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Creating a community of practice within the Bar Standards Board (at zero cost)

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When I was first headhunted to join the Bar Standards Board (the legal regulator of barristers in England and Wales, BSB) as head of programmes, I was amazed at how much work such a small organisation was doing to address inequalities across the Bar and make Bar training more accessible. The BSB realised that it was not enough simply to focus on getting the work done. It needed professional project management.

There was so much work going on that had been loosely defined into projects, but not a lot of resource to deliver these projects. Some teams had their version of a project plan, whereas others managed work via emails. The senior management team (SMT) had careful oversight of the work in their directorates and sometimes across other directorates, but they saw that the picture was at times missing vital parts. This meant that work often had to be done at the last minute to meet external commitments. The result: an incredibly hard-working staff, but many very tired individuals among them.

No resource to hire more staff? Time to get creative…

I had a portfolio of three major transformational policy programmes, but only one team member to help deliver all this work. As some of these programmes looked like they would benefit from a more structured approach, I knew I needed a suite of project managers to deliver the work. However, the feedback from the SMT was unanimous: “We’d love to get you more resource Jaspal, but there is just no budget for this for at least the next two years – you are creative, find another way.”

That was not the answer I hoped for, but neither am I one to promise delivery without a realistic plan to back it all up. So, I came up with one: if I could not hire resource, I would create it within the organisation itself. I looked at the various staff members involved in the individual programmes and picked a few whom the individual programme sponsors thought would benefit from project management training. The aim was for the appointed individuals to then manage the projects within each of the programmes.

In developing a tailored ‘what and how’ project management session for these individuals, I knew I needed project tools that could be easily used and understood by all, so I went about developing a customised suite of tools based on the PRINCE2 framework, so there would be a clear understanding of how tools like action logs, risk registers, project initiation documents and project plans are fundamental to help ensure good project delivery.

I now had an army (okay, 15) of new, enthusiastic project managers to deploy across the individual programmes of work. They now had the tools and techniques at their fingertips to monitor and report progress for their projects, and I had information that could be reported in a standardised manner across the programmes portfolio. This required me to carry out matrix management to support these new project managers, but the results produced have been outstanding so far.

Good project management practice has been embedded across the organisation, and my colleagues in return have come away with transferable project skills that are likely to serve them throughout their careers. Big programmes of work are on track (the portfolio has now grown to six programmes), with clear visibility to all senior stakeholders and the board on how we plan to deliver our regulatory objectives and by when. All of this was achieved without an extra penny spent on hiring more project professionals.

The trickle-down effect of board-level support

As these new project managers also had business as usual (BAU) functions to deliver in their day jobs, they soon realised that some of the project management tools could be used in the management of BAU across the organisation. Hence, the benefits were not just limited to the project-related work of the BSB.

I decided that my one-off training session (aka a hit-and-run approach) was far from adequate in terms of continuity of care, and so I am in the midst of initiating a project management alliance across the BSB. All the new project managers will meet and discuss the challenges they may be experiencing in delivering their projects, and all can then discuss and suggest solutions or other good practice that could be implemented.

The embedding of project disciplines has been further strengthened by support from the SMT on the importance of such disciplines being applied consistently across the directorates. The reinforcement of this message from the director-general and individual directors has had a massively positive trickle-down effect across the organisation and made implementation and integration much easier. A community of practice has been created. Many now see the benefits of project management and have gone on to pursue formal qualifications.

When I was discussing what we have done across the BSB with a friend of mine, she thought I was nothing short of stupid for enabling so much cross-skilling to take place, as this might result in me doing myself out of a job. I beg to differ – my teaching others to bake cakes in no way lessens my ability to do so, and may very well result in cakes being baked to a much higher standard.

So, manage projects and learn together we will – and if we have to eat some cake along the way, then so be it; I’m always happy to take one for the team.

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