Project management excellence is not enough

Beware of doing too many projects, even if they do fit your strategy and have a good business case.

Beware of doing too many projects, even if they do fit your strategy and have a good business case.

The opening plenary sessions of the 2013 Gartner PPM and IT Summit in London, set the tone for a mind-set shift in how Gartner looks at “IT management”.  To date they have focussed in on “IT” and the “CIO”, and, in my view, perpetuating the gap between what they term “IT” and the “Business” . This year, to my delight, they were starting to talk about “the business” and IT’s part in it. It’s a brave thing to do, but the right thing to do. Most organisations still have their IT split off as separate organisational units ,with a separate strategy and loads of money, which tries to work out what “the business” wants and then all too often fails to meet those expectations. What is guaranteed though, is if you give an IT department money, they will spend it all, even if the business need is unclear. . . . that’s the “business’” fault!

Mike Langley from PMI was a key note speaker and gave his view on the all important question of “how do we ensure our (IT) projects fit our strategy?”  Notice I put “IT” in brackets – the department is irrelevant as we want all our projects to align with strategy . . . don’t we?

Mike based his talk on PMI’s recent “Pulse of the profession” survey.

We are all familiar with “strategy” and “execution” (sorry for using the “e” word, but when at an American conference, you can’t get away from it!).  The story is that the business leaders set the strategy and then the “business” implements it. If it goes wrong, it’s usually the fault of the business and their dreadful requirements and poor implementation!  What new research for Harvard Business Review is now talking about is that implementation is part of strategy and we should not separate them. (look out McKinsey and Bain!.) After all, if your strategy doesn’t include how to implement itself, then it’s a poor strategy.  The new buzz words for making this happen is “portfolio management”. This is a discipline of making sure that the programmes, projects and other activities that a business decides to do are the rights ones in terms of strategic direction, fit and balance in terms of risk and skills use. It’s all about selecting the right projects.

Mike says his research shows that organisations which are good at portfolio management are more agile, and have better project outcomes. Portfolio management is integral to how the top level leaders want to manage their business; it’s an integral part of business planning. Traditional business planning adds up costs of departmental budgets, checks against revenue and makes sure there is “interlock” if different departments need to work together.  Usually this is done a year or so in advance and is therefore totally pointless for organisations in fast moving environments. It is however a neat and simplistic way to blame people when things go wrong or costs to much. Hence, getting portfolio management working right is as much to do with mind-set as having the processes, systems and operating model.

Getting this right, means organisations can continuously tune their plans, not be tied to outdated annual budgets and use their people and money where the benefit is most attractive.  The money will follow the business need, not the department doing the work. Now that is what I call true organisational agility and if you have read the Project Workout, it will be very familiar to you.

This isn’t new as a concept, but it is something many organisations struggle with.  Have a look at this article: Excellence is not enough from the Project Workout “articles” web page.

The secrets of successful programmes

CranfieldI recently went to the International Centre for Programme Management (at Cranfield) for a forum on learning and knowledge management  and as part of that we were given a white paper called “Beating the odds – the secrets of successful programmes”.

The white paper describes the findings from a recent two-year study of 21 major programmes of many types, with varying levels of success in a wide range of organisations in Europe. Those findings explain many of the causes of the differeing levels of programme performance and how business leaders can improve the success rate for their own organizations.

Seldom do I read an article or paper with the words “Yes, yes, yes” ringing in my head. It is packed with useful insights and wisdom, gleaned for the programme teams who took part in the study. The wisdom in this paper won’t be found in methods and processes, they are more about how experienced and skilled people apply them and the issues they face.

I recommend this to any person who considers themselves to be (or aspires to be) a business leader. As expected, there is lots about vision, strategic alignment, business readiness, foggy objectives, stakeholder engagement, business cases, planning and behaviours. If, as a business leaders, you believe you have a great strategy, then good for you. On its own, however, that is not enough. You need to be able to convert your vision and your strategy into action on the ground. Do you have the right mind set, tools, methods to do this?  Read this article and decide for yourself.

This is the executive summary:

  1. Strategic alignment. From the programmes studied, those identified as integral to the future business strategy were all at least partially successful. It could be concluded that the ‘positive’ nature of the programmes’ intentions meant that there was little stakeholder resistance to the initiative and hence the organisation was able to deploy its most capable resources. Senior management and executive involvement was sustained throughout the programme. Conversely those programmes that had primarily ‘reductionist’ intentions, e.g. restructuring to reduce costs or eliminate inefficiencies, were less successful. Executive involvement in the programmes was weak and stakeholders’ commitment quickly waned.
  2. Need and readiness. Interestingly and perhaps counter intuitively, in most of the successful programmes the need was ‘high’ – clearly recognised as a business priority – but initially the readiness was ‘low’. In these the argument for investment and change was endorsed at executive level and time and effort spent at the start to achieve the buy-in of the rest of the organisation and develop the ability to undertake the changes. In the majority of those that were partially successful the readiness appeared to be ‘high’ as well as the need. Why they were not entirely successful is best explained as over-ambition or even over-enthusiasm; rather too many optimistic assumptions were made at the start with little assessment of the potential risks involved.
  3. Value drivers,benefits and business cases. The more successful programmes were also based on a clear strategic driver plus a strong financial business case. Those with weaker strategic drivers but good financial cases gained less commitment and were usually less successful. Very often financial benefits were overestimated, while the risks and the problems in making the changes were underestimated, perhaps because realistic estimates might have made it difficult to secure funds and resources. During the programme, as the scope becomes clearer, this inevitably leads to changes to the costs involved and the benefits that can actually be delivered, but only a minority of organisations revisit the business cases as programmes evolve.
  4. Foggy objectives. Programmes cannot be fully planned in advance and have to adapt to both changing business conditions and programme achievements. This is not necessarily a comfortable position for senior management and requires a knowledgeable, accountable and empowered governance group to oversee and, where necessary, adapt the programme. Rather than decrease during the programme, uncertainty can often even increase, especially due to changes in the external environment.
  5. Planning. Some organisations thought they may have ‘over-planned’ things at the start, due largely to the demands of some stakeholders for detailed plans, which were then not really used. However, the planning activities were seen as essential to bring stakeholders together and for reconciling their different priorities and interests. The process of planning was more important than the plans produced and helped address many of the initial uncertainties.
  6. vision and stakeholders. Having a clear vision of the intended future business and organisational models and then allowing compromises and trade-offs in the detail of how they are implemented, is more likely to achieve stakeholder commitment than imposition. The successful transformation programmes usually addressed the organisational, people and capability aspects first, before dealing with the process and technology aspects. The less successful tried to do the reverse.
  7. Learning and un-learning. Most ‘strategic’ programmes require the development or acquisition of new capabilities and knowledge in order to be carried out successfully. Management generally underestimate how much has to be learned by the organisation and individuals to define, manage and implement a major programme. Introducing new ways of working may also require considerable ‘un-learning’ by large numbers of professional people – not easy to achieve without actually removing the old processes. If the programme relies heavily on the capabilities of suppliers (especially IT suppliers), they may exert undue influence over what is done – the scope and achievable benefits – rather than on how the programme can be successfully delivered.
  8. Realising the benefits. Most business change programmes involve at least two distinct and different phases – first to create a new capability and second to exploit it. In most of the cases the new capability, for example a global HR database or Finance & Accounting Service Centre, was created, but not always used effectively, hence the benefits achieved were often less than those originally envisaged. While creating a new capability can be done ‘off-line’, separately from business as usual, using and exploiting it often competes with other operational priorities or can have negative effects on other aspects of operational performance, as was observed in some of the cases.
  9. Organisation and governance. Programme governance structures and staffing profiles are likely to change significantly over the life cycle. There seem to be three basic approaches to organising programmes: (1) a separate task force, (2) as part of business-as-usual (BaU), or (3) a combination (matrix). Not surprisingly the last of these proves most problematic. Some programmes have dedicated change managers, others have senior managers assigned to the programme, but they can find it difficult to reconcile achieving change at the same time as sustaining performance. Running change programmes in parallel with BaU causes tensions within the organisation and a clear statement of priority for which takes precedence is essential.
  10. Portfolio management. Few organisations, as yet, have the capabilities in place to manage multiple concurrent programmes with varying levels of uncertainty, competing for the same resources over extended periods. No organisation in the study had an effective mechanism in place for managing a combined large portfolio of ‘strategic’ programmes and more traditional projects – although some are trying to address this issue. Managing multiple programmes (Programme Portfolio Management) requires an additional governance structure or regular strategic and operational review and reconciliation at executive level especially if there are programme inter-dependencies or contention for critical and scarce resources.

Do you want to know more?

Cranfield had very kindly let me make the full article available to you here

So why was I saying “yes, yes, yes,” to myself? Many of the lessons are embedded in the Project Workout:

  • vision, strategic alignment: are covered in the gated approach to projects, from the very beginning(Chapters 3 to 11)
  • portfolio management is covered in Project Workout as “Business Programmes” in Chapters14 to 17.
  • business readiness,is a prerequisite for Project Workout’s Ready for Service Gate (page 118)
  • foggy objectives,are discussed in Chapter 12, along with other types of “Eddie Obeng” projects
  • stakeholder engagement,is covered in Chapter 19 as well as threaded throughout the book
  • business case, is at the heart of the Project Workout’s business led approach
  • planning in Chapter 19
  • behaviours are covered in Chapter 18

Of course, in the “real world” these are not isolated activities but happen in a complex network of cause and effect and that is why it is all so difficult to do in practice.

Whose success is it?

In my “enemies within” blog, we looked at how management get the project performance they deserve. In that blog we explored the important role of the programme and project sponsor in making sure that an organisation’s programmes and projects succeed. But what does “success” mean? Success is too often interpreted through the differing eyes of stakeholders.

Successful project management ensures the delivery of a specified scope, on time and to budget (PMI’s triple constraint). It is related to how efficiently a project is managed. This should be assessed during the project closure review, documented in a project closure report and measured by timeliness of delivery milestones, adherence to budgets and quality. This is commonly associated with the role of the project manager.

A successful project realises the business benefits it was set up to achieve as stated in a business case. It is related to the effectiveness of the project in meeting the objectives set. The post implementation review (post-project review) assesses this. Measures of success here must be indicative of the business objectives being achieved. This review therefore has to happen some time after the output of the project has been put into use. It is associated with the role of the project sponsor.

A successful organisation drives towards its strategic objectives while fulfilling expectations of shareholders, managers, employees and other stakeholders. Measures for this are at a corporate level and should be financial and non-financial, such as a balanced score card. This is associated with the role of the chief executive.

A project which has been successfully ‘project managed’, however, may actually deliver little of value to the organisation. Further, a ‘successful project’ may not further the strategic objectives of the organisation, as its objectives may be out of alignment organisations seeking to optimise their total portfolio of projects through the effective combination of project management, sponsorship and portfolio management. A failing company can be full of ‘successful project management’ and ‘successful projects’ all driving in different directions.

The PMI’s recent report, Pulse of the Profession 2013, has actually picked up the above themes, so may this will help senior business leaders realise the potential that effective and efficient project management has to drive their organisations.

Gartner goes one step further and state that organisations which grasp this first will have a enhanced competitive advantage over the others.

Whatever you do must help you move towards your strategic objective. Otherwise there's no point.

Whatever you do must help you move towards your strategic objective. Otherwise there’s no point.

References:

Leadersip by command or intent?

I was at the Regents College (European Business School) earlier this year at a Business forum I am a member of. That evening’s speaker was Duncan Christie Miller and his theme was “The History and Reality of Modern Day Leadership”.  Being a military man, he used a number of military examples, showing how different styles can affect outcomes.

I’ll simplify his talk. First he showed a clip of a film where the general was on the high ground and the troops all lined up in the centre, with cavalry on the wings. All good stuff. The general gave “commands” and won the battle.

However, a later example had the same scenario but guns and cannons had been invented and very soon, the smoke obscured the battle field and the general was unable to give effective directions. The “line of command” approach had broken down. . . . and yes, he lost.

The Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz came up with an answer. Rather than the general giving direct commands which MUST be obeyed, the general gives his “intent” to his commanders, and they had to make decisions on the ground, based on their own judgement, concerning what to do to ensure the general’s intent was achieved. It worked rather well. In fact a commander could be disciplined for “blindly obeying” an order. This was totally unknown in the British army at the time, where “command”  was so strong, that people knowingly did stupid things, when ordered – do you remember the charge of the light brigade? Duncan said perhaps this “command” approach is still too strong,  as witnessed by a British warship standing by doing nothing while Somali pirates recently took over a merchant ship under their noses while they waited for instructions from London.

The shift from line of command to line of intent in the Prussian army happened in order to react to a different and more complex (and smoky) environment. The old way of fighting was dead and the new ways required a different approach.

Duncan concluded by asking the attendees how relevant this story is in the modern, complex business world, where, like a general, the CEO or VP up a chain of command cannot see it all and know it all. He said, there is still a place for “commands” but perhaps, “intent” is more powerful for much of what we do.

Here is an example from my early civil engineering days. In 1979, I was in Yemen, on a team of five, supervising a harbour construction (at today’s costs about £100m). We had no phones and no internet. There were two telex machines in the local post office with limited access, some 2 miles from the site.  Most communication was via the weeklyAir France flight which took the post – turn-round time alomost 3 weeks. The “intent” was communicated to us by means of the drawings and specifications and we had to make week by week and day by day decisions, based on what happened on the ground. It worked. We made a lot of decisions with no reference to “head office” and the harbour complex was completed on time and underbudget. Yasar Arrafat opend it!   I rather think that in these more modern days of instant 24/7 communications, we  would never be allowed that freedom. In fact cofusion would have increased as head office could have “interfered” from a distance with no direct view of what was actually happening on the ground. Insttead the focussed on the really big issues, uncluttered by th minutiae of day to day construction.

So in that situation, line of intent was probably more effective than direct commands. Only “big” commands were needed and these were never urgent.

What’s your view on this? have you anyreal-life  stories and experience to share on the pros and cons of the two approaches? Join in the discussion.