Last month Agora spoke to Peter Morris, one of Ethos CRS lead facilitators, ahead of the workshop The essentials of project management.
Drawing on his decades-long experience of working in the public sector and the Australian Army, he shed light on what it really takes to manage projects better.
Why is there a need to manage projects better?
Organisations spend money on projects to get a return on investment. In the case of the public sector, the return on investment might be to deliver public value (e.g. better health services) rather than a direct economic return common in private enterprise.
If projects don’t have a plan in place and do not use the discipline of project management, they run a high risk of not achieving public value.
What is project management?
Project management is mainly about common sense combined with some discipline. Planning and reporting are fundamental to all management and these are key components to project management as well. But what goes into a plan? For me there is no cookie cutter solution for effective plans though consideration of cost, schedule and scope/performance are standard inclusions.
I also have a passion for good benefits management. To me, it is critical that projects identify their key outcomes and the ways that these outcomes will be measured. If this is done early in the planning process this helps with investment decisions.
The other component of project management that I would emphasise is governance. Effective oversight of the project is essential to ensure the project gets the support it needs and remains on track.
What are the golden rules of project management?
I had a former manager who used the term ‘do the basics brilliantly’ and for me it is a mantra for good project management. The key is to keep it simple as possible.
Project management is not about filling in a template but rather is about the thinking that goes into the project. It is about understanding the costs, timeframes and performance that you are trying to achieve. It is about putting in place effective ways to manage stakeholders and risks and making sure there is a governance structure in place so that progress is monitored.
What makes for success?
I’m aware of a number of projects that have been really successful but rather than naming them it will be more useful to explain why they were successful.
First, they had a plan and reported against the plan.
Secondly, they had an engaged governance structure that held the project team to account and provided assistance.
Then comes my old favourite, benefits management. The successful projects I’m thinking about all identified their outcomes and how they were going to measure them. Indeed, the achievement of the outcomes equalled success. For one project it was great to have the project team in place during benefits realisation so that they could continue to report on the benefits.
Fourthly, the projects had great stakeholder management, especially with external stakeholders. They were able to get the external support they needed to successfully deliver the project.
What is an example of an inefficiently managed project?
Something I have found challenging in the public sector is when to stop a project.
In private sector projects that have a financial return on investment focus it is easier to make decisions to cut losses and stop investing in a project.
Public sector projects are different as they focus on delivering public value. It would be hard to imagine the Sydney Harbour Bridge project being stopped because of cost over-runs, or for a project delivering Covid-19 vaccines not going ahead because of a change in timeframes or cost. This is where the discipline of project management is critical. It is essential to establish plans and then report against these plans. In this way, risks can be managed effectively.
What are the common mistakes?
Poorly written business cases are a common mistake. Sometimes project managers cannot clearly articulate the cost and benefit of an investment.
When the business plan focuses on the solution (e.g. a new training program, or new IT system) rather than the outcome (e.g. better trained staff who can deliver better customer service, or more accurate manipulation of data leading to cost savings) the projects tend not to have the scope to deliver real benefit.
Are project management skills essential for managers?
I think there are two dimensions to answering that question.
First, there are elements of project management that are useful in everyday management. Good management includes planning and reporting. It includes knowing when things need to be delivered and to what standard. These are all elements of project management, though for projects the process tend to be more formal.
Secondly, as you become more senior in the public sector you are likely to be exposed to projects. Initially this might be as a member of a project team though later you could become a project manager. At more senior levels you could be part of the project governance processes. At each of these levels you will need to have and understanding of project management.
How do you build the skills for project management?
For me there are two components to building project management skills. First, it is important to understand the theory. The Essentials Suite workshop is designed around this element. Secondly, you need to put the theory into practice and in doing so you should not be overwhelmed by the technical aspects of project management.
To learn more about effective project management from the project management guru himself, register for The essentials of project management workshop running from 8–9 February 2021.