The patient continues to be sick - we need new medicine

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We all know that project success continues to elude many, and that the reasons are no different now to many years ago – even though over the last 40 year we have invested much in skills and techniques, project manager training and the like.  The APM Vision for 2020 is that “all projects succeed”.  But what does this mean in practice and how can it be achieved as the ‘project patient continues to be sick’?

Martin Samphire, the chairman of the APM Governance SIG and also a committee member of the Portfolio Management SIG, was on the stage at Project Challenge at Olympia on 13 March.  His message was quite simple – it is madness to keep doing the same things and expecting a different result – we need new medicine to ‘make the project patient better’.  The investment in tools, techniques, etc. has got us so far but is not delivering sufficient improvement.  Better governance is the new medicine needed. 

The APM Governance SIG has adopted the strap line 'Achieving change successfully with confidence and control' for the adoption of good governance in order to achieve more successful projects generally.  

Martin referred to some reports into some major project reviews to emphasise the importance of governance:

West Coast Mainline Re-franchising – “The Department demonstrated poor judgement in approving the project and failed to provide appropriate checks and challenge. Irresponsible decisions, compounded by civil service failures, this episode revealed substantial problems of governance, assurance, policy and resources. Embarking on an ambitious - perhaps unachievable ……was an irresponsible decision for which ministers were ultimately responsible. This was compounded by major failures by civil servants, some of whom misled ministers.”

Taurus – “over 280 separate financial institutes involved, massive cost and time overruns and unclear reporting chains.”

FireControl – “Rushed without proper understanding of cost and risk, frequent departures of senior staff, didn’t apply basic project approval checks and balances.”

G4S and the Olympics – “Although the Company recognised the unique and complex nature of the Olympic contract from an early stage; this was not properly reflected in its handling of the contract.  Actions will include: more rigorous risk assessment for new contracts and improved contract take-on processes and project management. Board oversight will be enhanced including review and approval of contracts where annual revenues exceed £50m.”

Martin referred to the Governance SIGs popular publication, Directing Change, and the components that it covers and recommends for good practice.

Martin contended that applying good governance to both projects and the wider management of projects in an organisation is 80 per cent of the answer to successful project outcomes, and would have potentially avoided unsuccessful outcomes in the example projects.  The ‘new medicine’ needs to take in the core elements of the governance of project management – meaning all the responsibilities, people involved, the processes, policies, controls and relationships / behaviours.

Martin focused his presentation on the components 2 and 3 from Directing Change – sponsorship and project management capability.  He went on to explain how the management of projects applied to all the “players on the project pitch” – not just the project manager. So governance needed to be applied to a similar population.

Traditionally we have regarded project management as the domain of the project manager – the ‘new medicine’ needs to ensure all the ‘project management players’ are included.  We cannot hope to win the premiership with the best (and professional) goalkeeper in the world but only average (or incompetent) centre forward, midfielders or defenders – even if they are competent in their functional role.  It would be like putting the best golfer at centre forward and the best cricketer at centre back on the pitch for Manchester United – they would not win the premiership this way.  All players on the pitch need to be professional and individually competent in the ‘game’ and understand the specific rules they are expected to play – and the same is true of the project management world / ‘game’.

We all too often have a good (and professional) project manager but then s/he is surrounded by less competent (or even incompetent in the ‘project management game’) ‘players’ in other positions – for example sponsor, executives, board members, functional managers, users, etc.  Sponsors and board members are crucial to being competent in the ‘project management game’ as they are at the apex of both corporate and project management governance in an organisation – they set the culture, values, processes, etc. and are accountable for the governance processes being followed.  The sponsor, in particular, straddles the (permanent) business as usual organisation and the (temporary) project organisation and has a crucial role to translate the business requirements into project objectives – and then ensure benefits are realised.

In a recent on-line survey of 100 people during a governance webinar, the biggest challenge by far quoted by those voting was that members of delegated authorisation bodies have insufficient representation, competence, authority and resources to enable them to make appropriate decisions.  This is a prime responsibility of the organisation’s board to get right and empower them.  The responsibility for ensuring that good governance is in place sits squarely with the board of an organisation – and it likewise has the responsibility to ensure that the members of the board are competent in their project management roles – be that as individual sponsors, project reviewers, etc. or as a collective in setting the strategy and portfolio of change /projects that the organisation chooses to undertake to deliver that strategy.

The ‘new medicine’ to improve success of project management includes better governance. Good governance will lead to better project success.  And good governance has to start at the board level – it is ultimately the board’s responsibility to ensure and propagate good governance. This includes the directors and executives of organisations becoming more professional and competent in their roles associated with project and change management.


Posted by Martin Samphire on 16th Apr 2013

About the Author

Martin is Director of 3pmxl Ltd. He is an experienced project, programme and portfolio management practitioner and particularly in their application to business transformation. He is a committee member of the APM Portfolio Management SIG and Chairman of the APM SIG on Governance – he is one of the team that authored Directing Change, Co-Directing Change and Sponsoring Change.

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