PPM into 2018: converging on common project understanding

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When summing up project management in 2017, one word dominates: convergence.

Robert ButtrickConvergence has been happening for a while and is founded on having a common understanding of project management and its underlying concepts. For example, if everyone involved in the project shares the same project management concepts, the scope for confusion is reduced and costly mistakes can be avoided. Working life might even get a little less stressful!

In one pertinent example, this year, the UK Government started trialling its own project delivery standard, which aims to drive a common understanding across all government departments and their associated bodies. It covers portfolios, programmes and projects, and is very specific about ensuring accountability and traceability from the top of an organization to the bottom. The standard defines what practices are needed for successful delivery but not how to actually do them.

Best practice methods

In this respect, the UK government’s project delivery standard enables practitioners to drawn on AXELOS' best practice methods, the APM’s and PMI’s bodies of knowledge and what is contained in British Standards. Yes, there are still some ragged edges – especially around the word “agile” – but ragged edges are sometimes catalysts to drive progress. We need to be careful not to limit development of new ideas, which is why “tailoring” is so prominent in the recent PRINCE2® 2017 update that I was involved in.

Another key development in 2017 was the APM becoming a charted body. This is important in driving convergence and excellence in project delivery while promoting trust. If we look at the established professions, the title “chartered” is important when people are selecting their staff or suppliers. Nowadays, no one would think of promoting a major engineering development without chartered engineers leading the work or having a financial controller who isn’t a charted accountant; if the APM is successful, then we should see the same happening for project management. This won’t happen overnight and, in reality, will be a journey of many years.

Looking into 2018

For project management next year, the basics haven’t changed: you will still need to plan and report on where you are and where you are going, manage what might go wrong and deal with what has gone wrong; changing and adapting to reflect the real-world context. What will change is how we do things, in terms of the processes tools and technologies that we will use.

Assess your maturity and skills

I can’t give you a “what you must do this year” as each organization is different, but I would say that if you are serious about improving project (and hence organizational) performance, you need to have an honest understanding of how good you are now. Every organization needs to know its level of maturity. For example, can you run and sponsor more than one project at a time? Can you survive changes in key project staff? Have you the resources to do everything you want to? Organization leaders need to recognize that most project failures result from elements outside the project manager and sponsor’s remit; failure is often rooted in inherent institutional problems which, if not fixed, will leave project teams exposed.

Yes, individuals need skills and competencies and the frameworks are out there for you to use. However, organizational leaders also need to help project sponsors and managers to succeed by creating a governance and management environment which promotes success, not hinders it.

Say goodbye to silos

Most people now realize that “real” projects don’t respect organizational boundaries, but unfortunately “siloism” is still rife. Many organizations still fund their projects by allocating money to each department annually to “do their bit”. This often means projects are starved of funding and resources, with each departmental head making decisions on priorities throughout the year. The resulting waste can be phenomenal; yes, they will operate within their “budgets” but that is not enough if failing to realize benefits for the whole organization. People have to be better at thinking horizontally in organizations at portfolio, programme and project level, especially with regard to financial allocation and decisions.

Think traceability

Organizations need to think about how they organize themselves to enable success. This is essential for good governance, which should be traceable from top to bottom. Traceability applies to many aspects of project delivery. For example, when thinking of a deliverable, what requirement does it support to? Which other deliverables rely on this deliverable being completed? Which part of the design does the deliverable relate to? Which work package is it developed in? Who is accountable for it and who are they accountable to? Which contract is that work package contained in? Which project is that work package a part of and what business objectives is it trying to achieve? Projects should be thought of as part of the business and, while not part of “business as usual”, they are an essential part of business management, not an “added extra”. This type of thinking needs to start becoming commonplace for organizations to succeed.

Professionalism in project management

Many people use project management skills – for example, each person managing a work package uses project management techniques – but using the techniques, doesn’t make them a “project manager”. The title “project manager” has been adopted very widely and this can lead to misunderstandings of what a project is; most commonly, what PRINCE2 terms a “team manager” (work package manager) many organizations call “project manager”. This can lead to strange effects such as having a project with multiple project managers, often one per silo! In turn, a “programme” might be created to coordinate all those separate “projects”. It starts getting complicated and very expensive to manage. Let me make it clear, team managers are the bedrock of successful delivery; they direct the “real work” and the quality of the outputs and subsequent outcomes relies on them; they need to have a good grounding in project management as well as their specialist work.  Many work packages dwarf some projects in terms of scale. We do however need to keep our programmes and projects as simply structured as possible, using the roles correctly and not using “vanity” job titles which in turn can lead to confusion.

Fixing the ragged edges?

Back to one of those ragged edges; in 2018 I’d like to see us stop wasting so much energy arguing about “agile” versus “traditional” delivery (whatever that is) and start using (or being!) agile in the appropriate places and contexts. Agile delivery techniques can be used to great effect in so many situations, but until we have a better consensus and understanding how agile fits in culturally and with everything else, I fear a lot of opportunities will be missed. Agile principles and techniques are just as applicable and compatible working within or in concert with classic project management, so let’s continue to work this one through.

From the examples I have given, you can see that words can get in the way of common understanding; sometimes it is not about the right or wrong word or meaning, but simply about being “differently right”. Words are, however a key part of communication, so let’s build on what has been achieved in 2017 and work towards better understanding and convergence in 2018; it’ll be a bumpy ride but anything worth doing is seldom easy.

More AXELOS Blog Posts from Robert Buttrick

PRINCE2® 2017 Update – tailoring project management for your organization

PRINCE2® 2017 Update – tailoring gets better results

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