Project Management

What is the secret to effective project management?

A new era of collaboration is changing the face of project management.

By Carolyn Boyd, Illustration By Jim Tsinganos

In a world where project management is constantly evolving, Julia Steel, general manager of projects in Telstra’s project management office, has a useful mantra:‘Start less. Finish more.’ Steel, like many other project management professionals, says she has seen too many projects that either aren’t pushed through to the end, or are completed but don’t meet the needs of the business.

“We don’t have to start everything that is a good idea,” Steel explains. “We just need to finish the ones that are the right idea.”

FOCUS ON TARGET OUTCOMES

Steel has worked in the project management field for the last 15 years and says much has changed since the “olden days” of a decade ago.

“It is more complex now,” she says. “Companies used to have their own IT departments and would deliver a lot internally. These days, a lot of it is delivered externally. There’s a lot of partnering going on in projects rather than simply a supplier-customer relationship.”

For those working outside the project management area, it can, at times, seem like a dark art – with talk of methodologies such as Agile, Scrum and Waterfall. But at its heart, says Yvonne Butler, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Project Management, it’s simply about strategy implementation. For many businesses, the problem doesn’t lie in developing the strategy or coming up with new ideas, it’s in implementing them.

Damian Ryan, a project manager for superannuation business Retirement Benefits Fund, agrees with Steel’s sentiment that the original aims of a project can sometimes get lost. “Projects generally start off with a business case that justifies funding for a project, and that justification is really focused on the expected outcomes,” he explains. “But then the project becomes focused on the process, the methodology, the deliverables of the project. Nobody goes back and looks at the business case or remembers what the target outcomes were.

“There’s a real danger that the project ends and the business says, ‘Well, we didn’t really want that’, or ‘We weren’t expecting this’” “There’s a real danger that the project ends and the business says, ‘Well, we didn’t really want that’, or ‘We weren’t expecting this’”

ENGAGE THE LEADERS

In 2013, when the Queensland Police Service undertook its largest organisational overhaul in 25 years, transformational change experts P2E were brought in to help drive the project.

“It was a total restructure, a major significant change through that entire organisation,” says P2E director Todd Hunt. “It was a huge body of work. We spent a lot of time planning and getting it right, unpacking the scope, structuring governance, understanding the stakeholder base and surfacing risks.”

The timing was tight – there were just six months to deliver from the day the restructure was announced. And with widespread public and media scrutiny, the pressure was on to get it right. A huge challenge in such change, says Hunt, is not compromising the day-to-day operations of an organisation.

“It was a very busy period, but it was very successful, too, because we got to work with their best people, some of their smartest people, and these people were amazing in what they were able to achieve.” He adds that in many organisations, it can be a difficult to land the ‘A team’ of leaders and staff to manage and execute projects.

“Half the battle sometimes is to get the executives engaged and on-board because once you have that degree of focused leadership in the organisation at the executive layer, then it pushes down,” Hunt explains.

“People look for advice and guidance from their leaders in the management streams. We saw that firsthand, certainly in Queensland Police. [The restructure] was led by the commissioner through his deputies, through the assistant commissioners and through the executive director layer. They all acted as change champions and they all performed governance roles.”

PROJECT ROLLOUT

But seeing projects through to completion and beyond can be challenging for everyone. “There’s been a sense that often projects sort of finish too soon,” says Ryan. “So the project delivers all these outputs and then just stops. The project team, managers and the business are left to continue and to realise the outcomes. But often they can’t do it or can’t do it well.”

Steel agrees. “There’s a tendency for project managers to be seen as a commodity that is just moved around to the next important thing, from one project onto the next,” she says. “But in doing that, they’ve actually missed the key part of the project, which is the end – making sure that it achieves the outcome.”

Ryan’s team now includes, right from the outset, plans for transitioning the project into the business. Part of the approach is keeping the project manager on for longer than usual – up to three months after project completion – to oversee its rollout into the business. “It’s sort of like a warranty period,” says Ryan.

COMPETING METHODOLOGIES

In recent years, project management has split into two camps. On one side is a movement for more methodology and documentation; at the opposite end, there’s a shift towards more lightweight approaches.

“We certainly have that conflict,” says Ryan. “There is a sense that the methodology we use has come out of the public service and is very much a heavyweight methodology that requires a lot of documentation, a lot of formal meetings.

“People are starting to question the value of a lot of things we do. Are we doing things just because the methodology says we should? Or are we doing them because they are adding value? Although we’ve been very successful in delivering projects, people are questioning whether we can execute things in a lighter way.”

A project manager’s three keys for success

Damian Ryan is the key project manager at Retirement Benefits Fund, and his team can swell to four or five when contractors are brought in. Recent projects include introducing new products, such as My Super Light.

1. From the start, be clear what outcomes the business expects and don’t lose sight of them.

2. Make sure the business sponsor is somebody who really wants the project and has authority to drive it to a successful conclusion.

3. Trust the people on the project team. Staff it with skilled people – whether they are skilled in project management or whether they are subject matter experts – and trust them to do the work. You can over-control projects and people lose interest.

 

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