Last year, the United Nations’ public health agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), tapped Don Kingsberry to create a project management center of excellence (COE). More than 30 years of professional experience had prepared Mr. Kingsberry for the task: He has implemented enterprise project management offices (EPMOs) at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, Genentech, Compaq, Keurig Green Mountain and, most recently, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the WHO's second-largest funder.
TITLE: Executive management consultant
ORGANIZATION: World Health Organization
LOCATION: Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, USA
“The Gates Foundation had seen the benefit of professional project, program and portfolio management,” Mr. Kingsberry says. “It wanted to share that with one of its most critical partners, the WHO.”
Until last year, emergency response to health crises was not one of the WHO's official duties. Plus, the health crises that the organization faces have grown and become increasingly complex—and some of them are in difficult parts of the world. All those factors have contributed to the need for better, more sophisticated application of project management practices. So the WHO approached the Gates Foundation with a proposal to develop a COE and requested a grant to help start this new function. The Gates Foundation agreed to provide the grant and also to loan me, the head of its EPMO, to the WHO. Also in 2016, after the Ebola and Zika crises, the WHO's 194 member countries voted to create an emergency response function.
If we tried to make improvements without benchmark data, we wouldn't know if things were getting better or worse.
How have you gone about implementing the COE?
In all seven organizations where I've created EPMOs, the most important thing is having sustained executive sponsorship. So, I first had to gain the executive leadership's trust and support. In my first two months, I had 37 meetings with the WHO's top executives. Second, I asked the executives to identify key project management leaders across the organization. We identified about 40 people to help implement the COE. Finally, I conducted an assessment to uncover both existing, successful practices that could be replicated and opportunities for improvements. If we tried to make improvements without benchmark data, we wouldn't know if things were getting better or worse.
How did you conduct that assessment?
Members of the PMI Global Executive Council, including the Gates Foundation, have exclusive access to a comprehensive assessment tool that looks at current capabilities and past successes. So you can see if there's a gap between what you believe your capabilities are and what your actual successes have been. It's primarily a self-assessment—which we believe is the best cultural way to approach an assessment in a large, complex international organization like the WHO. Over eight months, our project management leaders assessed themselves rather than having a consultant look over their shoulders.
What did you discover?
We were able to look across the WHO organization at all the teams—mental health, polio, malaria, etc.—and compare them. The second big benefit was the external comparison against the world's leading practitioners, which are the members of the PMI Global Executive Council. The external benchmark showed some organizations have practices that are ahead of where the WHO is today, and that represents an opportunity for improvement. But inside the WHO, we found that some departments have extremely good practices that would match the best in the world. So this gives us an opportunity to learn from those departments and share their practices across the organization in knowledge-transfer meetings.
Moving forward, what's the plan of action?
We'll incorporate these best practices into an overarching WHO project management methodology that will be highly flexible and scalable, while providing a consistent set of tools and a way for the executive leadership to better understand progress across projects. To share our project management expertise across the organization, we'll also establish an active community of practice that welcomes people and the exchange of ideas. And another focus area will be portfolio management: making sure we're doing the right projects, prioritizing them and sequencing them.
What was the project management culture you encountered at the WHO?
With so many member countries, there are multiple cultures. And since the organization was started in 1948, there's a long history and many legacy processes. Also, the WHO has expertise in medical practices and governmental processes, not necessarily project management. Medical doctors sometimes assume that project management is a soft skill—something simple that anyone can easily learn. Initially, they might not appreciate all that's involved in it.
How have you addressed those challenges?
When you come into an organization to establish a COE or EPMO, you have to have cultural and organizational sensitivity. What worked at your last place won't necessarily work at your current place, even within the same industry. Your solutions have to be tailored to the organization's particular culture and needs. Also, when it comes to different cultures and geographic distances within an organization, it's important to take the time, especially the first time, to meet people face to face. Making that human connection is still incredibly important. PM
What's one skill every project manager should have?
Leadership—the ability to bring a team together to build a plan and execute it.
What's the best professional advice you ever received?
My father was fond of saying, “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a minute to destroy one.” Without honesty, integrity and trust, everything else is irrelevant.
What's a favorite leisure activity?
I love cars. I now drive a BMW i8 hybrid electric sports car. It's as fast as my Corvette was, and I've gotten as many as 134 miles per gallon.