Developing a project management best practice
Abudi Consulting Group, LLC
Executives are increasingly interested in developing a formalized best practice around project management within their organizations. Some of this interest stems from the economy and the need to do more with less—reduced timelines to get a product and/or service to market to increase revenue, smaller budgets to get projects completed, and reduced project management staff due to layoffs and/or restructuring. However, exactly what a “best practice” means is different from organization to organization and, in many situations, within the organization, the definition of a “best practice” differs from department to department or business unit to business unit. Many organizations are unsure about how to go about defining what a “best practice” means for their organization as a whole and how to effectively go about developing a best practice that works. This paper will focus on the importance of developing a project management mindset—and hence a best practice—within an organization, including the steps necessary to reaching the end goal and how to socialize the initiative to get buy-in from key players within the organization to ensure the initiative is a successful one.
First, let’s define a “best practice.”
- “A best practice is an optimal way currently recognized by industry to achieve a stated goal or objective.” (PMI, 2003, P. 171).
- “A best practice is an idea that asserts that there is a technique, method, or process—through research and application—that is more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, or process.” (Best Practice, 2011)
- “A best practice is a specific method that improves the performance of a team or an organization, and can be replicated or adapted elsewhere. Best practices often take the form of guidelines, principles, or ideas that are endorsed by a person or governing body that attests to the viability of the best practice.” (Abudi & Toropov, (in press, Chapter 1)
No best practice is best for every organization, and every situation will change as individuals find better ways to reach the end result (Businessdictionary.com); therefore, best practices cannot be “static” or remain status quo, they must be regularly evaluated and refined as the organization changes. Organizations define the term “best practice” differently. For some, best practice refers to a consistent way of doing something, for example, developing the project schedule. For others, best practice is simply ensuring that everyone in the project management function uses the same templates and software. For yet other organizations, it means implementing a project management office (PMO) that functions as a governing body for all projects corporation wide. Most organizations have some best practices or processes already in place; they just don’t know it because they were not developed by someone high up in the organization and rolled out through the organization—it is more informal. Project managers have their own ways of doing things, even if those methods are not formal within the organization; otherwise, they couldn’t get the work done! This “way of doing things” can be considered a best practice and should be your basis for establishing an organization-wide best practice.
When organizations look at developing a best practice around the project management function, they usually mean one or more of the following:
- Standardized processes
- Standardized tools and templates
- Standardized software
- Development of competencies
- Assessment of skills
- Development of a process for resource planning/allocation
- Development of a database to track skills and competencies of individuals
- Development of career paths
- Development of strategic training/education programs
- Formalized mentoring and coaching plans
- Requirement and support for industry certification (CAPM® , PMP®, PgMP®)
- Development and rollout of a PMO function
- Development of a portal/knowledge base for information sharing
Organizations want to establish best practices to meet many needs, including:
- Effective management of project resources
- Alignment of projects to the strategic goals of the organization
- Improved tracking and reporting on project status
- Reductions in the time and money spent on ensuring projects are brought to a successful conclusion
- To improve the selection of the right project at the right time
The continued success of organizations in an ever-changing, competitive global marketplace requires that they have formalized their project management function and have found improved ways of accomplishing their strategic goals. With a best practice in place, organizations are better able to make decisions on the types of projects to undertake in any given time period.
For many organizations, it is not out of the ordinary to slash projects to save budget monies and even some projects that are considered strategic in helping the organization move forward. This may be because they don’t have the resources available or just can’t figure out how to get one more thing accomplished given the current budget available. By establishing some best practices around how projects are managed, those in charge of the project management function can do a better job of showing the value of what they do within the organization, thereby reducing the changes of losing strategic projects to the axe and increasing the chances of securing budget monies. This paper will provide an overview of a five-step process for developing a project management best practice. There are many more details that go into such an initiative; however, the information provided here enables you to understand the basics of developing a project management best practice. The main focus of this paper will be on the individual role component—project manager, team lead, project scheduler—but we’ll briefly cover the importance of understanding how projects are currently done within the organization. A full best practice initiative considers the organization as a whole and the individual who is involved in managing projects—from the program manager level, down to the individual contributor roles, through to how the project team functions and meets its goals.
A Five-Step Approach
The following five-step approach (Exhibit 1) is one way to move forward with the development of a project management best practice within an organization. In this case, focusing on the individual component of the initiative:
Exhibit 1: Five-Step Approach to Developing a Project Management Best Practice
Each of these steps will be discussed in further detail later in this paper to demonstrate one method of moving forward in developing a project management best practice within an organization. Throughout each of these steps, the key is frequent communication throughout the organization. Share your knowledge and your long-term goals for the project management function; but, most of all, listen and learn from others. You need them to be successful in implementing your goals of establishing a project management best practice, and, undoubtedly, they will have valuable information!
But, First…Get the Organization in the Loop
Before getting started, the organization needs to be prepared for the change that is about to occur—you need to socialize the initiative of developing a project management best practice. Most important is communicating the value to the organization of establishing a project management best practice, basically, what’s in it for the organization? The organization’s staff needs to understand the direction the organization is heading in and why. Why do standards need to be put in place? What are the benefits to the organization? What are the benefits to the project management function? Many individuals may believe that things are going just fine as they are and that nothing needs to change. Remember also that people are resistant to change. You need to develop a team of champions to help you roll out such an initiative. Buy-in is required from all levels of the organization, not just from the top. Get those individuals who are using standardized processes to help in promoting the benefits and value to the organization and individuals in establishing standards around the project management function. Without significant buy-in throughout the organization it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get a best practice off the ground.
You will first need executive-level support for developing a common project management best practice within the organization. You want the executive level to recognize the need for common processes in project management and support the initiative through its actions and words. Once you have executive-level support, share the initiative with the rest of the organization.
There are multiple ways to educate and share with the organization, including: executive overviews (for the senior members of the organization); “lunch and learn” sessions, breakfast meetings, informal water cooler conversations to create a “buzz” in the office, individual and small group discussions, and through an internal newsletter or via an intranet site. As a best practice for moving forward with establishing a project management best practice, provide access to a portal where project management professionals and others can receive and share information.
Then… Understand How Project Management Works Now in the Organization
In order to understand how the project management function currently works within the organization, there are a few questions you can ask of project managers, project team members, business unit managers, and other leaders and managers within the organization through a survey. These questions include, but are not limited to:
- How are individuals assigned to project teams?
- What methodology, if any, is followed by the project teams?
- How are project managers/project leads selected?
- At what point in the project is the project manager brought on board (to strategize, initiate planning stages before the budget is set, once the project is decided upon, etc.)?
- How are deadlines set on the project (top down, by project sponsor, by the project manager and the team)?
- How is the project budget set?
- Do project managers manage outside contractors?
- How accurately does the project team: estimate costs, estimate schedules, meet milestones, update on status, capture lessons learned, etc.?
- How do you measure the success of projects?
Follow up with small group or one-on-one interviews to gather further data and obtain additional details based on survey responses. Look at a variety of past projects: those with varied timelines for completion, various budgets, small- to large-size teams, department only, and through to organization-wide strategic projects. You also want to find out:
- How projects are completed: Does the organization rely on heroics to ensure project success?
- Are certain projects completed only after a number of attempts?
- Are certain projects less troublesome than others?
- How does the organization get newly hired project management staff up to speed? Is there a formal mentoring program?
Your goal is to get a clear picture of the project management function within the organization, whether it is informal or formal. The more you understand how projects get done, the better you are able to develop processes and a best practice that work for that particular organization by using the informal processes and best practices already in place as your starting points.
When assessing the project management function within the organization, assess the support that the project management function receives—processes and procedures in place (again, even informal ones count), access to necessary information to accomplish project goals, opportunities for training, a clearly defined vision for how projects are managed, an open culture, and institutionalization of project management throughout the organization. (Frame, 1999, pp 182-183) You can better measure improvements and the impact on the business once a project management best practice has been established if you baseline it first. This data gathering enables you to create your baseline; from here, determine where you want to go and a path to getting there. This doesn’t happen overnight. This baseline provides you with the information necessary for a business impact and ROI study of your initiative. Now, let’s look at the five-step process for focusing on the individuals within the organization—those who are involved in managing projects either in their formal role within the organization or as a part of their regular jobs.
Project Management Roles and Competencies
Consider which project management roles exist within your organization. Are the roles formal or informal? If no roles exist, what is needed (e.g., project lead, project manager, project scheduler, team lead). Is certification required? Make your decision on the roles needed based on a number of factors, including: types of projects, strategic goals, current project management functions within the organization, the skills and expertise needed on projects, competition’s organizational structure, and the long-term strategic goals of the organization.
You will need to develop the competencies specific to each role and assess against those competencies. Competencies should include both technical competencies (the nine Knowledge Areas in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge [PMBOK® Guide]) and management/leadership competencies (team skills, negotiation skills, conflict management, communication). Remember that technical project management skills alone are not sufficient for success in project management. Management/leadership skills are also needed, especially given the high interaction the project management function has with internal and external clients.
For each skill identified for the various roles, what level of competency is required? For example, let’s assume you have a project scheduler role within the organization. This role requires individuals to be experts in scheduling, Microsoft® Project, and resource allocation; however, they only need to have a basic knowledge of how to create the work breakdown structure, because that job is the responsibility of a team lead role within the organization. The team lead role must be someone proficient in creating work breakdown structures. Using that example, you will want to assess the individuals against the required competencies. You may assess the team lead against his or her capabilities in using Microsoft® Project and scheduling techniques, but you would not expect or require the team leads to be experts in these areas. For all roles, it is likely that high competence levels are required in influencing and communication skills. You would want to assess individuals, regardless of their roles, in how effectively they can influence and communicate with others.
Assess Staff Against Those Competencies
There are a variety of methods used to assess skills and the choice of how to assess skills should be based on what works best for your particular organization and the рифове of the assessment. Think about the purpose of your assessment of individuals. Is it to?
- Determine strategic training needs
- Determine project management roles within the organization and put individuals into these roles
- Determine skills to assign the right individuals to projects and project teams
- Gain a clearer understanding of the skills of project management staff to fill in the gaps
- To develop career paths for individuals in the project management function
There are many reasons to assess skills within the organization; prior to assessing these skills, you will need to have an understanding of why you are doing so. This is important so that you can effectively communicate why you are assessing, who is being assessed, and what will be done with the results of the assessment.
Assessments can be in the forms of subjective or objective assessments, group and one-on-one interviews, online surveys, and through data gathered from internal resources such as human resources and individual business units. A combination of methods provides organizations with sufficient data to make strategic decisions around the project management function. It is recommended that you begin with a pilot group for the assessment to test the method being used and the usefulness of the data being returned. The ideal pilot group will be comprised of a number of individuals from across the project management functions—from junior to more senior skilled individuals—with a variety of skills and competencies.
Once you have the pilot group assessed and the results tabulated and analyzed, share the information with the individuals who were assessed and with key leaders within the organization. Do a post review with the individuals who were assessed: How did the process work from their perspectives? How comfortable and confident were they about the assessment? How do they believe others in the organization will react to the assessment? What changes would they make? Based on what you have learned, make the changes necessary to roll out the assessment process throughout the organization. If significant changes have been made, you may want to re-involve the pilot group in one more pilot of the assessment before the rollout.
In addition to assessing the skills of the individual project manager, also assess the project teams. Look at the ability of the team to work effectively, the mix of skills on the team, the leadership of the team, and the team’s ability to achieve the desired results (Frame, 1999, pp 158-171).
Develop Strategic Training and Mentoring Plans
Part of your goal should be to develop strategic training and mentoring plans for the project management function. Some training may also be required to meet the short-term goals. For example, if you determine through the assessment that individuals are not highly skilled in identifying and planning for risk and that this is a key component of managing projects in the organization, then you want to ensure that there is a plan in place to improve those skills in as short a timeframe as possible. This plan may include training focused specifically on project risk management, but may also include a mentoring component in which individuals with stronger skills in risk management are paired with individuals who need to improve their skills in this particular area.
Some training may be needed to meet the long-term goals and it will likely be tied to career paths and formal mentoring and coaching programs. Such training programs should be focused on supporting and preparing for certifications (CAPM®, PMP®, PgMP®) or credentials (such as scheduling, risk) and providing individuals with the skills needed to move into roles with more responsibility within the organization (e.g., moving from a project administrator role into a project scheduler role and, at some point, into a project manager or program manager role within the organization). Formal mentoring and coaching programs can be structured to ensure that individuals in the project management function get the support they need to continue to develop their skills and grow within the organization. Formal mentoring and coaching programs also provide senior-level project/program managers with an opportunity to take on leadership roles in getting more junior members of the project management team up to speed and functioning effectively and successfully within the organization.
Regardless of the short- or long-term goals of the training, it is recommended that all training programs include an action-planning component so that individuals can apply what they are learning back to the job, with the support of their managers. Training itself will not improve the skills of individuals; the knowledge gained must be applied in practice if it is going to be effective. (Frame, 1999, pp 62-63) Follow up training with a three-month survey to determine how individuals are applying their newly learned skills and knowledge and what are the enablers and barriers to them continuing to apply those skills. Follow up again in another three months. Ask managers for their input on the training initiative—was it successful? What changes do they see in the project management staff? What else is needed? Remember, this is a continuous process.
Develop a Knowledge Base/Support Portal
A knowledge base/support portal can be a “one-stop location” for all project-related information, along with providing those involved in the projects with a way to support along with each other. Any of the following could be part of the knowledge base/support portal:
- Collaboration/information-sharing forums
- Best practices knowledge base
- Resource library
- Listing of all organizational project resources
- Current project information
- Past (lessons learned) project information
- Strategic plan (future projects)
- A “problem resolution center,” where individuals can get help on issues they are encountering
- Access to tools, templates, job aids, and project management software
- Tracking of project status
- Project schedules and budgets
- Resource allocation; for example, who is deployed on what project and for how long
- Just-in-time learning components (e.g., EVMS formulas, completing a scope statement)
- Certification study group “meeting place”
This becomes a resource for the project management function to help each other with problem-solving issues, sharing best practices, brainstorming, and so forth. Many organizations already have much of the information you would want in such a portal; it is just floating around the organization. All of that knowledge needs to be pulled together into one central location to better support the needs of the project management function. This can be the start of your PMO within the organization.
Continue to Monitor, Assess, and Improve
Your work is not done yet! This is an ongoing process to ensure continuous improvement and keep the project management function growing and moving in the right direction. As with anything, changes will need to occur to meet the needs of the organization. Changes to long-term strategies, mergers, and new product lines will affect the current status of the project management best practice.
Key performance indicators (KPIs) should be determined and developed. KPIs may include time to market, management of budgeted project monies, percentage of contracted resources used on projects, ROI of a strategic project, and so forth. Think about where the project management function is today and where you want it to be at some point in the future (6 months, 1 year, 3 years, etc.)? Determine your KPIs, set the baseline (where are you now?), and determine where you want the KPIs to be in the future. Map out a plan to reach your goal and re-assess it against that baseline to determine progress. If you don’t see sufficient progress, determine the issue, problem-solve, and reset your strategy if necessary to get back on track.
For example, let’s assume that project resources are not well planned or allocated, and, frequently, key projects have a higher percentage of external contracted resources running them than internal resources. Currently, projects that are worth over US$1 million have, on average, 65% of contracted resources in key positions on the project. That is the baseline. The goal is to reduce the number of contracted resources to 50% within 6 months and then to 35% within 1 year, with a 2-year goal of no more than 20% of contracted resources on projects worth over US$1 million. A plan needs to be put in place to move from 65% to 50% in 6 months, 35% in 1 year, and 20% within 2 years. KPIs will differ from organization to organization and may even differ from business unit to business unit within the same organization. Think about what makes sense for your organization—where it is now and where it needs to go. KPIs should be evaluated regularly, possibly as part of a regular annual strategic planning session.
On an annual basis, the following should be done:
- Re-assess project management skill sets: Have improvements in skills been realized based on training and mentoring/coaching plans? Are other skills required due to changes in the business?
- Re-evaluate the competencies for each project management role: Have the needs changed due to changes in the business model or market strategy? Are other competencies required for various project management roles? Is there a new project management role within the organization? Has restructuring or layoffs affected the project management function, thereby requiring additional skills for those remaining?
- Re-evaluate training and mentoring programs: Are the current training and mentoring programs in place still successful? Do they need to be adjusted based on new requirements within the business? Are the current mentors getting a bit worn out and should others be given the opportunity to mentor? Are there new processes or standards that require training? Do the training programs meet the needs of project management staff given the focus on the new skills and knowledge needed to get the job done?
- Re-evaluate project management processes and best practices: Do current processes need updating to meet new business needs? Best practices evolve—what are the updated best practices? What are individuals/teams doing to make their jobs easier? What processes have individuals/teams been using that are not yet reflected organization wide?
- Re-evaluate your KPIs: How are you trending against your KPIs? Do KPIs need to be adjusted based on changes to the business? Do new KPIs need to be determined and a baseline set? Do changes need to be made to how KPIs are being tracked?
It is important to remember that it is highly likely that the organization has some standardized processes and best practices in place. Even if they are informal and not known widely throughout the organization, you want to understand which processes exist, who “owns” them, if they truly represent a best practice and, if so, how they might be incorporated throughout the organization. Communication and getting buy-in are essential for success in developing a project management best practice. Start slowly, testing the waters as you go. Expect that you will have to make adjustments in your plans for developing an organization-wide best practice. Use as much of the current informal processes in place as possible, especially if they are already working effectively and the project management staff is comfortable with them. And, again, this can’t be emphasized enough: Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! If such an initiative is not socialized throughout the organization, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for it to be a success. Measure progress regularly to ensure you are consistently moving in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to make changes and adjustments as needed, and, certainly, as the organization grows, changes will need to be made to continue to ensure effectiveness. Remember: this is not a one-time initiative. Make it part of your regular strategic planning sessions.
Abudi, G., &Toropov, B.(in press). The CIG to best practices for small business. New York, NY: Alpha Books (a member of Penguin Book, Inc.).
Best Practice (2001, June 5) In Wikipedia the free encyclopaedia Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Best_practice
Best Practice (n.d.) Businessdictionary.com Retrieved from http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/best-practice.html
Frame, J.D. (1999). Building project management competence: Building key skills for individuals, teams and organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Project Management Institute (2003) Organizational Project Management Maturity Model Knowledge Foundation (2003), Newtown Square, PA: Author
Project Management Institute (2008) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide®) Newtown Square, PA: author
©2011, Gina Abudi, MBA
Published as part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, Texas, USA
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