that must be met by the project management team.  They have a need to feel involved in the project process, require a constant stream of timely information, must be able to trust the project manager (and vice versa!), need help with managing their project commitments, and assistance with the preparation for meetings with stakeholders.

An effective sponsor will also be able to stop a project when there is no real justification to proceed, in other words when the intended business objectives are no longer achievable.  Stopping a project in the front-end loading phase, when there is no longer any justification to proceed, does not constitute a failure, but rather shows strength of character and a keen business sense on the part of the sponsor and his project management team.

The ineffective sponsor

As mentioned before, an effective sponsor is essential for successfully completing a megaproject.  The direct corollary is that an ineffective sponsor greatly increases the probability of an unsuccessful project in the form of schedule and cost overruns, and not delivering on the organisation’s strategic objectives.

Project sponsors may be ineffective for several reasons, some of which are listed below:

  • Uncertainty on the actual role of the project sponsor on a project;
  • Insufficient training in, or experience with, project sponsorship;
  • The sponsor may be unwilling/unable to make decisions;
  • The sponsor is at too low a level in the organisation to be effective;
  • Too busy with other management obligations and not available to project team;
  • Deliberately wasting time on less important matters to avoid sponsor responsibilities;
  • Preoccupation with personal matters which takes focus off the project; and
  • The sponsor may be reluctant to take on the role of sponsor (more later).

Some of these causes are relatively simple to overcome.  For instance, a sponsor who is insufficiently trained on the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of sponsorship, and is willing to learn, can be trained.  Training can involve formal courses, or on-the-job training by other experienced sponsors.  Very experienced project managers can also lead and assist the ‘inexperienced’ sponsor, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2:  Assisting the ineffective sponsor (Adapted from van Heerden et al, 2015)

Sponsors who are unwilling to make decisions, may also be too low in the management hierarchy.  The project manager can attempt to deal with the problem by using a formal scope management procedure and taking the inexperienced sponsor through the motivation in detail.  If this does not deliver the desired results, or the sponsor is at too low a level to have an impact, the project manager will have to approach a trusted member of the organisation’s management team to discuss the concern and the potential negative consequences on the project.

Sponsors with insufficient time to deal with the project related matters can be addressed by discussions between sponsor and project manager.  If the reason is that the sponsor wants to remain in his/her comfort zone, training may be the answer.  If not, the project manager can offer to temporarily take on some of the sponsor responsibilities while the sponsor delegates some of the other responsibilities.  Sponsors who are preoccupied with personal problems can transfer some of the sponsorship responsibilities to the project manager or other subordinates. 

Lastly, sponsors who are reluctant to take on the role of sponsor will be discussed under a separate heading.

The missing sponsor

‘Missing’ sponsors are unavailable to meet project responsibilities (sometimes right from the start, or at some later point in the project) because nobody has been appointed to the position or they are otherwise occupied.  Sponsors can be ‘missing’ from the sponsorship function for any of the following reasons:

  • No sponsor has yet been appointed for the project;
  • An existing sponsor was moved or promoted to another function;
  • An ineffective or reluctant sponsor was removed from the position;
  • Top management does not consider it necessary to appoint a sponsor;
  • Medical or family emergencies, resulting in time away from the office; and
  • The sponsor may be overloaded with other projects and/or responsibilities.

There are ways to overcome the gap left by a ‘missing’ sponsor, although it places an additional burden on the owner project management team.  Several members of the project management team can act as project sponsor, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3:  Filling the gap of a missing sponsor (Adapted from van Heerden et al, 2015)

There are typically four key players in the project management team of any megaproject, namely the project manager, the business manager, the operations manager and the engineering manager.  Any one of these should be able to act as project sponsor.  When the sponsor post is expected to remain vacant for an extended period, the sponsor responsibilities can be divided up amongst the different managers.  Alternatively, each of the managers in the project team can rotate to the position of acting project sponsor for a specific period, say a month at a time.  Keep in mind that an acting sponsor in the place of a ‘missing’ sponsor can keep the project moving along, but can never be as effective as a dedicated and committed sponsor.

The structure for a programme is depicted in Figure 4, with similar acting arrangements as before.  Programmes are typically larger, more complex and subject to more uncertainty than projects, which implies that the need for a full-time sponsor is even greater if a successful programme is desired.

Figure 4:  The elusive sponsor of a programme (Adapted from van Heerden et al, 2015)

The reluctant sponsor

A reluctant sponsor, as the name implies, is a person who does not want to be in that position of responsibility.  Perkins (2015) refers to them as resistant sponsors, and states that resistant sponsors may be blatant or passive-aggressive in their efforts to block progress: indeed, a very dangerous situation.  In my opinion, having a reluctant project sponsor on board is far worse than having an ineffective or ‘missing’ sponsor.

Sponsors can be referred to as ‘reluctant’ for any of the following reasons:

  • They consider the project to be a career-limiting disaster;
  • They don’t wish to be tied down for the multi-year lifespan of the project;
  • They anticipate that the project will diminish their current responsibilities;
  • The project proposal was not their preferred option; and
  • They want to fulfil their prophecy that the project will be unsuccessful.

Reluctant sponsors can have very negative effects on project success and can demoralise project management teams (Perkins, 2015). This can lead to project team members leaving the project, rather than work in a toxic environment.

When dealing with a reluctant sponsor, the following approaches can be considered (Perkins, 2015):

  • Remain professional: Don’t resort to personal attacks on a reluctant sponsor. Rather blame the work processes and seek or offer solutions;
  • Keep the reluctant sponsor informed: Discuss matters requiring difficult decisions with the reluctant sponsor prior to formal meetings to avoid time being wasted during project steering committee meetings;
  • Document thoroughly: Project management practice requires the team to document agreements, motivate change requests, keep a risk register, list and follow up on action items, etc. Ensure that all documentation is timely and thorough with a reluctant sponsor;
  • Call in supporters: Ask high-level supporters of the project in the organisation to highlight the project’s value. Stubborn reluctant sponsors will find it hard to continue destructive behaviour in the face of continuous enterprise-wide support;
  • Informal engagement: Ask a senior member of the organisation’s management team, respected by the reluctant sponsor, to discuss the project with him/her. If the discussion is penetrating enough, reluctant sponsors may modify their destructive behaviour; and
  • Auto-ignition: Let reluctant sponsors destroy themselves through their actions. This is a risky, last-ditch effort, based on the hope that the rest of the organisation will recognise the reluctant sponsors’ poor decisions, and remove them from the sponsorship responsibilities.

Concluding remarks

Ashkenas (2016) states that the project sponsor should be the first appointment to be made when steps are taken to implement corporate strategy.  Before launching a new project, the sponsor and the project leader should meet to set, clarify, and align expectations. This is particularly important if the sponsor was not actively involved in the project initiation phase, and may not understand the background and risks.

Several authors have expressed the concern that due to the growing number of megaprojects in the world, good project sponsors are becoming increasingly difficult to find in the open market or inside the organisation (Merrow, 2011; Barshop, 2016).  Organisations are encouraged to train their executives for future roles as project sponsors.  If your company has a need for project sponsorship training, do not hesitate to contact us at OTC.


APM (Association for Project Management), 2006, APM Body of knowledge, 5th edition. Association for Project Management, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

Ashkenas, R., 2016, Before starting a project, get your sponsor on board. Available from Accessed18 February 2019.

Barshop, P., 2016, Capital projects: what every executive needs to know to avoid costly mistakes and make major investments pay off. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.

Christenson, D. & Christenson, J. 2010, Fundamentals of project sponsorship. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2010, in Washington, DC. Project Management Institute.

Englund, R.L. & Bucero, A., 2006, Project sponsorship: achieving management commitment for project success., Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Merrow, E.W., 2011, Industrial megaprojects: concepts, strategies, and practices for success., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.

Perkins, B., 2015, 6 ways to cope with a resistant sponsor.  Available from Accessed on 14 February 2019.

PMI (Project Management Institute), 2018, 2018 Pulse of the profession. Project Management Institute, Philadelphia, PA.

Schibi, O. & Lee, C., 2015, Project sponsorship: senior management’s role in the successful outcome of projects. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2015, EMEA, London, England. Project Management Institute.

van Heerden, F.J., Steyn, J.W. & van der Walt, D., 2015, Programme management for owner teams: a practical guide to what you need to know., OTC Publications, Vaalpark, RSA. Available from Amazon.

West, D., 2010, Project sponsorship: an essential guide for those sponsoring projects within their organizations., Gower Publishing Limited, Farnham, Surrey.

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Introducing the Project Execution Plan

Introducing the Project Execution Plan

By Kevin Mattheys


Globally, skilled human capital is in short supply, thus impacting the quality, cost and schedules of projects. This applies in both operating and service companies alike as experienced personnel retire, while projects become ever more complex. In many cases, the result is the inability of projects to meet the delivery expectations as set out in the business case, which directly impacts on the financial and reputational health of the business concerned. It is therefore important to have the appropriate systems in place, with the supporting tools, processes and resources to protect against these increasing levels of risk and thereby assist in enhancing project performance.

Independent Project Analysis (IPA), a reputable project benchmarking company, state that project execution planning is the process of defining and documenting (via the Project Execution Plan) the approach to be followed in executing a capital project (Merrow, 2011). The Project Execution Plan must answer some basic questions, such as:

  • What is the business need and what are the project objectives?
  • Who will participate, when will they participate and what roles will they have?
  • How will the project be contracted, sequenced, managed and controlled?
  • When will stage transitions and specific activities take place?
  • What monitoring, control and governance criteria need to be applied?
  • Are there any extraordinary initiatives that may be required which need to be planned and budgeted for?

By answering these and other questions in a definitive manner, and committing it to paper in the project execution plan (PEP), substantial cost and schedule duration savings could be achieved, quality improved and scope changes reduced.

Merrow (2011) highlights the fact that one of the most important drivers of project success during the Implementation phase of a project lies in developing a sound and well thought through PEP during the early stages of the project. A well-defined and communicated PEP is a key driver of cost and schedule reduction, with as much as 10% to 15% saving in schedule slip and cost. Other noteworthy findings were that a well-defined PEP correlated with improved start-up duration, early operational performance, the amount of contingency required in the estimate as well as the number of design changes during execution.  These findings confirm the results of a 2006 study by the Construction Industry Institute (CII, 2006).

The Project Execution Plan is used by the project team and management to assure, firstly, that the right aspects for project implementation are considered and secondly, that the project has been described in such a way that during each stage of front-end loading (FEL) it is clear and concise as to what needs to be done.

Setting the scene

A section of the OTC Stage-Gate Model is shown in Figure 1. It depicts the Initiation phase where the business will prepare the initial idea, the Front-end Loading (FEL) phase consisting of 3 stages where the project team will develop the business idea further, the Implementation phase including Delivery and Commissioning followed by a sustainable Operation phase and eventual Closure. This is not to say that this is the only model to be followed, but it is important that the model being followed is at least similar to the model below and has a gated approach to delivering on projects.

Figure 1:  Section of the OTC Stage-Gate Model

The PEP goes through a cyclical process of updates during each of the FEL stages until the end of FEL 3 is reached. At the start of the project (FEL 1) there is only preliminary information available and what is known is written up in the PEP. As the project develops further, more clarity is gained and this is then captured in the PEP until the project is sufficiently defined to implement.

Development of a Project Execution Plan

A PEP development model

The Project Execution Plan development is initiated at the start of the FEL 1 stage. Although there are many variations of a PEP available, the development of a PEP should be based on a similar model to that developed by OTC and shown in Figure 2. We normally find that several elements are missing or incomplete, e.g. close out and next stage planning, and that is why this comprehensive model was developed.

Figure 2:  The PEP Development Model

The PEP is a document which is continually updated during each of the FEL stages until the end of FEL 3. Each of the major sections which form the construct of the PEP Development Model is described in more detail below:

Background, Overview & Scope

We start off with the yellow oval in the PEP Development Model.  A vital part of any PEP is to describe the project by looking at the business objectives, the business value chain, the project scope, potential risks that could stop or delay the project, boundary conditions for the team and other critical elements of the project to align all parties.

It is important that this section is well written as it sets the scene (and the scope) for the remainder of the project and provides the basis around which further development, and eventually implementation, of the project takes place.  The business charter (what the business expects from the project team) is also included here.

Frame the Project

This section starts with a comprehensive business chain development workshop (called a Framing & Alignment meeting) and includes an overview of the scope, some high-level milestones and a first pass cost estimate. This is shown in the pink/orange coloured oval above.

Of key importance here is, inter alia, confirming the project execution outcomes, understanding the Work Breakdown Structure and capital cost estimate, the key project milestones and schedule assumptions, key project stakeholders, the high-level implementation strategy, as well as requirements for integration management (normally required on larger projects).

Planning Project Implementation

Here one would describe the project team and systems required to prepare the project for executing the various FEL stages as well as for final project implementation. This is the green oval shown below.

The grouping of blue ovals describes the various plans required for the implementation of the project. This is when all the plans come together and specifically addresses design/engineering, contract/procurement plans, construction, commissioning and close out of the project. It is very important to plan for project close out as this activity is typically not done due to time, resource or budget constraints.

Turning to the dark blue central circle of the PEP model we find four categories of plans listed, namely monitor and control plans, supporting plans, support services and project governance plans. We discuss each in turn.

Monitor and Control Plans

It is understood that if there is no control, you are flying blind and you will end up in unexpected places with less than desired results. The various plans which are required for control and monitor activities during the project are described here. Typical plans will be the project controls plans, safety, health & environmental plans, risk management plans, change management plans, quality plans, and others.

Supporting Plans

Every project invariably needs support services which are traditionally available within the business and its structures. Typical support areas are project accounting, human resources, document management, lessons learnt and industrial relations. These should be listed and included in the PEP to support the project to achieve its objectives successfully.

An area usually neglected by project teams is ensuring excellent communication to stakeholders and shareholders via a communication and engagement plan. It is also important for budgeting purposes that these items are identified and included in the overall PEP.

Support Services

Described in this section is a list of generic services which may or not be required for the project.

It is important that the various services required during the project are described as resources and budgets will need to be sought. These could be items such as project benchmarking, team effectiveness surveys, corporate social responsibility programmes or other initiatives to assist the project.

Project governance

For any good project to be implemented successfully, certain key decisions need to be made at various junctures along the project time line. In order to support or guide these decisions, certain governance activities are either mandatory or negotiable. Gate reviews are mandatory as are certain procedures or approval limits. Negotiable items could include exceptions to the corporate approved vendor database or spending approval levels depending on the unique nature of the project. They need to be documented and agreed, however.

A governance structure consisting of reporting requirements, boards, steering committees and other steering and/or approval forums is also a prerequisite for this section.

Additional requirements

The sections above describe the PEP in broad outline.  Not shown on the model in Figure 2 are two important items that should be included in a PEP, namely:

  • Next Stage Plan: Whilst the sections above are related to the generic project, this section requires that a certain amount of preparation work be done to ensure the activities and deliverables required in the next stage are addressed. As an example, the work to be done during FEL 3 must be planned during FEL 2.
  • References: Certain documents are critical inputs to a PEP but are normally too lengthy to include in the PEP. An example is the Business Plan or Project Information Memorandum. Critical information is gleaned from these documents, but they are very comprehensive documents and do not fit well within a PEP. Rather extract the required information and refer the reader back to the source documents that can also be attached as an addendum to the PEP.

The various sections described above are then translated into a typical table of contents for the PEP. This is by no means a definitive list, but is a very good starting point for most projects.  By following this model, a generic PEP can be a useful way to ensure a consistent approach is used.  It also provides a useful framework for communicating and aligning with all role players.

The PEP Development Cycle

It is extremely important to remember that the development of a PEP is an iterative process from FEL 1 to the end of FEL 3 where the level of information for each section of the PEP becomes progressively more detailed as more knowledge and insight is gained about the project. At the end of FEL 3, the PEP becomes the definitive plan for project implementation. It also describes/prescribes the role and governance requirements of engineering and other contractors as part of their work in contributing to the success of the project. The development of a PEP starts during the FEL 1 or prefeasibility stage as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3:  The PEP Development Cycle

The input required to start the development of the PEP is the sponsor mandate and a project kick-off meeting. The project charter and business objectives also provide inputs that need to be considered in developing the PEP. By following the model shown in Figure 3, one gets a good idea of the level of definition the PEP requires during each of the stages.  These range from philosophy statements to preliminary plans to definitive plans by the end of FEL 3.

PEP development is not the responsibility of the project manager on his own, but every team lead needs to understand the PEP and provide his or her input into the sections that they are responsible for. The items covered in the PEP however remain consistent throughout the project life-cycle, but the level of detail increases through FEL 1, 2 and 3 as demonstrated above.

At the end of FEL1 and FEL 2, the PEP contains an overall view of the total project life-cycle and implementation plan, as well as the detailed plan for the next stage. At the end of FEL 3 the PEP contains the full Implementation phase plan, covering project delivery and commissioning, and will therefore form the definitive basis for the Project Control Base against which all progress, performance payments and changes will be measured and reported.

Closing remarks

Front-end planning has long been recognised as an important process that increases the likelihood of project success (Hansen, Too & Le, 2018).  CII (2006) state that front-end planning and the development of a PEP is a process of developing enough strategic information with which owners can address project and business risk and decide to commit resources to a project. 

The PEP is a vital component of the project manager’s and project team’s armoury.  It sets out the scope, mandate, plans, etc. of what the project is going to deliver.  It acts as an extremely important communication tool and should not be treated lightly.  Many project teams seem to think that once the plan is updated that is the end.  On small projects you may get away with it, but on large projects you do so at your peril.


CII (Construction Industry Institute), 2006, RS213-1 – Front End Planning: Break the Rules, Pay the Price. Austin, Texas: Construction Industry Institute, The University of Texas at Austin.

Hansen, S., Too, E. & Le, T., 2018, Retrospective look on front-end planning in the construction industry: A literature review of 30 years of research. International Journal of Construction Supply Chain Management Vol. 8, No. 1.

Merrow, E.W., 2011, Industrial megaprojects: concepts, strategies, and practices for success., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.

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The Widening Trust Gap in Projects

The Widening Trust Gap in Projects

By Jurie Steyn


This article was triggered by four recent events, which caused me to reflect on what the future holds for projects.  These events are:

  • A thought-provoking Insight Article on the future of project controls (Mattheys, 2018);
  • The Insight Article on the role and responsibilities of a project management office (PMO) (Taljaard, 2018);
  • Cenpower Generation’s recent termination of its contract with the construction company, Group Five, to complete the $410m Kpone power station in Tema, Ghana (Claassen, 2018); and
  • A second down-scaling in a period of four years of the engineering and project management departments at a petrochemicals company where I spent most of my working career.

Literature is freely available on future trends in project management and what would be expected from future project managers (Alexander, 2018; Evamy, 2017; Jordan, 2017; Schoper, Gemünden & Nguyen, 2016).  However, discussions on the widening of the trust gap and its impact on project success is extremely limited.

Keep in mind that I’m based in South Africa, and my observations might be unique to Africa and third world countries.

The trust gap

Independent Project Analysis (IPA) have been analysing megaprojects for over 30 years to determine the requirements for project success and to help their customers create and use capital assets more efficiently.  They’ve highlighted the crucial role that a strong, fully staffed, owner project management team, with the appropriate work and governance processes in place, plays in delivering successful projects (Merrow, 2011). It is the owner project management team that typically leads the front-end loading phase of projects.  Merrow (2011) emphasises the extraordinary degree of trust, cooperation and communication required between the owner organisation, as represented by the project sponsor, and the owner project management team.

van Heerden, Steyn and van der Walt (2015) build on these principles and propose a preferred structure for theowner project management team, as shown in Figure 1.  The owner project management team is shown as a collection of four blue triangles, representing business management, project management, engineering and operations, arranged in a larger triangle.  Below this, and shown as a red box, we have contracted in functional services, technology suppliers, and engineering and project management contractors.


Figure 1:  Trust gap between owner PMT and contractors(Adapted from van Heerden, et al, 2015)

I refer to the interface between the owner project management team and contractors, suppliers and service providers, i.e. the gap between the blue triangles and the red box in Figure 1, as the trust gap.  Obviously, the working relationship between these parties, responsibilities and deliverables must be described in numerous carefully worded contracts, but significant trust is essential for project success.

Before getting to the factors that contribute to a widening trust gap, let us first consider the different roles and perspectives of the owner organisation and the owner project management team on the one hand, and the contractors on the other.

Different roles and perspectives for owners and contractors

Owner organisations, and specifically the owner project team, have a different role and perspective than the contractors in projects.  This difference stems from the fact that owner organisations implement projects to achieve strategic business objectives, whereas contractors only focus on delivering projects which meet the agreed performance standards, on time and within budget.  A summary of the different objectives, roles and perspectives of owners and contractors is given in Figure 2.


Figure 2: Different perspectives for owners and contractors

Project scope changes can lead to cost overruns and schedule slip and should be diligently managed to that which can result in significant, demonstrated improvement to the project, or that which is essential to achieve safety and compliance objectives.  However, from the point of view of an engineering contractor, scope changes could mean thousands of extra, recoverable, engineering hours.  Scope changes can also be used as an easy excuse for schedule slip by contractors.

Current trends at owner organisations

Owner organisations can be public companies, private companies and state-owned enterprises (SOE). Owner organisations typically own and operate the production facilities and/or infrastructure delivered by projects.

Over the past number of years, we’ve seen a gradual eating away at the numbers and experience base of primarily the engineering and project management departments in owner organisations.  Reasons for this are plentiful, and range from the inability to raise capital for projects, to poor strategic vision for the company.  Restructuring of top management and personnel cuts in the operations department also result in fewer individuals in these areas being available to focus on capital projects. Business and operations management are important stakeholders in any project, and play a significant role in the commissioning of facilities and the running of a sustainable business.  This situation is reflected in Figure 3 as mice eating away at the underbelly of primarily the engineering and project management departments, and so widening the trust gap.


Figure 3:  Widening of the trust gap (Adapted from van Heerden, et al, 2015)

In SOE, most top positions are political appointments.  In South Africa and in the Gupta state-capture era, important project and tender decisions were often made by individuals with little or no project management or engineering background.  The primary focus seemed to be self-enrichment, and not project success. There are many instances where SOE’s ignored their own tender regulations when awarding contracts, for example, South African railways officials imported brand new locomotives from Europe worth hundreds of millions of rand, despite explicit warnings that the trains are not suited for local rail lines (Myburgh, 2015). 

In South Africa, we have the additional burden of complying with Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) requirements, with the implication that individuals with extensive experience are made redundant, or are replaced with candidates with limited experience.  Project management and engineering departments thus not only become smaller, but tend to be staffed with less experienced personnel.

Trends at engineering and PM companies

Referring to Figure 3, it is obvious that the widening of the trust gap is not only as a result of personnel cutbacks, loss of project and engineering experience, and greed from the side of the owner organisation.

The trust gap can also open from the side of contractors, suppliers and service providers, as illustrated by the erosion of the red box in Figure 3.  Some of the factors that can contribute to this erosion of trust are listed below:

  • Financial standing:Construction companies in South Africa are in a difficult situation at present and personnel cutbacks are frequent.  Companies are downsizing and/or put up for sale;
  • Bribery: Attempts at bribery of technology suppliers, service providers and contractors by personnel from state or owner organisations prior to the signing of a contract or during the execution thereof can lead to strained relationships and would impact the chance of project success;
  • Communication:Unclear project objectives and charter, from an immature or understaffed owner project management team, combined with ad hoc and incomplete communication will erode trust;
  • Interface management: Insufficient effort or resources for proper client liaison by contractors and service providers, most likely due to in-house cost cutting at the contractors and service providers;
  • Relationships: Soured relationships following a history of schedule and cost overruns on previous projects for same owner organisation.  This can also be a concern based on underperforming end-products from previous projects and outstanding claims;
  • Coordination:No experienced managing contractor to keep a project on track, despite poor decision-making from the owner project management team.  This is a certain recipe for disaster; and
  • Incompetence:Disregard of owner company tender procedures may lead to the selection of incompetent contractors and service providers, often with catastrophic results.

Impact of a widening trust gap

IPA measure five dimensions of project effectiveness in their assessments to determine whether a project is a success, or not (Merrow, 2011). If a project surpasses the threshold limit for failure on any one of these dimensions, the project is considered a failure.  The five dimensions are cost overruns (>25%), cost competitiveness (>25%), schedule slip (>25%), schedule competitiveness (>50%) and production vs. plan in year 2 of operation.  Project success is defined as a lack of failure.

As the trust gap widens, the probability of remaining below the threshold limit for failure on any of these dimensions decreases, i.e. the wider the trust gap, the larger the likelihood of an unsuccessful project. 

Closing the trust gap

Given the state of the South African economy and political uncertainties, the question is whether the trust gap can be reduced to improve the likelihood of project success.  Two options immediately spring to mind:

  • Eliminate corruption: Elimination of corruption in specifically SOE should receive attention at the highest level and proper governance should be instituted to ensure that tender procedures are always followed.  The decision of which contractor to employ should always be made by a team of professionals with the necessary experience and knowledge, and using a predetermined decision matrix; and
  • Use external resources: The southern African market is awash with highly competent engineers and project managers, many of whom were put on early retirement due to the factors described in previous sections.  Many of them are available as consultants to fill critical vacancies on owner project teams, especially during the early project stages. These are people who understand the business requirements and can translate strategic business objectives into clear project objectives.

The future of the Project Management Office (PMO)

Taljaard (2018) describes the roles and responsibilities of the PMO very clearly in his recent article.  Based on the trends described above, it is obvious that owner organisations must make a fundamental mind-shift where it involves project implementation.  Although all the PMO functions remain relevant, I forecast a downscaling of some of the functions, and a possible sharing of some of the PMO roles, like project portfolio management and optimisation by other senior business leaders.

I forecast a growth in the number and utilisation of owner project team support professionals.  Lastly, the role of the owner project sponsor will become increasingly important.  For large and complex projects, the project sponsor is seen as an executive, full-time position by competent individuals who have been trained as sponsors, understand the business objectives and can make decisions based on facts

Figure 4 is summary of my view of the future of the PMO and the project sponsor.


Figure 4:  The future of the PMO

Closing remarks

The widening of the trust gap is very visible in southern Africa and may be applicable in most third world countries.  The wider the trust gap, the lower the probability of project success… Fortunately, the widening can be curtailed by improved governance and the elimination of corruption, as well as the use of freelance project management and engineering professionals.

OTC, and other consulting groups like us, should see an increase in the demand for our services, once owner organisations make a mind-shift in their approach to projects.


Alexander, M., 2018, 5 Project management trends to watch in 2018. Available from  Accessed on 28 December 2018.

Claassen, L., 2018, Ghanaian power firm ends troubled contract with Group Five.  Published in BusinessDay of 2 December 2018. Available from Accessed on 28 December 2018.

Evamy, M. (ed),2017, Future of project management., Publication by the Association of Project Management, Arup and The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management at UCL.

Jordan, A., 2017, The technology-driven future of project management: capitalizing on the potential changes and opportunities.Publication by Oracle, and Project Management Institute.

Mattheys, K., 2018, Insight Article 052: Disrupting project controls – fast forward 20 years.  Available from  Accessed on 14 December 2018.

Merrow, E.W.,2011, Industrial megaprojects: concepts, strategies, and practices for success., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.

Myburgh, P-L., 2015, SA’s R600 million train blunder.Available from  Accessed on 28 December 2018.

Schoper, Y-G., Gemünden, H-G. & Nguyen, N.M., 2016, Fifteen future trends for Project Management in 2025.Published in the Proceedings of the International Expert Seminar in Zurich in February 2016 on Future Trends in Project, Programme and Portfolio Management.

Taljaard, J.J., 2018, Insight Article 054: The project management office (PMO).  Available from  Accessed on 14 December 2018.

van Heerden, F.J., Steyn, J.W. & van der Walt, D.,2015, Programme management for owner teams: a practical guide to what you need to know., OTC Publications, Vaalpark, RSA. Available from Amazon.


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