Boardrooms need to make room at the table for chief project officers

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Now, more than ever, the elevation of the chief project officer function is vital, writes Sara Verbruggen

Going back to business as usual – the old way of how we worked and delivered projects before the pandemic – seems increasingly unlikely. Amid such uncertainty and flux, board-level project management roles should be seen as crucial to minimising the risk of ‘bad projects getting out the door’.

APM’s Golden Thread research found that the UK project management market contributes over £156bn to the economy annually. That’s more than construction or financial services. Imagine how much value the profession could deliver if every company board or senior government department had a chief project officer (CPO).

Indicative of an emerging profession, the Golden Thread research has found that, typically, organisations count on people who have worn a project management ‘hat’ during their roles, as opposed to pursuing a career path in project management that culminates in a defined board-level role.

You can’t just wing it

Professor Andrew Edkins of University College London, who was on the Golden Thread academic advisory panel, believes it is time to move away from the misconception that all of us have an intrinsic ability to do project management. Instead, we need to continue to move towards a formalised project management profession with a defined body of knowledge and an acquired set of skills and competencies.

After all, if the project manager is not present at the project-shaping table, which is often at board level, how do organisations know they are setting projects that can be delivered?

“The ‘hero’ approach of throwing ‘impossible projects’ at project managers has some merit, but too often the project manager can offer insight that is missing from those who really don’t understand what they are asking for,” Professor Edkins says.

He describes project management as a technocentric role, comprising a suite of technical and management abilities. “You can’t just wing it. We need to get project management expertise into the boardroom or into senior government, [including] the cabinet.”

The need for CPO roles in a post-COVID world

Professor Edkins says the role of project manager has been repositioned due to COVID-19.

“Co-location, physical presence, timelines, all have been screwed up and thrown on the floor. The ‘new normal’ is for people to recognise that the speed of doing things has got faster and delivery is expected in much shorter timeframes.”

Videoconferencing software has made meetings and networking, albeit remote, easier to do. “Project managers, in response to the turbulence in the world, have got to be capable of working with more degrees of ambiguity and be more adaptable,” Professor Edkins says.

In a world where previous notions of risk and convention have been turned upside down, an ill-conceived project or policy can have reputational impact.

For Professor Edkins, having a person in the boardroom, tempering expectations and being the one to deliver the news that colleagues don’t necessarily want to hear, can prevent bad projects from being executed in the first place.

“CPOs are not just an observer, but also part of the decision-making body. Considering the project at the very outset requires project management moving upwards in decision-making.”

The CPO brings the realism

Sebastian Harris, associate director of operations for NCC Group, says that, post-COVID, CPO experience could be what is needed to carefully balance what is, and isn’t, possible, while serving the wider interests of the board.

“COVID has provided a ‘reset’ for almost every organisation, with the ability to efficiently maximise outputs coming under more scrutiny, opening up new opportunities for future CPO-type roles.”

He believes a benefit of bringing project management expertise into the boardroom is that it can give an organisation confidence that it can deliver and think big.

“The front-line perspective is key and allows a balanced view on looking forward and, perhaps more importantly, supports the application of realistic, accountable, milestone-based targets which are achievable for the whole organisation.

“While other board roles are concerned with balancing the budget and the risks, the CPO brings the realism.”

While it has been acknowledged that board-level culture must adapt to facilitate C-suite project managers, Harris believes the FTSE100 needs to lead the charge and carve out a path.

“CPOs are far less common than chief information security officer (CISO) roles, for example, but both are key. Interestingly, it’s not uncommon for executive individuals to have derived from project professional-type routes then move into a more ‘traditional’ executive role.”

You may also be interested in the APM Podcast: The Golden Thread: recognising the contribution of project management

Image: Cultura Motion/shutterstock

Sara Verbruggen

Posted by Sara Verbruggen on 19th Oct 2020

About the Author

Sara Verbruggen is a freelance journalist, editor and copywriter providing content services for websites, magazines, corporates and trade associations.

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