Project management: Have we lost the plot?

So, these two people meet.  Discovering they were both teachers, the woman from New Zealand asked of her male English colleague, “What do you teach?”. “Mathematics.” he replied, “How about you?” “Me”, she replied, “Oh, I teach children!”.

How we frame what we do, the way we describe ourselves, what we do, and what we do it with, fundamentally affects how we manage ourselves.  That’s just as true in project management as it is in education.  As a professional project manager, what is it we say we do, what is it we say we are, and why does it matter? Continue reading “Project management: Have we lost the plot?”

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Renewing your PMO

If you are lucky enough to have attended the PMO conference in London in June then you may be already be reflecting on:  How could the PMO improve?  How can we increase the value of our PMO?  What kind of PMO should we be?

A view that PMOs should not be permanent structures has gained ground recently.  Todd Williams, in his insightful book on “Filling Executive Gaps”, suggests that PMOs are perceived as essentially bureaucratic and they all tend to outlive their usefulness.  The need to re-invent and re-align the PMO every few years to remain valuable has almost become a mantra in PMO circles.

John McIntyre at the 2017 PMO conference talked about “How to survive that tricky third year”: and described how the PMO at Ticketmaster managed by doing more with less, deciding what to continue to provide and what to drop.

Continue reading “Renewing your PMO”

From right-size governance to agile governance

If you’re working in a structured project environment with a project office, the chances are that you are using a right-size governance approach.

What does that mean?  Essentially, the level of management attention and oversight varies appropriately, depending upon the characteristics of the project, such as size and complexity, or the level and significance of the impact of the project on the organisation. 

In the example below, projects are classified for governance purposes into three types based upon size and complexity.

Project categorisation

Type ‘1’ projects demand formal ratification of key deliverables such as the business case and project initiation document.  They will not be allowed to continue (or at least that’s the idea) until there is real evidence that the legitimate governance stakeholders have given their authorisation to proceed stage by stage.

Type ‘3’ projects?  Well, they typically take only a few weeks, a few staff, and not a lot of money, and have a very limited impact on the organisation’s strategy.  They often simply require a sign-off as an agreement to operationalise and close the project.  It’s not unusual for work to continue while the sign-off is being negotiated.

Ultimately, the choice of governance affects the way the project is controlled, monitored, and the way decision-making is managed.

Governance impacts

It all sounds good, doesn’t it?  Except that it simply isn’t working.

Right-size governance is failing on so many levels

Twenty years ago, most of us recognised that adopting strict life cycles and gateway processes may well reduce risk, but at a huge cost to the agility of delivery.  It didn’t matter how many times PRINCE2 theoreticians told us it was ‘just a framework’ and its strictures must be adapted to the project and organizational context, there were methodologist practitioners who were determined to implement a rigid, formulaic system.  This was the era when the joke was:


What’s the difference between a methodologist and a terrorist?

“You can negotiate with a terrorist!”

Right-size governance was introduced to proceduralise the judgements about which governance techniques to apply and when.  It makes logical sense.  In line with Paereto’s law, you concentrate most management attention on the top 20% of projects.  But like so many well-intentioned ideas, it had not factored in the Machiavellian behaviour of organizations and their project stakeholders.  In a review comparing the actual governance approach taken by projects against the approach suggested by project size and complexity evaluation, we found over 25% of projects were not in line with the right-size governance recommendations.  Here are just some of the examples we come across:

Under-inflation: When projects are misdescribed as ‘simple’ to ensure low levels of governance oversight.  “I know I said it was large, but actually it’s quite straightforward – I’m sure it’s a type ‘3’.”

Over-inflation: When project classifications are confused with project ‘status’.  Yes, it does happen!   “This is definitely a type ‘1’ project.  Look how important it is!” Perhaps we should read here – “…look how important I am!”

Process override: When there are clear indications of a project of being one type, but alternative governance approaches are mandated, often by a powerful stakeholder.  “I don’t need all this, and I’m not prepared to pay for it.”

Right-size governance so rarely deals with change

In the organisations we work with, the classification of projects for governance purposes is part of the project initiation process.  It has to be because fundamental decisions to questions such as: Who will be involved?  What level of project manager skill is necessary?  How should we register the project? Are dependent upon understanding the nature of the project.  This works well where the level of simplicity and complexity is obvious, but for those in between, it can be more difficult to predict in their early stages.  We don’t know what we don’t know yet.  Selecting and implementing the governance for the project at this stage is a problem.

The PMOs we work with report that it is often these projects that get into trouble simply because the management oversight is just wrong.  While there may be good intentions to review the project categorisation at stage gates, in reality, what happens is that the project drifts into a governance black-hole with nobody prepared to expose the existing governance regime to challenge.

Clearly, with some projects and programmes lasting over several years, the governance approach must be reviewed.  In these circumstances a PMO can add real value, monitoring the risks associated with projects in the wrong governance state and highlighting the need for change to occur.  We suspect, however, that many PMOs are subject to the ‘magpie effect’ – they become overly focused on large projects and programmes.  Strange really, because these are the ones we assign our most experienced (and costliest) project and programme managers to – exactly because of the known risks.  It seems an exercise in project manager disempowerment for the PMO to pitch in as well.  Rather it is those middle level projects where changes in context are most likely, and where the skills and experience of the managers involved may be more suspect, that the PMO should focus.

Adaptive governance

Reviewing your governance approach is one thing – adapting it is something else.  Indeed, one might consider that the whole idea of adapting governance is an oxymoron.  After all, the purpose of governance is to give predictable approaches, based upon best practices, to reduce the risks associated with the management of projects.  Adapting governance – well it sounds like the sort of can that is best left unopened!  

Yet if yours is a complex project environment where the organisational context of projects is varied and varying, or indeed if you are in an organisation experimenting with Agile, adapting governance approaches is exactly what you are expected to do. 

As governance is about reducing management risk, it has to remain alert to the sources of management risk, and the first and possibly most important is where and by whom are management decisions being made.  So often demanding and dangerous stakeholders are involved or included in the decision-making, and yet good practice means that only the decision-makers should be limited to those who have a legitimate right – which means the decisions are made at the right place by the right people.

A second, and in some ways, more subtle point about adapting governance to better suit changing circumstances was made by Cohn, an early Agile theorist.  He pointed out that project governance – far from eschewing change – should welcome it and see change as a positive consequence of having learned something and avoiding the mistake of doing something not wanted.  A far cry from the rigid, predictive governance strait jackets of yesteryear that saw the role of keeping to the script and frustrating change.

Bringing those legitimate stakeholders much closer into the project – moving from a negotiative relationship to a collaborative relationship – is key to shortening decision making time.  Scrum practices such as the product owner is a good example of attempts to do this.  But, as the use of these practices increases, there is a very real danger that (as per the role of the project sponsor) the business will become project-weary and circumvent the Scrum mandate, allowing projects to run without a genuine product owner in place.  You may even know instances of that happening in your own organization right now!

Governance practices must diversify and become change competent

As project management disciplines and approaches extend into more diverse areas, as the product development processes projects encompass become more sophisticated,   and the demands made by stakeholders increase, project governance must respond – it too has to diversify without losing its role of providing senior managers – the investors in projects – with the confidence they need to implement their organisation’s strategy.

Louise and Christopher Worsley will be talking on the importance of adaptive planning practices at the PMI EMEA Congress in Dublin, 12-15th May, 2019. We look forward to meeting you there.

What learning legacy are you building?

Project learning legacies

I’ve just returned from a week in the UK having had some great project conversations.  One thing that really struck me was the emphasis on learning legacies.  This has particularly taken off in the engineering and construction industries where learning legacy portals are being made publicly available. 

These legacy learning sites aim to share knowledge and insights across the profession. As the Crossrail legacy site so aptly puts it – they want to promote a

‘pinch with pride’

attitude to encourage projects to learn from what has happened before.

Our work on lessons learned, which came out of the Success Stories Shared initiative in South Africa, suggested that:

Despite 80% of projects running PIRs, less than 20% of PIR reports were ever re-accessed, and there was little evidence of organisational learning.

Lessons identified only become lessons learnt once the collected knowledge is used in current or future projects. There needs to be a transition space created where a shift takes place, and vital knowledge is not simply stored away in files, not being accessed, but rather becomes implemented on a practical project level. But who is responsible for this shift from lessons identified to lessons learnt and how can it be facilitated?

It is interesting to see in sites such as the Major Projects Knowledge Hub that there is an emphasis, not only on sharing stories but also on connecting networks of experts across the industry.

Perhaps there needs to be a conceptual shift between the process of identifying lessons and actually learning lessons. If learning results in change, then what usually takes place at the end of a project would be the identification of a lesson. Rather than having lessons identified as one of the outcomes of the project, it should be seen as the start of the process that develops the lessons that are genuinely learnt and thus, by definition, implemented.  

In one retail company in South Africa, we have seen this approach embedded in the process of starting a project.  The project motivation documentation requires the project manager and sponsor to agree on which previous projects the new project is most similar.  There must be some evidence that information and learning from these projects have been taken into account.  After four years of this in action, both sponsors and projects managers are unanimous in their view – it is crazy not to do this!

Learning legacy portals

Perhaps the best known and earliest portal in the UK was that set up following the 2012 London Olympic games:

This is now in an archive state but here are some others that are very much alive and worth following:

I’m sure there must be more across the world.  Please do share information about any others you know.

Our new book, Adaptive Project Planning, uses stories gathered from lessons learned in projects across the world. It is now available on Amazon.

Be a Project Management Professional Learner

Your development journey

The Future Work Skills 2020 report identifies six drivers for change in our learning practices and ten skills for the future.  What are these skills? How can we as project managers use them in the way we define and follow our professional career path in 2019?

Future work skills 2020

Continue reading “Be a Project Management Professional Learner”

Lessons from the best PMOs in the world

This year I had the privilege to be involved as an international judge in the PMO Global Alliance Awards and as the chairperson of the judging committee for the South African PMO Awards.  So, for my end of year reflections, I want to share the lessons I learned from some of the best PMOs in the world.

I would love to hear from you, so please share your insights by adding to the post.

Continue reading “Lessons from the best PMOs in the world”

Is Agile a planning-free approach?

The introduction of Agile as a software product development approach is having a significant and positive impact upon the way IT projects are delivered. However, in our coaching interventions, we are finding some confusion among project managers. Some experienced project managers quickly learn how to adapt and integrate Agile practices into their toolset. It is just another approach, which used appropriately in the right projects increases their ability to deliver. Others move straight to denial; change-weary, they avoid or downplay the usefulness of the Agile framework– “It’s nothing new.” That is their loss! Of greater concern are the more junior project managers who, faced with Agilists, lose their bearings. “What is my role in this?” “How does the governance work?” “How do I plan?” And most worrying–“Do I need a plan?”.

Continue reading “Is Agile a planning-free approach?”

Stop looking for a superhero project manager

I have a memory passed down via family members that as a 9-year old when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded that I wanted to be an expert!   I’m sure my parents find it a very irritating response and would have preferred an answer like doctor or engineer or lawyer!

Whatever I meant at that time, I am pretty clear now, that this is just not possible. Today there is so much information, so many insights and experiences that we need access to as project managers–this cannot possibly dwell in the body and spirit of one person. Karen Stephenson captures it perfectly in her phrase,“I store my [know-how] knowledge in my friends”.

Continue reading “Stop looking for a superhero project manager”

The myths of stakeholder management

Project stakeholder management has borrowed many of its concepts from other discipline areas. This cross-usage of wisdom is helpful but its application in projects is still to be proven and bedded-in to the way we do things.  After all, it’s only in the last few years that stakeholder management has been recognised in project management bodies of knowledge.  In the meantime trial and error application has resulted in a number of myths about its application to projects.

Continue reading “The myths of stakeholder management”