Project Management in Practice

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Are conference attendances useful in delivering better projects?

I was at an industry conference at San Diego last week. Aside from the stark difference basking in 26°C, compared to the 6°C that I left behind in Wellington, what struck me most was how projects face the same challenges the world over. Having spoken to my counterparts from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, Austria and East Africa, our challenges and constraints in projects are not markedly different.

Are conference attendances useful in delivering better projects

As I was attending various presentations during the week, it was quite a pattern. Most presentations covered what the project did, followed by a demonstration and discussion on technology used to deliver those feature functions. This is in keeping with other similar conferences I have attended over the years. What we most often do not share in these industry forums is what outcomes the customers were looking for, challenges the delivery team faced, tradeoffs the customer had to make because of this, which resulted in the final shape of the project as it was delivered. I found it far more useful to talk to some of the presenters after their talks. I found they were much more relaxed and readily forthcoming with the kind of information I was looking for.

Delivering IT projects are interesting exercises even at the best of times. On my flight I was talking to a company director who was quizzing me on why IT projects fail so often. From his point of view such projects are usually one of the top CAPEX projects in companies that he and fellow directors worry about. He had a valid point. If I had a ready made answer for this, I would be a millionaire. My main goal attending these conferences it to ensure I can minimise having to learn lessons first hand that my peers have learned from making mistakes.

It is a delicate balance however. Having spoken to my peers around the world, it seems that same approaches have worked in some parts of the world and failed miserably in others. Some approaches that we had discounted seems to have flourished elsewhere. It is key therefore just to not look at results on the surface, but also understand the cause of such success or failure. Conference settings are notoriously difficult to delve to that level of detail. I have also found that we are much better at scrutinising things that have not gone well and less aware of what made our projects successful. It seems success makes us complacent.

You have to always remember to not take away half baked ideas as learning. This is where the connections you make in such conferences are gold. If you stay in touch with like minded peers and exchange ideas, this can form a huge source of information and a place to test your ideas before you jump in at the deep end.

Australasian trends in MSP and impact on PRINCE2

The Wellington PRINCE2 User Group met last week at the Deloitte House. The guest speaker at the event was Geoff Rankins, a programme and project management professional with over 35 years of experience across ASX50 organisations, Federal and State Governments in Australia and international not for profit organisations. He is also a contributor to PRINCE2 2009, MSP 2011, ISO 38500 and ISO 21500. Usually the user group has a format of three seven minute presentations followed by Q&A and networking on a single event. Due to the calibre of the speaker the committee adjusted the format to have only a single speaker with interactive Q&A with the speaker. Three main threads of discussion centred around trends in Australasia, MSP implementation lessons and co-existence of MSP and PRINCE2.

There were some interesting insights from Geoff regarding the pattern of adoption he has seen in Australasia. Consulting firms are using MSP to manage company mergers and state wide eHealth programmes. One of the largest construction companies is using MSP to manage building of 800 building in an 18 month period across the state of Queensland. The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) is promoting the use of MSP to the Federal Government Departments. The Capability Development Group of the Department of Defence in Australia already use both MSP and PRINCE2. There is also a trend in the various State Government Departments using MSP to deliver strategic programmes. In Australia not for profit organisations are using MSP to deliver process re-engineering and coordinating national mental health programmes. In New Zealand telecommunications and hydro-electric companies are taking up MSP as well as the national rail company and the Department of Corrections. Internationally, UNDP has adopted MSP to deliver aid programmes across 160 countries and in the UK the London Olympics is delivered through MSP. If you were ever wondering why so many examples on the MSP text appear from the London Olympics, this is the reason.

Like any other change initiatives, there is different between deciding to use MSP and adopting it. Some of the implementation challenges Geoff shared has a ring of familiarity. The biggest issue he highlighted was not treating adoption of MSP as an organisational change project on its own. Unless the organisation changes the culture of its programme delivery, success is going to be limited if at all attainable. In the same manner PRINCE2 has to be tailored to suit the organisation, so should MSP. That leads to implementations not challenging the existing environments and the necessary organisational change is not achieved. Using consultants was also identified as a limiting factor. Consultants being used must have implementation expertise, rather than simple certifications. At the same time the organisation must invest in internal capability building. In many case consultants move and and all the knowledge is lost. Consultants can help implement, but not maintain and evolve the framework as the organisation changes.

There is also a tendency to jump to a solution mode too quickly, what Geoff called inadequate “optioneering” and resulting in sub-optimal business cases. Organisations where programme management is less mature there are tendencies to treat a set of projects as a programme and not using it a vehicle for achieving organisational change. This also leads to focus to too much detail at programme level – defaulting to project management mode. The senior management in the organisation have to focus on the bigger picture of the programmes, rather than details of individual projects. Intervening too low results is focus on outputs rather than benefits and threats to them. There also needs to be a realisation that programmes are inherently more uncertain than projects and some element of learning is expected. The benefit an organisation can derive from having a well defined MSP framework are providing quick start to project business cases, oversight in project governance, escalation path to the senior management, lessons capture and dispersal across many projects. The biggest benefit of all is the focus on benefits realisation – something a PRINCE2 project is tasked with considering, but not well placed to achieve as the project is long finished before the benefits are scheduled to be achieved.

Sometimes organisations spend too much effort to identify if something they need to achieve is a project or programme. The key message from Geoff was to start with either and change the approach if necessary as the business case gets refined. Integration of PRINCE2 and MSP should happen on the basis of roles, assurance requirements and governance strategies.  The idea that resonated with me was there is nothing stopping cherry picking parts of MSP into projects if the organisation is not mature enough to handle MSP implementation. There is no reason why stakeholder engagement strategies, benefits profiles, blueprint and transition planning concepts of MSP cannot be used in a PRINCE2 project. In fact those should be transferable to any project. Right tools for the right environment.

Adoption usually comes because of governance and accountability reasons. For that reason frameworks like MSP and PRINCE2 usually are adopted by Government entities first. This then forces all service providers to comply. It appears there is substantial acceptance of MSP and PRINCE2 as Programme and Project Management frameworks in Australasia.

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