Project Management Institute

Best practices

big projects succeed in a small town

Model of the Parry Sound Performing Arts Center and the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame

Model of the Parry Sound Performing Arts Center and the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame.

Big Projects Succeed in a Small Town

by Rob Mens and Howyl Nelson

SOCIETY IS CHANGING RAPIDLY, not only in the business world but also in the government environment. Provincial downloading, cutbacks, restructuring, increasing customer demands, changes in technology, and globalization are placing more and more pressure on municipal governments.

In response to the challenges of a changing environment and changing community expectations, the new mayor and town council of Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada, initiated 44 projects in a one-year span. The municipality well understood that in an increasingly competitive environment it must continually measure itself against the industry's “best practices.”

With numerous projects under way, how could Parry Sound effectively focus project activity and resources on cross-functional breakthrough and strategic projects? Project management is rapidly being recognized as the mechanism to glue all the initiatives together and make things happen.

As a case study of project management in a municipal environment, let's examine Parry Sound's approach to planning and managing multiple project needs through an innovative quality management mechanism: project portfolio management.

The Community Need for Integrated Development. The town of Parry Sound (population 6,500), the major commerce center of Northeastern Georgian Bay, serves a permanent population of 20,000 Bay-area residents. The town's scenic location on Georgian Bay and its attractive natural harbor have contributed to its success as a tourist destination, with visitors flocking in during the vacation season to occupy some 12,000 holiday cottages in the area. Notwithstanding its success with tourism, there was a need to strengthen the town's economic base and provide additional quality year-round employment opportunities for its citizens.

In December 1997, the newly elected town council decided that carefully planned economic development and business growth would enable Parry Sound to influence its future and effectively manage its growth. The Business Development Plan, prepared by economic development professionals and adopted in August 1998, recommended the following mission:

Rob Mens is chief administrative officer of the town of Parry Sound, Ont., Canada. He directed development and implementation of the town's business development plan and implementation of a comprehensive performance maintenance system.

Howyi Nelson is project coordinator for the Parry Sound Performing Arts Center and the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame.

To diversify Parry Sound's economic base by building the economic capacity of the community and aggressively promoting the Town as a diversified vibrant center which recognizes and embraces small town qualities, protects the natural environment, and promotes regional partnerships and cooperation.

To achieve the objectives of community economic development and organizational efficiency, a project selection process was undertaken that was inextricably linked with the overall mission as set out by the business development plan. The process of project selection continues to be guided, controlled, and facilitated by these goals, objectives, and developmental targets.

In 1998 the town council, assisted by town staff, identified more than 100 projects—from economic development and planning, environmental services, health, social, and family services, culture, parks and recreation to human resource management and finance. The initiatives range from a one-man project to one involving a number of people and an $8.37 million budget.

The Challenge: How to Successfully Manage Multiple Projects. Projects are not an end unto themselves; rather they are a means to attain specific goals and results. The town soon realized that it was not sufficient to merely identify individual projects and determine their relative feasibility. Of equal importance and necessity was the overall project coordination, or project portfolio management, to achieve the community's desired outcomes.

One question was how to balance the triple-constraint issues of scope, cost, and time with other project imperatives such as quality, risk, and stakeholder satisfaction. There was a clear need for a systematic, integrated approach to improving the project portfolio performance.

The town initiated project prioritization in the project portfolio management process. Based on staff recommendations and a consultation process, the council identified all projects as high, medium, or low priority. The high-priority projects were further ranked using a four-star system: four stars for urgent projects, three for high priority; two for medium, and one star for low priority. The exercise determined the best-balanced portfolio of projects so that Parry Sound could achieve its economic development mission and associated goals.

Enforcing the Process. Planning and managing multiple projects need not involve spending more money, reinventing the wheel, or starting slow on every project. Being able to successfully handle multiple projects called for more than a haphazard “juggling” approach. To effectively control dozens of projects of varying size and complexity required proper human resource management, stakeholder management, effective communication, and sequencing of activities.

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Furthermore, the elected officials, project managers, and team members realized that the only way the objectives could be accomplished in a small municipality would be through concerted attention to the issues and steps involved in the planning and monitoring of projects. With this realization came the need for a policy document that explained project management and the process rationale to the council, project stakeholders and team leaders, and town team members.

The town council adopted the Comprehensive Project Management Policy for the Corporation of the Town of Parry Sound in June 1999. The document made a simple, easy-to-follow presentation of project management methods available in existing literature and was completed with techniques tailored to the town.

To ensure a common understanding of the project management process, all town management staff, council members, and the town business development team completed a three-day project management training program.

The first step was to create a project management process. Enforcing that process was more difficult. People are the backbone of projects and people were the town's most important resource. As people were linked to the project life cycle, we needed to communicate to them, motivate and inspire them. Ultimately project management tools were used to ensure successful project development.

Using Basic PM Tool and Techniques. Parry Sound understood that implementation of project management capabilities would take more than just bringing in management tools. As project guidelines to live by, the town project teams embraced the philosophies of Simplicity Is Strength; Standardization Provides Flexibility; Consistency Equals Success.

No cutting-edge project management tools were adopted. Most were basic project management techniques, since selling a simple idea is easier than selling a complex one. The town's experience was that process standardization allowed team leaders and department managers to focus on the big picture and on important issues. Consistently using simple and standard project management tools brought project success and, ultimately, municipality and community success.

Specifically, two tools were widely used by the town: project Statement of Work (SOW) and Activity Task Trackers. The SOW was a set of interlocking concepts used in a dynamic fashion to elaborate a well-designed, objectively described, and valuable project. Developing a SOW at the project initiation stage helped team members focus on the original intent of the undertaking and not lose direction as the project developed.

In the process of managing the numerous projects, town staff also found it necessary and helpful to have some mechanism to provide information determining when certain things had been achieved, or should have been. Reflecting the idea of a tracking system and measurement of achievement, an Activity Task Tracker template, presented in a table or matrix, was used to communicate with all project stakeholders regarding the status of key project deliverables.

With numerous projects under way, how could Parry Sound effectively focus project activity and resources on cross-functional breakthrough and strategic projects?

The effort of putting a task tracker together made it easier to see how different elements fit together in a project, how work overlapped, and how one task might interfere with another when it was not completed on time. With various projects “on the go,” the simple table with rows and columns became a useful and instrumental tool in the town's project portfolio management process.

With the assistance from these simple tools, the town took a process-driven, semiautomatic approach. It encouraged proactive planning, controlling, and reporting of projects. The participants in turn improved their ability to learn and control projects by completing essential information into meaningful management reports from which to make sound and informed decisions.

In the project portfolio management process, one critical component was effective communication about the projects with all the parties concerned—government agencies, mayor and council, project team members, the resource people, the public. Project success and the achievement of organizational goals largely depended on the project teams' ability to ensure that people were aware of project objectives, the correct way in which the optimum contribution could be made, and the extent of their contribution to the overall success of the organization.

The Parry Sound Performing Arts Center and Bobby Orr Hall of Fame/Entertainment Center project currently under way is a good example of how project management process and diverse project management tools are adopted to ensure smooth project progress.

Effective communication plays an important part in keeping the 40 diverse partners together and making a community dream come true in less than three years. Valued at $8.37 million, the proposed complex consists of a 500-seat acoustically perfect concert hall and an interactive exhibition hall intended to honor Parry Sound's most famous citizen, Bobby Orr, through the display his hockey-career memorabilia.

As early as the performing arts center and hall of fame project planning and initiation stage, the town recognized that it could not succeed on its own. “Partnering” was another key project management tool for the multimillion-dollar initiative. With environmental problems complicating the process, simple and yet consistent communication, proactive project control, and risk management have all played an important role in putting together, logically and strategically, the numerous elements to make the project a success at its grand opening, which is anticipated in June 2001.

INDIVIDUAL PROJECT MANAGEMENT and systematic project portfolio management have the capability to take a leading role in facilitating and enabling change in the municipal environment. By employing proactive and effective project (portfolio) management tools in large and small projects, the town of Parry Sound positions itself for competitive advantages in the changing world. ■

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.

PM Network December 2000

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