Project Management at the Chelsea Flower Show Part 2

The Chelsea Flower show is a world famous platform for garden designers to showcase their skills. But getting a garden design built and mounted is also a feat of project management that, for many exhibitors, will stretch them and their teams to the limit.

Yesterday’s blog introduced Steve Clark of Chilstone, who undertook this challenge, and succeeded.  We saw that the first two lessons that he learned from creating The Chilstone Garden were:

  1. Know our outcome
  2. Understand your risks

Today, we’ll pick up where we left off, and four more lessons that Steve learned.

The Known Unknown: Weather

Chilstone's ever-lasting Ice SculptureOne of project managers’ “known unknowns” is the weather: we know that it offers a risk, but we don’t know, beyond statistics, what the precise threat is until it manifests. And then, there are the exceptional weather events, for which the statistics don’t even provide a valid guide. In the case of Chelsea this year, gardens were being prepared after one of the coldest early-winter cold snaps, followed by one of the earliest hot spells, making spring feel like an early summer. Horticulturalists were having to put plants into cold conditions to hold them back or, as Heather Appleton had to do for the Chilstone Garden, source and buy extra plants at last minute. All this poised a threat to Chilstone’s tight budget.

Control what you can

With such a tight budget, the team needed to innovate, to keep costs down. They built contingencies into the plan and sought services in kind, exchanged for excellent publicity, and used in-house talent wherever they could, but they needed more. My favourite example comes down to two things:

  1. Making the effort to understand the Chelsea process
  2. Planning carefully

Usually, breaking the garden down at the end of the show is expensive, hiring contractors and paying for significant amounts of waiting around on a crowded site, with dozens of other exhibitors’ teams queuing for amenities and to simply enter and leave the site. Steve took a well-calculated risk: he used his own staff, and waited until the last possible moment, at the very end of the break-down period, when the site was nearly empty. His team came up trumps and he estimates he saved the company thousands of pounds.

The Effect of the Project on Business as Usual

Chilstone's Garden HouseIt is a common experience that a major project will affect business as usual, and this was very much so for Chilstone. Around 60% of their staff were directly involved in the Chelsea show garden, making, installing or assisting at the garden. Many others had smaller parts to play. Steve worked hard to schedule everybody’s involvement to ensure that his customers suffered no inconvenience, ensuring no annual leave in the run-up and over the event. He set up a planned handover of his own day-to-day responsibilities so that, for a crucial two-week period, he was able to focus entirely on the project.

The Last Risk

If all of this is sounding familiar, then there is one last risk that Steve highlights, which he willingly admitted he nearly got totally wrong. And it will be familiar to many readers: Project Manager burn-out. Steve ran himself into the ground, and survived on adrenalin.

What he did right, however, is schedule time off immediately afterwards, although, at 1½ days, he thinks it was too little – “I was told I’d need a week and, looking back, I probably did.” It’s a shame that Brilliant Stress Management wasn’t available until August! However, Steve also took a well-earned overseas holiday shortly after, and who could say he didn’t deserve it.

Crowd visiting the Chilstone Garden at Chelsea

The “so what?”

Chilstone and designer Heather Appleton won a Silver medal for their garden – it was the first for both sponsor and designer. They came in on budget and were ready on time. This can only be due to careful planning and good management. Congratulations Heather, Steve and the whole Chilstone team.


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