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Surviving project change

Neil Timmins
April 29, 2011

Although it may not read like a bundle of laughs, the good news for professional project managers is that only through the application of professional standard and ethics is it possible to respond swiftly, objectively and in a controlled manner to the many challenges laid down, without compromising your personal integrity, at the same time protecting the credibility and reputation of your sponsor.

In recent conversations I have jokingly described these frenzied experiences as subconsciously triggering a temporary metamorphosis into a heightened project management state where the humble project manager—still needing to operate pragmatically, constructively and with agility irrespective of chaos—transcends into a type of super-human project manager alter ego, the Scheme Weaver.

Dawn of the Scheme Weaver

Although many of the challenges facing the Scheme Weaver are a consequence of the increased intensity and diversified workload resulting from disruption caused by major organisational change, there are also some significant project manager issues making the project change management task much harder than it should be, especially in extreme conditions.

Three key problem areas are:

1. Poorly planned projects due to late engagement of professional project management services

As a contractor I have found that, more often than not, the project is already in a distressed state and the business case already approved when I start a new assignment. In the majority of cases, the underlying causes of the problems experienced come from a failure to follow standard process and implement basic planning instruments and control systems, problems usually accompanied by poor governance.

All professional project management practitioners know the true root cause and answer to our clients’ problems, however, to convince our customers maybe we need to be more creative in demonstrating the tangible correlation between earlier project management engagement and more current or quantifiable business themes such as benefits delivery and risk-based scenarios.

A practical time and cost effective example is where projects are tactically structured into discrete work packages with outcomes clearly defined and aligned to accountable benefit owners. This makes it possible for a sponsor or other key stakeholders to authorise commercially based change decisions and have them implemented via a defined change management procedure relatively swiftly. This approach allows the project to maintain relative momentum and helps dispel the more immediate team concerns regarding project viability and relevance.

The longer the timeline, the larger the exposure to an unforeseen change event. If ‘setting up a project for success’ is not a good enough slogan or reason for businesses executives to realise the necessity for early engagement of professional project management assistance, for example upon or during initiation, then surely the creation of auditable, time-and-cost-capped benefits-based work packages that will support key investment change decisions should be worthy of consideration.

2. The ‘distancing’ of the PMO

I had high, possibly unrealistic expectations when PMOs became more and more prevalent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. PMOs were to be the vehicle through which the value of project management professionalism was going to be sold and indoctrinated across the business community.

For a long time, notably during their establishment into more general acceptance, PMOs went a long way to meeting these expectations. They appeared just as eager to seek the respect and endorsement of individual project managers than merely act as functional line managers that funded their operation. More recent experiences, however, have led me to conclude with reluctance that the honeymoon period is over.

There are many excellent PMO practitioners out there to which the following experiences and observations do not apply. I am still very much pro-PMO, but as PMOs have become more established, I fear they have also become much too tightly aligned and ingrained within the organisational functions that accommodate and budget for them, usually IT and finance. They have thus become less independent in enterprise terms and considerably less empathetic to the plight of the project manager.

Many PMOs I have recently encountered appear content to distance themselves from the project management coalface, especially post-business case approval. Constricted by terms and processes they are forced to adopt or compelled to develop, these PMOs regress into inflexible and bureaucratic entities, less concerned with providing practical end-to-end support in the pursuit of delivering tangible project outcomes and business returns and more concerned with balancing scorecards and jockeying spreadsheets.

Because a project manager’s ability to manage change and successfully execute projects is heavily dependent on her/his relationship with the PMO, it may be of benefit to the project management community to investigate if these experiences are common.

Either way, for a project manager to deliver effective outcomes, I believe:

  • PMOs should be led by experienced program or senior project managers with significant experience of project success, balanced with some exposure to failure.
  • PMOs should be empowered to approve process exemptions to implement change in a cost effective and timely manner; in other words, take responsibility for taking calculated risks.
  • PMOs should manage according to local conditions, rather than dictatorially.
  • There needs to be greater transparency and commonality between the goals and objectives of PMOs and project managers without which there is a reduced likelihood of a mature response to the consequential impact of change.
  • PMOs should be structured within ‘benefits neutral’ business functions to mitigate the threat of decision bias, for example business performance or strategy and execution where capital investment projects have a greater chance of being more tactically aligned to the delivery of strategic and priority-based business outcomes.

Any of the above considerations would be a positive step on the road to repatriation.

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Neil Timmins
Neil Timmins is a project management professional with 20+ years of program and project management experience across industries as diverse as banking and finance, communications, biotech, IT, transport and events in both the private and public sector. He holds a Master of Science in Management and an Advanced Diploma in Project Management, is a member of the Australian Institute of Project Management and a Certified Practising Project Director (CPPD).
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