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Which problems could a CPO solve?
Despite the shift from operations to projects as the economic engine of our times, only 22% of projects are wholly successful, according to our research.
Our panel acknowledged that, too often, projects fail to be delivered on time, on budget and on target. They spoke of how stakeholders are too rarely focused on the core values of the project, and often benefits achieved are difficult to measure, because no clear objectives were specified at the offset. The following challenges were identified:
Managing risk and governance
Organisations face many pitfalls when it comes to project management today. Chief amongst these are problems regarding risk, the panel agreed. In particular, organisations need to become more adept at recognising threats to project delivery, which can be distinct from other risk factors affecting businesses. CPOs will have the experience and competences needed to recognise and address these. “In project management, if you’re not doing the fundamentals around assurance and governance, risk management and process, then you’ve got a long way to go,” noted Mark Dearden. “If you are 18 months or two years into a really challenging programme, it’s easy to lose sight of what was originally proposed. Much of what was promised may then not be realisable, because there hasn’t been enough informed debate around risk from the beginning.”
Managing risk boils down to having an individual in the C-suite asking the right questions during a project’s life cycle. Our experts felt too often this is not happening. In some organisations, the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) or COO (Chief Operating Officer) may be able to take on this responsibility, but there will inevitably come a point when these people need to focus on other things. This is when risks go unchallenged and there is no “governing conscience” guiding the project, as Mark put it.
“Managing risk boils down to having an individual
in the C-suite asking the right questions during a project’s life cycle.”
James Hampson, who hails from a mega-scale construction programmes background, made the point that transparency is an issue impacting how projects are viewed at different levels of management. “I don’t think we do a good enough job in the construction industry of giving CEOs the understanding of the quantum of what’s happening. When you are dealing with vast, complex billion-dollar programmes, they become enterprises in their own right. So, from the CEO’s perspective, do they understand every aspect of risk to delivery?” Sue Kershaw agreed that it’s “really difficult to get that golden thread of understanding” between the top-level management and investors, and those project-managing on the ground.
Lack of clarity: What is a project and who owns it?
Knowing who owns a project is a sticking point in organisations today, and this hampers project progress. Combined with the exponential growth in projects, this obscurity leads to silo thinking, project overload, demotivation, projects not delivered, resources wasted and value lost. Failure to differentiate between a project and BAU activities is a common problem, our experts noted. This exacerbates the issue of project ownership. Ruth Humphrey suggested that often a change project falls into the remit of “whoever’s normally in charge of that area”, meaning that when more urgent issues arise, the project can be put on hold. “Or frequently the project is given to the most enthusiastic about it, rather than the person best qualified to lead it,” Ruth added
“…the project is given to the most enthusiastic about it,
rather than the person best qualified to lead it.”
CEOs in particular need more clarity over what constitutes a project in the first place, suggested Adam Boddison. “If something is clearly defined as a project, there’s a whole mobilisation of the right skills and the right people. If you’re going to put in a new CRM, for example, that naturally attracts the right type of thinking and the right skillset. But when it’s something which is very close to BAU, there can be a lack of focus, and possibly the wrong people managing the process.” To clearly define projects, the right language is required too. “You do need individuals who understand projects and project language,” said Mark Dearden. Adam Boddison added: “I see PMs as needing to be ‘multilingual’. By that I mean able to use project terminology with others from the profession, but also able to translate this into leadership terminology for the wider C-suite and sector terminology for the specific context.”
Project management skills gap
A core characteristic of the project economy is that organisations are moving from operations to projects, which requires skilled capability. “This is putting pressure on the CEO to think about the skills within the existing team to be able to execute projects effectively,” said Andrew Reynolds. “Skills need to evolve in senior management as change sweeps through the business, to be able to undertake projects robustly. So, for example, a business manager probably will not have the skillset of a project manager.” We also need to move away from the assumption that anyone who’s vaguely organised can run a project, suggested Ruth Humphrey. Mark Dearden noted: “What’s needed is for the CPO or equivalent to be putting in the basics around career development for the project team, personal development standards, implementing assurance and governance. Very often, these basics don’t yet exist.”
James Hampson of Jacobs said that in his organisation, which is headquartered in the US, “you’re not allowed to manage projects at certain levels unless you have various qualifications”. With some of the company’s infrastructure build programmes commanding budgets in the billions rather than millions “the quantum difference is off the scale and needs to be recognised”. You certainly need the right kind of entrepreneurial touch and excellent project management skills to fit that enterprise zone scale, he noted. It was felt that although AI and machine learning are beginning to impact some elements of project management that could free up experienced project professionals to apply their skills where they’d be most beneficial – for instance, automating the compilation of board reports – most organisations are not at this level of technological maturity today. “We need to fully professionalise project management before we automate it,” was Sue Kershaw’s view.