Advancing project management maturity--a starting point for the rest of us

Abstract

Want to help your organisation advance in project and portfolio management (PPM) maturity, but don't know where to begin? Have you read OPM3™ but find it too broad to tackle or too intimidating? If your organisation lacks visibility into runaway projects, and projects are rarely on time and never on budget, you need to stop the downward spiral now. Such organisations desire the benefits of PPM maturity, and are looking for a starting point. This paper will give you some practical advice on where and how to begin on this journey to PPM maturity. Once your organisation can demonstrate some quick successes, it will be easier to gain executive sponsorship to further advance the organisation's PPM maturity.

Advancing Project Management Maturity – a Starting Point for the Rest of Us

The principles behind advancing in project and portfolio management (PPM) maturity are simple enough: identify, assess, then implement improvements for all relevant project management processes. Through rigorous benchmarking, data is collected and results are reported. The data represents information regarding which project management methods and practices could be improved. By addressing the areas for improvement you will advance in PPM maturity. PPM maturity leads to integrated and sustained performance, which will drive business financial benefit. Given all this, it is no surprise that many organisations are showing an interest in advancing their PPM maturity.

A recent Project Management Maturity Benchmark survey showed that nearly 90% of organisations are operating at maturity level 1 (ad hoc processes with no standardisation). And, the study also showed that most organisations are not satisfied with their PPM maturity level. But advancing in PPM maturity seems such a daunting challenge when presented with the long list of OPM3™ Self Assessment criteria and the Best Practices Directory published by the Project Management Institute (PMI®). Because so many organisations are operating at the lowest maturity level (ad hoc processes), they suffer repeatedly from failed projects, which translate to failed strategic initiatives. They need a starting point for their journey to higher PPM maturity. If you work for or with one of these organisations, you can probably identify with this frustration.

No one organisation is perfect, so some projects may fail even with the best laid plans and the most competent management. But when failure is a pattern for an organisation, root causes must be identified and steps must be taken to break through to higher maturity. I bet if you took an honest look at the failures in the organisation, you will notice some common themes. This paper will give a few practical starting points for advancing in PPM maturity based on the following commonly identified themes in organisations of low maturity:

  1.   Spending too much on activities that keep the lights on, but not enough on activities that grow the business.
  2.   Inability to prioritise projects based on strategic importance to the business.
  3.   Unrealistic expectations of the project team, so projects are doomed to fail before they start.
  4.   Projects are initiated based on flawed or incomplete strategy, such that successful project execution does not result in desired business benefits.

I will describe the typical symptoms for each of the above themes, and then suggest first steps to help your organisation get out of each of these traps.

Spending too much on activities that keep the lights on, but not enough on activities that grow the business.

Organisations often wonder why their people cannot deliver on strategic projects, and they tend to blame middle managers for not doing a good job managing the work. In these organisations you often find that people are fighting fires all the time, and it is not because they like fire-fighting, nor are there many arsonists. Strategic projects always get interrupted (or don't complete satisfactorily) because of some other fire burning somewhere else. Another common symptom is the organisations’ inability to keep good planners on their staff. In these organisations, one or two strong project managers may be able to drive their strategic projects to completion, but they do so at the expense of the “keep the lights on” (KTLO) activities of the organisation. When that happens, infrastructure suffers from lack of maintenance, which leaves daily operations in constantly reactive mode. This typically signals a common resource balancing problem.

The first step towards a solution is to identify where time and money are being spent. It can be as simple as getting your staff to track where they spent their time, in the form of project-based timesheets. You can track in terms of whole hours, days, or percentages, but don't try to track every minute. Assume that everyone spends at least 20% of their time on overhead or administrative tasks (which you do not need to account for), focus on the other 80% of their time. At the end of the first two months of timesheet collection, the data gathered will most likely yield surprises. You may find that people are spending way too much time on non-essential projects or unapproved pet projects. Some companies I know which took this first step have saved millions of dollars within a year, by officially cancelling non-essential projects that they do not want their employees to spend any more time on.

But don't stop there. After you have this benchmark data, the next step is to decide where you need to be in order to be competitive (or to win) in your market. On KTLO activities, ask tough questions like, do we really have to do this? Just because we have always done it in the past, doesn't mean we have to keep doing it. After you see the results after 2 months of data you will be able to prioritise the projects that people are working on, by re-directing them to spend more time on higher priority, more strategic projects, you will see immediate positive results.

If you do cancel projects or shift project priorities as a result of this exercise, make sure you are effectively managing the change. This means you must enrol the necessary sponsors and change agents, and communicate effectively to all stakeholders. If you choose to stop some of the KTLO activities, share a compelling business case for it, so that customers can understand why you have to change. Good customers will want you to remain in business, so you can continue to be a partner or solution provider for them. Good customers will support your difficult decisions for the health of your business. Of course, you may not get 100% of customers to agree. Remember the wise saying: “the customer is always right, but not everyone is the right customer”. It sounds harsh but you need to be willing to recognise the difference between good revenue and bad revenue. If you try to please everyone, you will please no one.

Once you have benchmarked where everyone (or at least key resources) spends their time, you will have the basic data for assessing and improving the project initiation process, estimating process, and controlling processes. These will lead to best practices in tracking resource assignments which will set the stage for a formal process for assigning resources in the future (such as OPM3™'s best practice directory ID 1590, 1690, 1760, and 1780.)

Inability to prioritise projects based on strategic importance to the business.

It sounds simple and intuitive to do, but I am always amazed to hear how many organisations do not communicate their high level goals and objectives to their staff. This lack of communication makes it difficult to align and prioritise the organisation's projects and activities with business strategy. It is no wonder that in these organisations, strategic objectives have no connection to operating plans. It is estimated that while businesses spend $2.3 trillion (US) annually on projects, most of which are not properly aligned with corporate strategy. Also, research shows that nearly 90 percent of companies lack the strategy to manage their project portfolio.

Because it is critical to an organisation's future to make sure that strategic objectives are driving the day-to-day activities of the company, the first step to remedy this is to communicate the organisation's strategic objectives to everyone doing the work. As noted in the book Strategy is Destiny: How Strategy-Making Shapes a Company's Future by Robert Burgelman (2002), “Change manifests itself first at the frontline, therefore strategic thinking is required at the front line.” Although strategy is created by executive management and not by the frontline employees, it is crucial that the frontline can connect the strategy to what they do. Frontline employees are the first to notice if there is a disconnect between strategy and execution.

However, communication is only the first step and not the cure-all. In my travels I have met many project managers and team members who continue doing what they were doing before, even after they learned that their business strategy calls for change. Typically this tells me that the workforce either lacks trust in the management or is sceptical of the managers’ influence. For example, if a new CIO (Chief Information Officer) is appointed, but the workforce believes that he/she is just the “flavour of the month” (or quarter/year), they will not waste their time changing their behaviours to support this new leader. In this day and age, when the average tenure of a CIO is less than 18 months, it is no surprise that this attitude is commonplace. This is why executive sponsorship at the right level is so important to the success of strategic projects.

Along with identifying what projects people are spending their time on, you must also ask whether the work/ projects can be aligned with a specific strategic objective. I would encourage you to align as many of the KTLO activities to strategic initiatives as possible. The alignment may be as simple as this: you need a stable infrastructure on which to build new systems, and the new systems are needed to support the growth of the company. Therefore, the KTLO activities can be aligned with the same strategic initiative as the new system. The more you can connect the dots between the work to the strategy, the more energised the workforce will be. Everyone wants to know they are contributing to the strategic growth that the executives are talking about; no one likes to feel like they are working on thank-less activities or unimportant projects.

Once the work is aligned with strategic initiatives, it will be obvious which of these initiatives are more likely to succeed. At this point it is important to compare the ratio of KTLO activities versus the projects that will grow the business. Growing organisations typically need to invest at least 40% of their effort in strategic initiatives. One of the bonus outcomes from aligning projects with strategic initiatives is the visibility you gain into the scorecard of the strategic initiatives.

After you find out what percentage of work is aligned with which strategic initiatives, you must be able to convince the right sponsors to allocate sufficient resources to the under-funded yet important strategic initiatives. Make sure you get executive sponsorship at the highest levels for these projects, highly publicise the sponsorship, and ensure that your people know how important their projects are.

Once you have benchmarked the percentage of work assigned to strategic projects versus KTLO projects, you will have the basic data for assessing and improving the portfolio initiating processes. These will lead to best practices in tracking resource assignments which will set the stage for a formal process for tying strategy to project objectives and aligning projects and portfolios to strategic objectives (e.g. OPM3™'s best practice directory ID 1540, 1560, 1650, 1660, and 5310.)

Unrealistic expectations of the project team & customers, so projects are doomed to fail before they start.

One of the biggest frustrations of project teams is the feeling that no matter how hard they try, they know the project will not be labelled a success (whether it is in the eyes of the internal or external customers.) The largest challenge for these project teams? Scope creep. The cure is simply some good old-fashioned project planning and control.

There are plenty of good commercial training courses on the topic of project planning. If you are not sure whether your project plan is solid, the first step is to take a class on project planning to make sure you have the tools and know the techniques for creating a comprehensive project plan. You will want to make sure you have included, among others, a scope management plan, project communication plan, project risk plan, and most importantly, change control plan.

Having a good project plan is only half of the solution. When scope creep is commonplace in your organisation's projects, you must establish a systematic approach to change control and change management to improve project performance. This is where adopting project management software can help you track your scope baseline and monitor associated changes. Project management software often include built-in best practices processes and templates, which are helpful for benchmarking and improving your project performance. A research study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers shows that without having software you can reach level 1 or 2 in maturity, but to reach a higher level you are better off investing in project management software.

Along with the tools typically used in project planning and control, it is also important to build agility in your organisation. Agility allows your team to adapt quickly when you see unintended consequences, extensive scope creep, or changes in strategy midstream. For example, many software development organisations are using agile methods, because the pace of change is so rapid that they need to be adaptive. Remember Darwin's theory that only those species adaptable to change will survive? The same can be said about project teams. For software development there are highly publicised Agile Development Methods for their constantly changing environment. Depending on your type of projects, you can find the appropriate type of “agile” project management methods, such as “lean construction”. Each methodology comes with pros and cons, so make sure your stakeholders understand and agree to the trade-offs before you adopt the methodology. In other words, exercise good “change management” techniques when adopting a new methodology.

Once you have used the tools and techniques you learned from basic project planning courses and the use of project management software, you will have the basis for standardising and improving the planning processes (e.g. OPM3™'s best practice directory ID 1020 through 1300.) Implementing a solid change management process will standardise and improve the control processes (e.g. OPM3™'s best practice directory ID 1310 through 1370.)

Projects are initiated based on flawed or incomplete strategy, such that successful project execution does not result in desired business benefits.

Sometimes the strategy is only half-baked when the “most important project of the year” is initiated, and the team is charged with its execution. The project team may successfully execute their project plan, but the project will likely not produce the results that strategy called for. I have seen projects like these labelled as “the worst thing the company did in the whole year”, meaning, the organisation would have been better off without having undertaken these projects.

Typically, in these project situations, project team members have insight into the flaws in strategy, but no one is willing to speak up. As you would expect, people would only belling to speak up IF it is evident that management will listen. So having the right culture and leadership style is important. “Do as I say, not as I do” management culture causes people to not speak up for fear of retaliation. When the emperor has no clothes on, he could not find an entire kingdom of reasonable adults to point out what is obvious to everyone else. Leaders of organisations must model their willingness to admit mistakes and must resist looking for a scapegoat when there are unintended consequences. If leaders say they want to hear what their staff have to say, but when the leaders hear something they don't like they behave negatively (such as shooting the messenger, or immediately looking for someone to blame) – people will stop speaking up.

If an organisation's culture resembles the culture of the citizens where the emperor has no clothes, the management team is not hearing what they need to hear. The first step to solving this problem is to start building trust in the management, one employee at a time. There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts to building trust. The human beings in your organisation must believe that you are capable of doing what you say you can do, and that you will actually do it if you say you will. So, you must be constantly evaluating your actions and reactions from others’ perspective, to catch yourself before you unknowingly commit the act of “do as I say, not as I do”. To be able to invite and receive candid feedback from people closest to the projects, you must model your willingness to receive and reward feedback even if the feedback is negative.

Once you have built trust in your project teams, you will be able to create an environment that fosters open communication and teamwork (e.g. OPM3™'s best practice directory ID 3090, 5430, and 5520.)

Summary

Many organisations have the desire to advance in PPM maturity, but don't know where to begin. This paper gives some practical advice on where and how to begin on this journey to PPM maturity, based on some common challenges in low maturity organisations. Based on the specific challenges your organisation is facing, you can choose to follow the advice that will give you the quickest results. Once your organisation can demonstrate some quick successes, it will be easier to gain executive sponsorship to further advance the organisation's PPM maturity.

References

Bracey, H. (2002) Building Trust: How to Get It! How to Keep It! Taylorsville, GA, USA: Hyler Bracey.

Center for Business Practices (2003) Project Management: The State of the Industry Retrieved from http://www.pmsolutions.com/articles/pdfs/general/industry_news.pdf

Center for Business Practices (2003) Project Management Maturity Benchmark Retrieved from http://www.cbponline.com/Research/Maturity.htm

PMI (2003) Organisational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3™) Knowledge Foundation Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, USA: Project Management Institute, Inc.

PMI (2004, February 26) Project Management Institute's New Organisational Project Management Maturity Model Standard Gains Momentum -- OPM3™™ Bridges the Gap Between Projects and Overall Corporate Strategy. Press Release Number 030-0004-04, Retrieved from http://www.pmi.org

PricewaterhouseCoopers (2004) Boosting Business Performance through Programme and Project Management Retrieved from: http://www.pwc.com/extweb/ncsurvres.nsf/0cc1191c627d157d8525650600609c03/9647d0f5e39303f285256f0200470f3e/$FILE/pmms_0904.pdf

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2005, Kristy C. Tan, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings - Singapore

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