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?”→
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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!
Perhaps the best known and earliest portal
in the UK was that set up following the 2012 London Olympic games: