Project Legacy – What is it, why is it important and can it ever really be planned for?
Legacy is something I hear often being talked about, but is it really understood by those that speak it? And more than that, can it ever really be understood or a common definition ever be found and can legacy ever really be planned for? Before establishing my own consulting business in 2013, I worked at Siemens for 28 years, 9 months and 4 days….not that I was counting. As my time with Siemens was drawing to a close and I began to reflect on all I had achieved; one thing got me thinking and began to stick in my mind. In my time there, I had managed many challenging and complex projects, programmes and change initiatives. I had held senior leadership positions, led multi-cultural teams and worked with some fantastically talented individuals. But had I – or they – really thought deeply about the topic of legacy and what it was that was being created by our collective efforts? I believe there cannot be a legacy without first having a purpose. What that purpose is, is a question seldom asked by many but when it is – and is thought about deeply, it can create a lasting impact through all of time. Perhaps one of the best examples of where the question of legacy and purpose was asked – and asked well – was the London Olympic bid for the 2012 games. It was the promised legacy the games would create that ultimately convinced the Olympic committee that London should host the games of 2012. Here is just a little of what was said about legacy and the games at the time. “With the destiny of the games on a knife-edge, and dark horses Madrid emerging as genuine contenders alongside favourites Paris, (Sebastian) Coe delivered his passionate final plea to the (Olympic committee) voters in Singapore. Plans for a new Olympic park based around the deprived area of Stratford in London’s East End presented a powerful case for transforming the social and sporting landscape of the capital. Legacy was the word, and it was used often to deliver the message – give us the games, and one of the world’s great capital cities will be transformed”. And so it was that a legacy promised became the difference between London winning the bid to host the games over Paris.
When you are initiating your projects legacy should be a very important consideration for you too, but only after thinking first, long and hard as to your project’s purpose, and by that I don’t mean only to deliver it to ‘time, to cost and to quality’. What is the legacy you wish to create? What do you want to remain long after the scope has been delivered, the schedule achieved and the final invoices issued? How will you know you achieved your intended legacy and especially with the passing of time? Perhaps one of the greatest examples of explaining what I mean as to time and legacy is the Sydney Opera House. Instantly recognisable, the Sydney Opera House is more than ‘just a building’; indeed a UNESCO world heritage report in 2007 summed it up far better than I could when it said; “It stands by itself as one of the indisputable master-pieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th Century, but of all human-kind.” But its immediate legacy was very different. That difference included the sacking of its Project Manager; the resignation of its architect, Jorn Utzon part way through; continual political interference, persistently changing scope and designs, spiralling costs, street protests, and an opening which was ten years later than planned. When the opera house eventually opened in 1973 in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II; Jorn Utzon was not even invited to the opening ceremony. Nor was his work acknowledged and neither was his name allowed to be mentioned in Her Majesty’s presence!
As time passed, the Opera House sitting proudly against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour with a growing and enhanced reputation; Jorn Utzon was invited back in 1999 to act as a guide for future changes and design principles to the building. In 2003 he was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the highest honour in international architecture. In 2004 the reception hall was renamed the ‘Utzon room’ in his honour and when Utzon died aged 90 on 28th November 2008, the flags on the Sydney Harbour Bridge were flown at half-mast as a sign of respect. Perhaps his legacy – and that of the Sydney Opera House – is captured in the words of the American Architect Louis Khan who said simply this: “The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building”. And so my point is this, when thinking about legacy and its importance, there is a paradox. It is important to ensure legacy is thought of in just the same way as you would think about your risks and opportunities or your stakeholders and your schedule. Plan for what you wish that legacy to be and then review, re-calibrate and re-plan at every stage of your project. But here is the paradox; remember, when planning your plans may be rendered worthless by those things you cannot plan for and that is how other people may think or feel, the passing of time, a change in culture or environment, a new political system or adaptations in community values or ethics. And so you must plan for what cannot be planned and you must accept that you cannot control the uncontrollable – and that is the dimension of time.
It is my view that it is better to let control be determined naturally when planning legacy than to try to take control, but that does not mean not thinking or planning for it or not working out a way for you, and those who follow you, to determine whether the legacy you hoped would be achieved was achieved.