Sometimes The Rules Must Be Different

There is a big debate in GB media this week: should the Olympics and Paralympics be treated the same, combined or be carbon copies.  Aside from the practicalities (4 hour opening ceremonies and time tabling venues) Peter White (bbc.co.uk) reminded the media that there are differences and what suits a person in a wheelchair will not be a level playing field for those on two legs.  The country is learning new sports (e.g. boccia). Closer integration of the games might be possible but we must acknowledge the key aspect: these games are different with different rules. It would be unfair on all competitors to try to make them the same.

Some companies and project managers make similar mistakes seeing a portfolio of projects as homogenous and trying to endorse the same methods and processes. A fundamental definition of a project is that it is a unique undertaking. In organisations, the types of project they undertake may be grouped by type and complexity to help assign effective project management teams. However, many don’t do that, they group by location or year: accidental dragooning into manageable groups.

The underlying problem with accidental grouping is the assumption that a consistent management can be applied to the projects in that group. That is where the project that isn’t quite the same can be the performance management equivalent of a land-mine: hidden, explosive and unexpectedly damaging. These land-mine projects are damaging because they go wrong, add cost, demotivate the team and upset stakeholders. Sometimes the costs of these projects can stop the business performing in other areas. If the dispute goes to law it can have a catastrophic impact on the organisation.

Therefore, portfolio and programme managers need to find a way of identifying those projects that are different: different type of delivery, different type of client, more complex, bigger or smaller teams, longer or shorter timescales, new or innovative. They need to tailor their controls and processes to manage these.  This is adaptation for a situation not a licence to lose the overall controls applied.

I recognise that a number of Paralympic competitors first “qualified” for the trials that got them into their nation teams because of land-mines.  While “the project that brought down the business” isn’t really on the same scale, the metaphor works. Their life has been set on a new unplanned direction that is incomparably different from their original hopes and dreams. Their success as elite athletes may be a huge achievement and entirely worth celebrating but it is not the same: the rules are different.

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Danger:too many projects!

It’s still February and rugby is still the preferred sport for a few more weeks. The big debate seems to be, simply, why doesn’t England win the Six Nations tournament more? England has a relatively big population, the biggest sports economy, the national rugby organisation with the biggest turnover, most players, more registered professional players, etc.  The press question if those resources are being wasted. The answer cannot be about numbers and statistical ratios but about what is done with those resources.

At the end of the game, the important thing is the result created by the 15 guys on the pitch. If they have good enough facilities, high quality coaches and plenty of practice, a player can leave the locker room at the start of the game with confidence of a good start and a potential win. If the 15 are focused on doing the small things right, take the opportunities that present themselves and play for each other as a team, then they could be running back to their lockers as winners. That is true no matter how big your resource pool is. If you have a squad of 50 instead of 22 (15 plus the 7 allowed substitutes) the dynamics of communication between players becomes problematic and building a coherent team is harder. If you have just enough players the team will  probably work well. If you have too few in the team, guys start to play more than one position and risk loosing focus on the important things.

So in reality, it does not matter how many players England have: it’s the quality of the team that is selected to play the big game and the support they get to win. For England, the number of players available may be a distraction because the selection process has to cope with more possibilities. The temptation will be to spend the same effort on all players for consistency of process (and fairness). But that robs people of the attention they need (if they need more than average) or wastes the coach’s time (if things can be done quickly.) The team’s key players need the best coaches. Those at the start of their career need coaches who can help them grow. Every player needs an appropriate time with the right coach to get them ready for the game they need to play.

Like every international team needs a selection process, every portfolio of projects needs a governance process. And like every player needs a coach, every project needs the right attention in the governance process. Each project team needs good preparation before the game begins. The processes around a project portfolio also need to increase the opportunities for success.  In really large portfolios, the time and energy to do this can seem inefficient but not doing it can be really costly. This is where some organisations start to go wrong: they have lots of projects and management start to feel there is too much time and cost devoted to the governance process – they want to spend the resources on the projects. The real measure should be about how well the governance process works: how many projects slip through and fail or how many real opportunities are missed? The right level of governance for each project must make sure that the right projects are run and the right resources are available for the best chance of success.

Quite simply, if you don’t have time and resources for an effective governance process, you have too many projects running in your portfolio. Time to consider either rescheduling the portfolio or looking at changing the resources applied to governance.

Risk Management – beyond the project

The UK Combined Code for corporate governance  says “the board’s role is to provide entrepreneurial leadership of the company within a framework of prudent and effective controls which enables risk to be assessed and managed.” (A.1) Read more of this post

Short-term delay can have long term impact

In the mad rush of ideas that some managers get over the holiday season , some will have decided to cut costs in their operations. In doing so, they will have chosen short-term delays for projects that don’t bring a quick return.

I’ve even seen blogs and advice from management consultants specifically saying things like, “Defer discretionary projects which are not able to make acceptable cash returns in the short-term”.

That is the wrong message because it looks at projects in isolation from each other and the organisation. Read more of this post

Planning Communication for Governance

The first part of the planning should be about responsibilities and governance.  If this is decided early, then the decision-making process is easier when the project is under pressure.  Read more of this post