Covey and the Sweet Smell of Project Success

Successful projects are built on process and people, and yet there is no shortage of pointers from what Stephen Covey identified as match-winning characteristics.

Covey and the Sweet Smell of Project Success

Successful projects are built on process and people, and yet there is no shortage of pointers from what Stephen Covey identified as match-winning characteristics. Dr Stuart Kings outlines what we can learn from Covey and how it may help bolster our own understanding of workplace effectiveness.

Those not familiar with the work of Stephen Covey should be. To my knowledge, he only ever wore the hard hat of academia but became famous with a book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective PeopleIt went on to sell 25 million copies since it was first published in 1989, and I assure you, it’s a good bedtime read!

What Covey discovered was that the most effective people were not always the rich and famous but often world leaders, football coaches and mountaineers. His identification of seven habits not only pinpoint certain human traits but are thankfully found within the pages of the NEC guidelines. You just have to interpret them.

Essentially, the habits are divided into two groups. Those which Covey termed as dependences – individual, or private habits, which anyone can master – and inter-dependences – where work is in collaboration with others.

The seven principles are…


  1. Being Proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first

And the interdependences

  1. Think win-win
  2. Seek first to understand and then be understood
  3. Synergise

The final habit is related to continual improvement.

  1. Sharpen the saw.

The first habit refers to being proactive and is also a big theme in the NEC. Clause 10.1 for instance states that all the key parties involved in a contract sign up to work in a ‘spirit of mutual trust and co-operation’. I think it is common sense therefore to see that proactive people with the right attitude make for a project with a better chance of being successful.

Next comes beginning with the end in mind, and focuses on having clear objectives, and the skills to define outcomes. In construction, we’re clear what the objects are and in the Contract Data we have time, quality and cost objectives. Project Manager’s need to understand what those objectives are for such things like sectional Completion and Key Dates.

The last of the dependences concern putting first things first. To me this is exactly what the NEC Contract is all about. When we implement the NEC Contract one of the initial moves is to get a programme in place that is accepted by all Parties, and sets out the timescales of the joint team using priorities and resources. Particularly with NEC version 4, the outset of a project puts in place the Early Warning Register, and updates on a regular basis by the Project Manager, focussing on programme and risk management.

Entering the collaboration or teamwork group of habits, Covey suggests thinking, win-win and within the NEC we have Early Warning procedures to ‘seek solutions that bring advantage to all those affected’. The framework on how the NEC seeks solutions and resolution is not far removed from the Covey model yet he says it using different terminology.

I’ve worked on several projects where people have had a blinkered view and failed to listen so always seek to understand and then be understood. A good example would be a compensation event where the Contractor is asking for a higher than expected value, or they believe the programme is affected. The outcome is not helped if the Project Manager has a blinkered view, or does not show empathy. There will be differing opinions, and it should be up to the two sides to sit down and discuss a way forward understanding all considerations.

Synergising would go so far as making proposals for how negative effects can be avoided or reduced, perhaps through brainstorming, or innovation, and problem solving. Plain and simple yet often overlooked in industry.

Covey’s final habit is about sharpening the saw yet is hard to define. It falls outside the two main groups and even outside contract management.  I like to think of it as looking after the body, mind and spirit. Looking after the people on a more holistic level. This would make ourselves as the most important investment on any project, and keeping people fit and healthy both physically and mentally.

If this all seems obvious, it is; you just need to look at it more closely, and never lose the drive to improve.  In terms of process, I would say software systems such as Sypro Contract Manager helps enormously because it mirrors the industry processes within the NEC.  It allows good practice to be seamlessly managed online with dashboard reporting, alerts and emails, so the team are abreast of everything that is going on – a Stephen Covey requisite.

Without Sypro Contract Manager the amount of admin draws you into a project so you can’t see the wood from the trees. I think Stephen Covey would have approved of both the NEC and Sypro to help manage Contracts and make them assuredly highly effective.