Equipping yourself for success

Following a lecture by Reinhard Wagner, IPMA president, Andrew Kelleher looks at how programme managers can equip themselves for success.

These are challenging but exciting times for programme management. The mass influx of migrants and refugees to Europe represents the largest such movement of people since 1945. Countries like Germany face the task of integrating a huge migrant population – a challenge that will require complex programmes on a prodigious scale.

There is a growing realisation that established project management tools and methodologies, such as the traditional ‘iron triangle’ performance indicators, are rather limited and focused on the short term.

We must look beyond the use of traditional tools, and instead develop skills and practices to facilitate global collaboration – such as the use of social technologies – and reconcile sociopolitical and cultural ‘agendas’. In the process, we should not underestimate the prominence of programmes’ longer-term effects on society.

At the APM Programme Management Specific Interest Group conference in London earlier this year, the president of the International Project Management Association (IPMA), Reinhard Wagner, spoke about global developments in programme management. Here I want to explore some of the points made in Wagner’s lecture.

Looking back

History tells us that projects and programmes are nothing new. Ancient civilisations – such as the great city of Persepolis – were founded using projects and programmes that not only developed infrastructure and buildings, but also developed society.

In his 1697 Essay Upon Projects, Daniel Defoe described the ‘honest projector’ as using the basic principles of sense, honesty and ingenuity (today we might refer to these as competencies) to ‘project’ future improvements to develop society – for example, by reducing poverty and improving health and education.

In more recent times, the 1950s saw major US military and defence programmes, such as the weapons programme Polaris. During this time, operations research was dominant, with significant developments being made in mathematical approaches to planning methods and techniques.

But has too much emphasis since been put on these methodologies? Has consideration of other important facets of project and programme management been neglected? To provide greater insight, we need to understand why we still struggle to deliver our projects and programmes. 

A new approach

Politics is often cited as a key factor. Stakeholders strive to promote their own agendas and interests through individuals, teams and the wider project and programme stakeholder communities – all the way up to politicians. This being normal business in projects and programmes, it is essential that we are proficient at influencing these political aspects.

So the message is clear: we will not develop as a discipline if we continue to focus only on methodologies and techniques. We must take account of the social, political and even psychological aspects of programme management. In response, the new Gower Handbook of Programme Management (2nd edition) considers the social, political and psychological facets of programme management, as well as techniques and methodologies.

Some important trends recently researched by the German Project Management Association in 2014 include the ‘projectification’ of our society, whereby many sectors, including the not-for-profit and public sectors, are project oriented.

The research shows that almost 40 per cent of German GDP is based on projects. This reinforces the importance of professionalisation through improved education and certification, as well as ensuring that competencies at all levels are appropriate throughout both the public and private sectors. 

A further observation is that more familiarisation is required for CEOs and programme sponsors, including those senior managers who believe they are not part of the programme. We need to bring these key people into the programme setting and involve them, as a lack of engagement is commonly recognised as a source of project and programme failure.

Fit for purpose

In terms of content, it is universally understood that programmes can be complex. But programme environments and settings can also be complex. Consequently, they need to be fit for purpose. 

The IPMA federation is a good example of programme environment complexity. It consists of 64 national project management associations, which results in cultural, social and constitutional complexity. This confirms that we need to have ‘settings’ that fit the purpose of the programme.

Furthermore, projectification can have a significant impact on an organisation’s resourcing needs, often resulting in tensions between projects and line functions. This gap needs to be bridged, with the programme as the means of integrating the project world and the organisational world.

Definitions in programme management are still being debated. Internationally, concepts and standards are evolving through ISO/TC 258 Project, Programme and Portfolio Management. A comparison of the standards reveals that, although various definitions exist, these are not that different, with a more harmonised and convergent view emerging.

The Berlin Brandenburg Airport project shows why it is wrong to treat complex endeavours as simple projects, and how, in situations that go beyond producing deliverables and outputs, a programme is needed. The King Abdullah Economic City, currently under construction north of Jeddah, reinforces this. While individual elements comprising buildings and infrastructure can be seen as projects delivering outputs, it is the programme’s domain to integrate these in order to establish an environment that benefits society by improving the local economy and standards of healthcare and education, for example.

Long-term outcomes 

Organisations need to look beyond the so-called ‘iron triangle’ metrics that provide a rather limited and short-term measure of success. Programmes must focus on long-term outcomes and benefits. Strong examples of this are the Olympic legacies of London 2012 and Munich 1972.

Providing buildings and infrastructure is a first step. Considering the longer-term socioeconomic outcomes is more challenging. It is clear that we need to improve our skills to understand the longer-term effects of programmes. This includes an improved understanding of the respective roles of projects and programmes, as well as the interrelationships between them.

We still have some way to go in reaching universal agreement. There is still no consensus on terminology and the difference between projects and programmes, and their relationship with their operational and line-function counterparts.

In the meantime, we must promote an improved understanding of the role of programmes and their importance in delivering change. Convincing sponsors and CEOs that a programme involves far more than delivering a building is vital if we are to reach a consensus.

Reaching consensus

ISO 21500:2012 Guidance on Project Management was published in 2012 after wide debate over reconciling cultural differences, personalities and the backgrounds of the numerous contributors from associations representing some 40 countries. In reaching consensus, it was vital to understand the role of projects in organisations. One of ISO 21500:2012’s main achievements was making visible the differences between the roles of a broad range of industries and disciplines – for example, IT and construction.

As part of the debate on project management, it was important to recognise the role of programmes in delivering change, while also acknowledging the role of projects in supporting this process.

The role of programmes and portfolios is further developed and elaborated on in ISO 21504:2015 Guidance on Portfolio Management, published in 2015, and ISO/CD 21503 Guidance on Programme Management (not yet published). A third standard, ISO 21505 Project, Programme and Portfolios Guidance on Governance, due to be published this year, brings together governance aspects of managing projects, programmes and portfolios.

IPMA is also publishing its own standards through the Organisational Competency Baseline, which not only defines the competencies of those involved in projects, programmes and portfolios, but also reflects the need to integrate people, resources, processes, structures and cultures.

It is simply not enough to have well-defined competencies – a close symbiosis between all organisational components is crucial. The ability to understand cultural differences across an enterprise and bridge divisions will be critical in determining the success of projects, programmes and portfolios in future.

Andrew Kelleher is a principal project manager at the PM Group, and publications lead for APM's Programme Management Specific Interest Group.

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