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A MANAGEMENT APPROACH that took off in the 1950s, “project management” is making inroads in special events. Here, author, lecturer and event producer William O'Toole, managing director of Event Project Management System in Sydney, Australia, discusses how project management can create better special events.

SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE: What is “project management”?

WILLIAM O'TOOLE: Project management can be seen as a collection of tools and techniques that enable the creation of an asset over a period of time. It is the process necessary to go from the idea of a product or asset to its creation. In particular it concerns the management of time, cost and quality.

Q: How widely is project management used by special event professionals?

A: What may surprise you is the number of internal company event professionals there are. I currently work with Australian Tax Office to rationalize [analyze to increase the efficiency and accountability of] their events. They have an enormous number of events and a large staff of event managers around the country. These internal event managers are under pressure to account for their management and find a way to capture their knowledge. In the commercial world, a number of event professionals are adopting this approach for various reasons — one being compliance with other companies and government standards. However, all event professionals have to manage the finances, schedule and the product, so they are all using aspects of project management whether they recognize it or not.

Q: If event planners start using project management, how will their work be different?

A: I have plenty of e-mails from people saying that it has made their work so much more efficient. The Sydney Olympics was brilliantly organized. They used project management — and sold the management system and data to the Greeks for $4 million. A medium-size corporation just sent me a study on how they implemented a project management system for their events. Their comments included how their clients respected their work more when they were able to communicate using the project management terminology. This is another advantage, as project management provides event managers with a language to describe what they are doing. Most companies are already using project management in their operations and are familiar with the terminology.

Q: But event pros often say their value is their creativity and their ability to think on their feet in a crisis. How does project management come into play here?

A: People often think they are creative when they are constantly putting out little brush fires. To me, true creativity is creating a calm environment where you can make optimal decisions and develop solutions that will work. Project management's role in this is to create that environment. If all the risks have been thought about and dealt with, then the new risks or opportunities can be focused on and solved — to the benefit of the event.

And what exactly is “crisis”? It is an unplanned major risk. Without a way of capturing the possible risks, it will be impossible to deal with the unplanned ones. Project management's risk management [component] is all about looking at the possible problems long before the event, assessing them and deciding how to deal with them. For example, after one of my project workshops, an event manager went back to her organization and put together a project plan. At the event, one of the hot-air balloons and baskets collapsed. She had an emergency response team there in six minutes. She rang me that night to tell me how it all worked. Also she now has the right documentation for the insurance and police to prove her responsible management. How can you prove responsible management if you keep it to yourself?

The problem with the application of project management to events is that current project management is very engineering-based. So if you use the [project management] software packages, you will find them good at planning, but wanting when it comes to management and responding to change. The event environment, as we all know, is far more fluid — sponsors change their minds, ticket sales go up and down, performers cancel and all the rest. One only has to think of a wedding! The current project management model needs to be adapted for this environment. This is the work I am currently undertaking at the University of Sydney. Project management was the system NASA used to put man on the moon. We must remember that this was a special event, and one of the greatest of the century.

Bill O'Toole can be reached at +61 418419322; his Web site is

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