Establishing an effective PM culture


JUST DO IT…possibly the three most dangerous words for project management. How can three words, popularized by Nike Corporation's ad campaign throughout the 1990s, be so wrong for organizations implementing projects? Easy! Organizations are spending billions of dollars “just doing it” to the wrong things at the wrong time and in the wrong way. More often than not, organizations jump right into implementation, disregarding or misunderstanding the whole of project management as a practice, which requires undergoing critical steps prior to execution. Having the privilege of working with a vast array of organizations implementing project management, we sometimes see this erroneously disguised as being entrepreneurial. Think of the story of the project leader, who turns to his engineers and says, “you start development while l go find out what the customer really wants.”

Understanding that implementing effective project management requires a framework with well-defined processes, tools, and skills will go a long way to ensure success. Couple that with clearly defined mission, vision and strategy acting as the primary filter for project decision-making, and organizations can move past the “just do it” approach into doing the right projects at the right time in the right way.

As companies strive to maintain and improve their competitiveness, expand their markets, inevitably they will be faced with implementing project management. This comes in many different shapes and sizes depending on the nature of the business and maturity level of the organization.

Some organizations aspire to set-up effective project management offices or simply choose to appoint project leaders/managers to manage cross-functional projects in addition to their existing responsibilities. Whatever the approach or the goal an organization may have, establishing an effective PM culture has proven to be an arduous task to say the least. One thing is certain, in the next ten years successful organizations will be defined by those who have implemented project management well and have established a project management culture to the point where it becomes “muscle memory” like riding a bicycle.

Global markets are rapidly changing while customers are becoming more demanding therefore organizations that respond more effectively will achieve the greatest success. Project management addresses the needs associated with change “or” customer demands most effectively since it can respond to unique customer needs (internal or external) better than traditional management techniques. At its core, project management embraces principles that are designed to account for unique and temporary endeavors to meet customer's expectations. In the end, project management practices are more responsive to meeting customer deliverables because it operates more effectively within the three constraints all organizations must manage, tradeoffs between time, cost, and performance.

Case study example: Working for a large, Fortune 50 healthcare company for over 19 years, I've worked on a many projects run with the “just do it” approach. In our organization, groups or individuals were assigned to work on projects and they immediately start executing, trying to meet a deadline set without regard to the activities and resources required getting there successfully. After many years of trying to execute projects this way and experiencing a variety of results, I decided that there had to be a better solution.

I had recently been assigned the responsibility for improving the management of 40+ small projects, involving the packaging of drug supplies for many different clinical studies being run in Europe. Managing multiple projects without a defined process was like trying to piece together a patchwork quilt without a design in mind. Each customer defined their needs and requirements for drug supplies differently, but these requirements all had to be met by the same organization. It was clear to me that I had to define a project management process, but at that time I didn't know where to begin. I thought the solution was using project management software, so I bought a software package and went to a training class.

The instructor of the class did a good job of training on the basics of using the software, but as I asked questions about fitting my many real-life projects into the software, she couldn't answer them for me. I went back to my job determined to make this software solve my problems, but quickly got stuck in the complexities of the application. In frustration, I went to the back of the software manual looking for the customer support “800” number. I called the customer service rep and asked few questions, but after getting more confused, I pleaded, “isn't there someone who can understand my projects and then teach me how to use this software to manage them? Please help me find a way to use this software in the “real” world!”

That request changed the way I manage projects. I was referred to the Project Consulting Group and started working with Robert Happy and his partners. The first thing Rob did when we met was put aside the software packages and began teaching me the process of project management. I realized I had a lot to learn!

For more than 10 years, we have been involved with implementing project management, partnering with hundreds of organizations and affecting thousands of employees. Large or small, private or public, each of these companies has their own unique needs. During this time, we have come to realize that PM evolves within an organization, and we have been able to identify three distinct stages that companies will go through and their quest for optimizing their resource utilization and achieving truly effective project management. It appears that these stages are part of a natural evolving process that cannot be transcended but only accelerated. It can be compared to the “crawl, walk, run” analogy of human development. As with humans, we have to learn to crawl before we walk and walk before we run. Although there are exceptions, most organizations will go through a similar development process when trying to establish an effective PM culture. Organizations can benefit a great deal from “shared” experiences to accelerate this development, and become effective more rapidly.

A typical situation we encounter goes something like this: organizations start out with an ambitious entrepreneurial spirit and focus on getting things done—implementation. Little time is spent on initiating, planning, controlling, and closing of projects while all efforts focus on “just do it.” For a while this may work due to the limited number of projects and people involved. Eventually a critical mass of projects is reached and project challenges begin to jeopardize the success of the organization. Challenges begin to appear in four different varieties that we will refer to as the “Big 4” as follows:

  1. Cost overruns
  2. Time overruns
  3. Customer dissatisfaction
  4. Staff turnover/low morale

Case study example: In working on new product development projects, the deadline was always the immovable constraint. Being first to market meant a market share that could “make or break” a product's success in the marketplace. As a result, project teams would stretch their people resources to the max, trying to fit all their activities into the timeline the deadline allowed. We lost a lot of good people that way and also ended up continuing to “tweak” or develop the product once it was on the market. One example of this was the process improvements to reduce manufacturing or support costs had to be made after the product was introduced, instead of Concepts and/or Tools (MSP) being planned into the product development process.

Once an organization understands these problems exist, many of which caused by poor or nonexistent project management practice, they begin to take steps to deal with these problems. The development process that organizations move through as they try to solve these critical issues can be broken down into the following distinct stages:

• Stage 1—Recognition

• Stage 2—Acceptance

• Stage 3—Effectiveness

Each one of these stages represent, in general terms, the aggregate of our shared consulting experiences over the past 10 years and describe the commonalties that were identified from one organization to another. Each organization is unique and therefore must be treated that way. We have found that we can map an organization's effort to implement effective project management to one of these stages. As a result organizations can identify and accelerate an appropriate approach for implementing the right solutions to support their respective efforts in achieving their desired results.

Stage 1—Recognition

Recognition is the stage in which an organization realizes that project management is an issue and they need to take action. This stage is typically initiated by a single person or small group in an organization and is typically not recognized as being a key strategic initiative by executive management. Project management is the “accidental profession,” an assignment given to a department member who is viewed as a department expert. For these reasons, there is no real commitment or long lasting solutions implemented. Usually a “band-aid” approach is taken by applying two days of PM training and perhaps purchasing MS Project for the desktop. No lasting results are usually obtained and key challenges still persist.

Stage 1: Symptoms (Moving Beyond “Just Do It”

• Critical Mass of Projects Is Reached and the “Big 4” Begin to Occur in Part or in All:

  1. Cost Overruns Identified As Significant
  2. Schedule Overruns Identified As Significant
  3. Customer Complaints/Dissatisfaction Increase
  4. Employee Conflict, Stress, Turnover occurs

Stage 1: Typical Solutions

• Band-Aid Approach

• Purchase Scheduling Tool—MSP and put on Desktop

• Send Some People to PM Concepts and/or Tools (MSP) Training

• “Hit and Run” Solutions.

Stage 1: Typical Results

• Short-Term Feeling That Something Is Being Accomplished

• Islands of PM Approaches Created

• Non-Integrated—Disparate Data and Processes Created

• Some “Elitist” PM's Rise—Problems Still Persist

• No Committed Funding for PM.

Case study example: What I described earlier was definitely the Recognition phase of implementing a project management practice. The clinical drug supply group was unable to meet deadlines and had no way to prioritize projects. They also could not plan their resources for future projects. Because of these problems, their customers were complaining that they were not able to complete clinical studies on time. The vice president in charge of drug development recognized that something needed to be done to improve the delivery of drug supplies, and I was assigned to “fix it.” With 13 years of experience across many areas of product development, I thought I was well equipped to tackle the challenge.

I recognized that a consistent approach was needed to obtain visibility to all the projects, but did not recognize that this was more of a project management process issue. I had never thought of project management as a defined process or methodology, or, that this same process could be applied to all different types of projects. I thought that by collecting all the projects into one software application, I could solve the management problems. I was able to enter all the projects into the software, but when I discovered I needed 27 Ule Johnannsens (one of the drug supply center's employees) in the month of September to meet all the deadlines requested, I knew right away that the software wasn't going to be the answer to all our problems!

Stage 2—Acceptance

Acceptance is the stage an organization goes through when they accept the commitment of investing in expanded project management solutions beyond a “hit and run” approach. Experiences from Stage 1 gain some visibility and attention from higher levels of management. The organization begins to see that a process for managing projects is needed. Solutions include looking at process and tools together. However, there is still no funding dedicated to full-time internal resources to support project management practice. As a result some benefits are obtained, but there are still major inconsistencies existing between departments.

Stage 2: Symptoms (Moving Past the “Band Aid” Toward Lasting Result)

• Problems Persist with Projects and Teams

• Disparate Approaches, Tools and Processes Causing Inefficiencies

• Need for Standard Process and Tools Accepted

• Acceptance of PM as an Organizational Practice—Executive Sponsorship Obtained

Stage 2: Typical Solutions

• Identify Internal PM Champion(s) To Dedicate Some Time to Implementing Standard PM Process and Tools (PM Solution).

• Customized Project Management Solution Defined to Meet Business Requirements

• Implemented With Focus—the “crawl to walk “ stage

Stage 2: Typical Results

• Sense of Accomplishment Realized

• Some PM Benefit Attained—Initial Progress on Addressing “Big 4” Problems

• Visibility Created for Projects

• Not Complete Integration—Islands Still Exist

• Some Push Back—No Reward Structure to Support Project Efforts

Case study example: We implemented a project management process to improve delivery of clinical drug supplies, we realized that improving one piece of the clinical study process (i.e., drug supplies) did not have a significant effect on the entire clinical study process. This was just one deliverable in a much larger project.

With the drug supply process, we had created visibility of all the projects and learned the entire process to manage them, most importantly starting with planning and prioritizing projects to meet customer deadlines before starting to execute, control, and close them. Initial success, I was motivated to tackle the larger, clinical study project. I jumped in with both feet and tried to bring a project management process to a group of 12 clinical project managers.

What I encountered was resistance. This group was largely satisfied with using an individual approach to managing their projects. Each project was distinct, supporting different products and the outcome of each project did not impact the other projects. The experience level of the project managers was varied, and though they carried the title of project manager, many of them operated more as coordinators of tasks or activities. Also, in my enthusiasm to implement a project management process I created a very detailed process. Combining this with the lack of interest and a lack of project management experience, it was a sure bet to fail.

The project managers also viewed the implementation as management's way to micromanage what they were doing. As we struggled to implement the process, I also recognized that my upper management did not know how to best utilize the information that we were generating. There was a lack of appreciation for the benefits that implementing a project management process would generate and the upper management interest and support also waned. In the end, we were only partially successful in implementing a consistent process with only some of the project managers using the process effectively.

Stage 3—Effectiveness

Organizations fund internal resources to establish and maintain a common methodology (processes, tools, skills) to support the overall mission, vision and strategy of the organization. Top management become sponsors for the project management process and successful project managers are recognized as project management professionals within their organization.

Stage 3: Symptoms (Moving to an Effective PM Organization)

• Problems Still Exist but Subsiding Enough to Realize ROI

• Discipline Not “Muscle Memory” yet but Starting to Be Accepted

• PM for Everyone—WIIFM Identified for All Levels of the Organization.

Stage 3: Typical Solutions

• Funding Approved for Ongoing PM (PMO, PM Practice, Center for Excellence)

• Standards, Process, Tools Established & Documented

• Accessible to All—the “Go To” Place

• Roles Defined—Accountability, Responsibility, Authority Clear at all Levels

• Organization Wide Focus—move from “walk to run.”

Stage 3: Typical Results

• ROI Realized from PM—All of the “Big 4”

• Organizational Acceptance—Inside Out and Outside In

• “Muscle Memory” Created—PM in Automatic Transmission.

Case study example: Having had two years of experience implementing this process for clinical study projects supporting many different products for my company, I moved into a group focused on the development of one drug. I took on the responsibility for managing the entire drug development program for that drug. This was an opportunity to implement the process of project management to a much larger scope, more complex project involving many more functional groups across the corporation.

I took the experiences I had had in the previous organization and tried to implement what I had learned from our successes and failures. First, I focused on getting the support and buy-in from my director for implementing a new process. This was a challenge initially as my director was very experienced in drug development and had a good understanding of all the critical activities for a successful drug development program. He didn't really see the need for a new process, but he respected my abilities and was willing to give me the chance to try a new approach. It was very helpful to have the experience of the Project Consulting Group to draw on to explain how this process could impact the drug development process. My director saw it as a good process to teach me all the aspects of drug development that I was unfamiliar with, as this was my first experience with managing a project with this large of a scope.

Next, I met with the team members to get their support. I explained that I wanted to try a team approach to planning the project to assure that each of their activities were identified and planned for. As I was new to leading the project, I also said that I could better support the needs of the individual functions if we had an integrated plan that we all understood and agreed to. The team was eager to try the approach, and Rob and his team coached our team through the process.

As we moved through the process, we inserted small segments of training to teach each of the project management concepts along the way. This was an effective way to teach concepts and then apply them in real life. Team members could see an immediate value to the application of the concept.

In the end, the team had a common understanding of the project. We knew the critical path to complete the project (file the application for the drug with the FDA) and also as a team agreed on what the top risks were to the project, and how we were going to manage those risks going forward. We had a communication plan on how we would manage the project going forward and two years later, are still successfully managing this integrated plan.

From our shared experiences we have developed an Effective PM approach designed to accelerate the implementation of project management. Effective PM directly impacts an organization's bottom line more rapidly than any other approach. It is based on the following best practices:

1. Implement in stages—“Crawl, Walk, Run.”

Case study example: Starting with a very complex system is very difficult to manage with team members that are new to the process and they quickly lose motivation. I learned from my initial attempts with the clinical project managers that we needed to start out simple and get some success with managing a simple plan. With that success we could add additional detail and get benefits from managing down to that detail.

2. People and process first, tools second.

Case study example: I think this is the most important thing I learned in implementing an effective process. Obtaining buy-in from the team members and all other project stakeholders is the key to a successful project. If teams don't have a good understanding of the process, they can't define an effective project plan, and no software can take an ineffective plan and make it an effective one.

Getting everyone involved was also a strong motivating factor for the project. Our team developed a strong synergy and sense of a common purpose and agreed on the process up front. It was also a team-building experience that enabled us to work more effectively together.

3. Be inclusive at all levels of the organization—Need executive level support in conjunction with staff at all levels.

Case study example: At various points through out all the projects I've worked on with this process, I have invited upper management participation in the process. I have asked them take part in planning meetings or come to meetings as observers, and have made management presentations on project deliverables and risks. It is especially important to include the team member's functional management as well as project's executive management. I use top-level views of the project plan to report and focus on the key risks, issues and milestones of the project.

4. Treat implementing effective PM as a project.

Case study example: The success of this drug development project has been the best advertisement for an effective project management process. It gained the interest and support of the management team of a process improvement initiative looking for best practices within the organization. They have developed a project plan to implement this same process throughout the entire drug development organization. Again, we are using the crawl, walk, run approach with the rollout of the plan starting with implementing the process in two additional drug development projects and eventually covering 30+ projects over a specific period.

5. Make it customizable/flexible.

Case study example: I think the important thing here to recognize is that each project is unique and while certain activities may be consistent across projects, there are always risks, constraints or other factors that need to be considered when developing and managing each project plan. Agreeing on common top-level deliverables helps to communicate project status consistently to upper management across projects, but allowing for flexibility in further levels of detail gives project teams the means to manage the unique aspects of the project and also the ability to addresses varying levels of experience of the different team members.

6. Know your organization's mission, vision and strategy.

Case study example: A common understanding of our mission, vision and strategy helps to assure that the projects with the highest value to the organization are the ones being funded. For drug development, focusing our investment within strategic business franchises helped to identify the projects that had the highest return on investment. A good project management process is only good if it's being applied to the right projects.

7. Conduct interviews—Gather input from all stakeholders.

Case study example: I found with experience that gathering input throughout the project management process was essential to gain, and more importantly to maintain, the buy-in of all stakeholders. Also, as projects move through various stages of completion, stakeholder needs change and the process needs to accommodate those changes. Gathering input either from small group discussions or one-on-one meetings should be an ongoing activity for the project manager and the team members.

8. Present for feedback and make it an iterative process.

Case study example: This goes hand-in-hand with the previous best practice. Feedback from stakeholders and input of team members needs to be evaluated and if needed, incorporated into the project plan to adjust to the changing needs of the project. One critical process however, is assuring that the project scope is being managed and, as adjustments to the plan are made, the changes are still within the scope of the project. This helps to minimize “scope creep” and keeps the project on track.

9. Eliminate burdensome processes and tools and focus on benefits.

Case study example: As I discussed earlier, one important learning experience I had was to keep process and tools simple especially early on in implementation. If teams gain early success with the process and the use of the tools, they will focus on the benefits. With experience gained, they will be more eager to add complexity and take more ownership of the process.

10. Recognize successful project mangers within an organization.

Case study example: As projects complete key deliverables or come to a close within the project scope and budget, the project manager responsible should be recognized by both the project team and the management organization. In my experience, the project managers that gain the most recognition and visibility are those always “saving the day” with firefighting tactics and heroics, while those that avoid the need for firefighting by planning and controlling their projects don't receive recognition. It is essential that top management gain an understanding of project management practices and key project metrics to better identify and reward project managers that are successful.

11. Develop a career development ladder to encourage professional top stay in the project management role.

Case study example: First, recognize that project management is a profession that can transfer between functions and across organizations. Create a career ladder where project management talent can be recognized and promoted to positions of increasing responsibility as successful project managers gain experience.

12. Promote a positive perception—Communicate success/benefits at all levels.

Case study example: Invite managers or members of other projects to participate in team meetings and planning sessions from teams that are operating successfully. When new teams are forming, invite members from more experienced teams to assist with a team kick-off meeting to help set the stage or share their enthusiasm for the process. Use management update presentations as an opportunity to communicate time or cost savings gained through the project management process. Recognize and reward team members when key deliverables are accomplished.

13. Understand it is a continuous improvement process.

Case study example: Don't expect that everything will be right from the start of the process. Learn from mistakes and make adjustments as you go along. With time and practice the process will become easier to manage and the benefits will increase.

14. Make it non elitist—Open to all.

Case study example: Make sure that opportunities to learn the process are available and that people are aware of where to get support and training. Even if a person's career goal is not focused on the project management profession, project management practices and processes can enhance any professional career development plan. Team members should be encouraged to obtain further training in both processes and tools.

15. Strive to create “muscle memory—Like riding a bike.”

Case study example: Recently, I held a planning session focusing on the unique requirements for developing a drug in Japan. As the cultural and language barriers are challenging when a team made up of Americans, Europeans, and Japanese, we found that using our common process was an effective way to communicate across those barriers. As some of our more experienced team members were present, they automatically started collecting information using the process we had incorporated. It was very rewarding to see how these members took on their roles in the process, and the impact it had on getting newer members involved.

16. Strive for cultural consistency—Work toward integrated solutions.

Case study example: As we develop teams using the same process, it has become easier to communicate project status, to focus resources and to support project managers using common tools. When I was initially trying to implement the process with my team I had to teach the process, provide support for using the tools, and manage the project. With an integrated solution, the teaching and support can be shared across teams so that the project mangers can focus on their individual projects. Functional areas whose members participate in product development teams gain from a common approach and are better able to respond to requirements. Even the terms and the language become consistent, which improves communication and acceptance.

In conclusion, we realize that implementing project management requires the application of good project management. Over time we have been applying and cultivating the most current project management concepts, training techniques and state of the art technology. This has lead to a very efficient and mature approach, applying the best practices described above, which can accelerate the evolution that an organization goes through to establish a project management culture.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA



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