Tag Archives: Project Governance

The Evolution of Project Management

The publication of the PMBOK® Guide sixth edition at the beginning of September[1], and the decision last week by ISO committee TC258 to revise ISO standard 21500 should mark the end of an era in the development of project management. For most of the last 50 years, the dominant view of project management associations has been that project management is a generally transferable skill. This has resulted in the view that ‘project management’ can be represented by a single ‘BoK’ (Body of Knowledge), a single ‘competency baseline’ and capability can be demonstrated by passing a single credential or certification. However, whilst the PM professional associations have advocated this view, the job market has always retained a focus on different industry experience – you don’t get an IT project manager’s job without IT experience.

As outlined above, from the emergence of ‘modern project management’ in the 1960s[2] the predominant view of the professional associations and most academics and practitioners has been that ‘project management’ is a single discipline with transferrable skills. A single qualification framework is appropriate and the skills and techniques are generally applicable across all industries.  However, in the years between the 1960s and the 2000s, as different industries and disciplines progressively adopted the concept of ‘project management’ this holistic view has become increasingly stressed.

The future suggested in this post still sees project management as a single discipline focused around some high-level objectives; but rather than having a single set of generally accepted good practices applicable to most projects most time, the emerging discipline needs to be capable of embracing a range of different approaches to project management and a diverse toolbox of techniques that can be mixed and matched to optimise the creation of the project’s deliverables.

Project management literature has identified at least three key dimensions to project management:

  1. An ‘adaptive/agile’ approach -v- a disciplined structured approach.
  2. The size, scale, and difficulty associated with the work of the project.
  3. Simple relatively predictable projects -v- complex projects with emergent properties.

In addition to these parameters (mapped in the diagram above), there is also the degree of certainty associated with the work, the technical complexity of the product, and the attitude of the stakeholder community[3].

It’s time for a change.

The project management techniques needed to manage different types of project vary enormously; for example:

  • The optimum approach to managing a relatively small, simple project to upgrade a website may benefit from an adaptive/Agile approach to managing the work and should only require a ‘light touch’ to control the work;
  • Contrast this to the disciplined approach needed to design and build a new chemical plant where not only do complicated parts need to be manufactured to precise dimensions months in advance and shipped halfway around the world, but the work has to be carefully managed and the parts assembled in a precise sequence to allow all bits to be fitted together properly in a safe working environment.

Both these endeavours are projects, but the project management techniques needed for success are dramatically different. Even within the one project, some elements may benefit from an ‘agile’ approach to the work (eg, systems integration), while other elements of the work will require a very disciplined approach to achieve success – building space rockets really does require ‘rocket science’.

The challenge facing the project management profession and project management academics is first defining the common core of project management, and then adapting the approach to developing and documenting the overall project management body of knowledge in a way that recognises the core commonality of being ‘a project’ whilst allowing different approaches to the management of the work. And once these foundations are in place, flowing these concepts through into documented standards, knowledge frameworks and certifications. In the 21st century a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the management of projects is no longer appropriate.

PMI has started down this path, they have agile certifications and have included both tailorability and agile concepts into the 6th edition of the PMBOK® Guide. Developments in the ISO space are also moving towards this integrated but separated approach to managing different types of projects. ISO 21500 Guidance on Project Management, is being updated and transformed into a higher level ‘management standard’, if this development is successful, in the future a series of implementation guides can be foreseen focused on different types, sizes and phases of project development and delivery.

What’s missing at the moment is a holistic and agreed understanding precisely what a project actually is[4] (this will segregate project management from other forms of management), and then a framework for distinguishing the different types of project that exist within the overall frame of being ‘a project’, but requiring different styles of project management. Some of the multitude of factors that need to be considered include:

  • The inherent size of the project usually measured in terms of value;
  • The degree of technical difficulty in creating the output (complication) caused by the characteristics of the project’s work and its deliverables, or the time-frame the deliverables are required within;
  • The degree of uncertainty involved in the project;
  • The degree of complexity associated with the work and the stakeholder relationships;
  • The difference between client project management and contractor project management;
  • The various methodologies and strategic approaches to managing the project and developing the product (Agile, PRINCE2, etc);
  • The maturity of the environment in which the project is being delivered (developing economies/organisations -v- mature economies/organisations); and
  • The difference between project, program and portfolio management.

The common core

The core element of all projects is the intentional ‘temporariness’ of the team (organisation) set up to deliver the project. The ‘temporary organisation’ is given an objective to create a deliverable for a client and then to shut down efficiently; in addition, there is an intention on the part of most key stakeholders to treat the work as a ‘project’. This means the project has to be started (initiated), the work planned, then undertaken, and on completion the temporary organisation has to be closed – and of course, all of these activities need monitoring and controlling.

Where 21st century project management needs to diverge from the doctrines of the last century is in the way these overarching objectives are achieved – defining 44 or 49 processes as ‘generally accepted best practices’ is no longer appropriate.  The concept of ‘project management’ needs to be able to adapt to very different approaches, allow the project team to select from a toolbox of ‘useful techniques and methodologies’ and then encourage the teams to craft the processes they actually use to optimise the delivery of the project’s outputs to its clients.

Achieving this will require a different approach to developing standards, a different approach to training and qualifying practitioners and the creation of very different communities within the profession that encourages cohesion whilst embracing diversity of practice.

It will be interesting to see if our profession is up to the challenges.

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[1] PMBOK® Guide 6th Edition available in Australia: https://mosaicprojects.com.au/shop-pmbok-guide-6th-ed.php

[2] For more on the origins of ‘modern project management’ see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P050_Origins_of_Modern_PM.pdf

[3] For more on the dimensions of project management see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1072_Project_Size.pdf

[4] For more on defining a project see: https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2016/08/11/seeking-a-definition-of-a-project/

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Levels of Stakeholder Engagement

How engaged should your stakeholders be? Or how engaged do you want them to be? In an ideal world the answer to both questions should be the same, but to even deliver a meaningful answer to these questions needs a frame of measurement.  This post uses ideas from 1969 to propose this framework!

In July 1969, Sherry R. Arnstein published ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’ the A.I.P Journal[1] looking at citizen participation and the consequential citizen power over a range of USA government initiatives designed to enhance the lives of disadvantaged people in US cities. The typology of participation proposed by Arnstein can be transposed to the modern era to offer a framework for discussing how engaged in your project, or program, your stakeholders should be in actively contributing to the management and governance of the work they are supposed to benefit from.

Modern paradigms such as ‘the wisdom of crowds’, ‘user participation in Agile teams’ and ‘stakeholder theory’ all lean strongly towards stakeholder ownership of the initiative designed to benefit them. These views are contrasted by concepts such as technical competence, intellectual property rights, confidentiality and the ‘iron triangle’ of commercial reality (often backed up by contractual constraints).

The debate about how much control your stakeholders should have over the work, and how engaged they should be in the work, is for another place and time – there is probably no ‘universally correct’ answer to these questions. But it is difficult to even start discussing these questions if you don’t have a meaningful measure to compare options against.

Arnstein’s paper is founded on the proposition that meaningful ‘citizen participation’ is ‘citizen power’ but also recognises there is a critical difference between going through empty rituals of participation and having real power to affect the outcome of a process. This poster was from the May 1968 student uprising in Paris, for those of us who can’t remember French verbs, translated it says:  I participate; you participate; he participates; we participate; you (plural) participate; …… they profit.   The difference between citizen participation in matters of community improvement and stakeholder participation in a project is that whilst civil participation probably should mean civil control,  this same clear delineation does not apply to stakeholder engagement in projects.  The decision to involve stakeholders in a project or program is very much open to interpretation as to the best level of involvement or engagement.  However, the ladder of engagement proposed by Arnstein can easily be adapted to the requirement of providing a framework to use when discussing what is an appropriate degree of involvement of stakeholders in your project or program.

There are eight rungs in Arnstein’s ladder; starting from the bottom:

  1. Manipulation: stakeholders are placed on rubberstamp advisory committees or invited to participate in surveys, provide feedback, or are given other activities to perform which create an illusion of engagement but nobody takes very much notice of the information provided.   The purpose of this type of engagement is primarily focused on making the stakeholders feel engaged rather than using the engagement to influence decisions and outcomes. The benefits can be reduced stakeholder opposition, at least in the short term, but there is very little real value created to enhance the overall outcomes of the project.
  2. Therapy: this level of stakeholder engagement involves engaging stakeholders in extensive activities related to the project but with a view to changing the stakeholder’s view of the work whilst minimising their actual ability to create change. Helping the stakeholders adjust to the values of the project may not be the best solution in the longer term but every organisational change management guideline (including our White Paper) advocates this type of engagement to sell the benefits the project or program has been created to deliver.
  3. Informing: informing stakeholders of their rights, responsibilities, and/or options, can be the first step towards effective stakeholder participation in the project and its outcomes. However too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information from the project to the stakeholders. Particularly when this information is provided at a late stage, stakeholders have little opportunity to contribute to the project that is supposed to be delivering benefits for them. Distributing information is a key stakeholder engagement activity (see the Three Types of Stakeholder Communication) but there have to be mechanisms for effective feedback for this process to maximise its potential value.
  4. Consultation: inviting stakeholder’s opinions, like informing them, can be a legitimate step towards their full participation. But if the consultation is not combined with other modes of participation this rung of the ladder is still a sham, it offers no assurance that the stakeholder concerns and ideas will be taken into account. Effective participation includes providing stakeholders with a degree of control over the consultation processes as well as full insight as to how their inputs are considered and used. In the long run window dressing participation helps no one.
  5. Placation: at this level stakeholders have some degree of influence although tokenism is still potentially involved. Simply including stakeholders in processes such as focus groups or oversight committees where they do not have power, or are trained not to exercise power, gives the appearance of stakeholder engagement without any of the benefits.
  6. Partnership: at this level power is genuinely redistributed and the stakeholders work with the project team to achieve an outcome that is beneficial to all. Power-sharing may seem risky all but if the right stakeholders with a genuine interest in the outcome are encouraged to work with the technical delivery team to constructively enhance the project’s outcomes (which is implicit in a partnership) everyone potentially benefits.
  7. Delegated power: In many aspects of projects and programs, particularly those associated with implementation, rollout, and/or organisational change, delegating management authority to key stakeholder groups has the potential to significantly improve outcomes. These groups do need support, training, and governance, but concepts such as self-managed work teams demonstrate the value of the model.
  8. Stakeholder control: In one respect stakeholders do control projects and programs but this group tends to be a small management elite fulfilling roles such as sponsors, steering committees, etc. Genuine stakeholder control expands this narrow group to include many more affected stakeholders. Particularly social projects, where the purpose of the project is to benefit stakeholders, can demonstratively be improved by involving the people project disposed to help. But even technical projects can benefit from the wisdom of crowds[2].

In summary, the framework looks like this:

The biggest difference between the scenario discussed in the original paper and stakeholder engagement around projects and programs is the fact that different stakeholders very often need quite different engagement approaches to optimise project outcomes. Arnstein’s 1969 paper argued in favour of citizen participation as a single entity and the benefits progressing up the ladder towards its control. In a project situation, it is probably more sensible to look at different groups of stakeholders and then assess where on the ladder you would like to see that group functioning. Some groups may only need relatively low levels of information to be adequately managed. Others may well contribute best in positions of control or at least where their advice is actively sought and used.

Do you think this framework is helpful in advancing conversations around stakeholder engagement in your project?

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[1] Arnstein, S.R.  AIP Journal July 1969 pp:216 – 223.  A Ladder of Citizen Participation.

[2] The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, published in 2004, is a book written by James Surowiecki about the aggregation of information in groups, resulting in decisions that, he argues, are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group.

Good Governance, Good Outcomes!

Good governance is focused on setting the ‘right’ rules and objectives for an organisation, management is about working within those rules to achieve the objectives. Prudent governors also require assurance that the rules are being followed and the objectives achieved (for more see the six functions of governance)

Within this governance framework, getting the ethics and culture of an organisation right comes before anything else – it has far more to do with people, and culture than it does with process and policing! But crafting or changing culture and the resultant behaviours is far from easy and requires a carefully crafted long term strategy supported from the very top of the organisation. The journey is difficult, but achievable, and can pay major dividends to the organisation concerned. One interesting example of this approach in practice is the implementation of effective major project management by the UK government.

The problems with megaprojects[1]

The challenges and issues associated with megaprojects are well known, we recently posted on one aspect of this in the reference case for management reserves. The source materials used in this post clearly show that UK government has been acutely aware of the issues for many years as does any review of the UK National Audit Office’s reports into failed government projects.  At the 2016 PGCS symposium in Canberra, Geraldine Barker, from the UK NAO offered an independent and authoritative overview of the UK perspective and experience from her review of the Major Projects Authority, on the approaches, challenges, and lessons to be learned in improving the performance of major projects at individual and portfolio levels. While there were still major issues, there had also been a number of welcome developments to address the issues including:

  • Improvements to accountability with greater clarity about the roles of senior responsible owners;
  • Investment by the Authority and departments to improve the capability of staff to deliver major projects, with departments reporting to us that they are seeing benefits from these initiatives;
  • Increased assurance and recognition of the role that assurance plays in improving project delivery; and
  • Initiatives to prevent departments from getting locked into solutions too early.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said in a report to the UK Parliament on 6 January 2016, “I acknowledge that a number of positive steps have been taken by the Authority and client departments. At the same time, I am concerned that a third of projects monitored by the Authority are red or amber-red and the overall picture of progress on project performance is opaque. More effort is needed if the success rate of project delivery is to improve[2].

The major challenges identified in that report were to:

  • Prevent departments making firm commitments on cost and timescales for delivery before their plans have been properly tested;
  • Develop an effective mechanism whereby all major projects are prioritised according to strategic importance and capability is deployed to priority areas; and
  • Put in place the systems and data which allow proper performance measurement.

The latest report from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – IPA (formally the Major Projects Authority) has allowed the UK government to claim an improvement in its delivery of major projects, with the number of those at risk reducing from 44 to 38 in the past year.

The report says that there are 143 major projects on the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP), worth £455.5bn and spread across 17 government departments.

The data shows a steady improvement in the way that government is delivering major projects:

  • More than 60% of projects by whole-life cost are likely to be successfully delivered;
  • Since last year’s report, the number of at risk projects has reduced from 44 to 38, which continues to be an improvement from 48 the previous year;

The data shows signs of steady improvement in the way government is delivering major projects. The question is how was this achieved?

The answer is ‘slowly’ looking from the outside there seem to be three parallel processes working together to change the culture of the UK civil service:

  • The first is making project management ‘attractive’ to senior executives. Since 2000 the government has been working to develop the internal skills needed to allow the deployment of capable ‘Senior Responsible Owners’ (SRO) on all of its major projects including establishing a well-respected course for SROs. The Major Projects Leadership Academy was developed in 2012 (first graduates 2013) and is run in partnership with the Saïd Oxford Business School and Deloitte. The academy builds the skills of senior project leaders across government, making it easier to carry out complex projects effectively. In the future, no one will be able to lead a major government project without completing the academy programme.
  • The second has been making the performance of its major projects public. This includes an on-going challenge to acquire realistic and meaningful data on performance (still a challenge) and is most obvious in the annual report from the Major Projects Authority. Their fifth report is now available for downloading.
  • Finally skills development and robust challenges are put to departments to ensure adequate front end planning is completed before government funds are committed to a project.

This process is not quick and given the risky nature of major projects will never deliver a 100% success rate, but the steady change in attitudes and performance in the UK clearly show that ‘good governance’ backed by a sound multi-faceted strategy focused on the stakeholders engaged in the work will pay dividends. Proponents advocating for this type of improvement have many challenges to deal with, not the least of which is the fact that as data quality improves, the number of problems that will be visible increase – add the glare of publicity and this can be politically embarrassing!  However, as the UK reports show, persistence pays off.

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[1] For a definition of megaprojects see: https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/differentiating-normal-complex-and-megaprojects/

[2] See: https://www.nao.org.uk/report/delivering-major-projects-in-government-a-briefing-for-the-committee-of-public-accounts/

 

Defining Project Success using Project Success Criteria

Everyone likes a successful project but the big question is what makes a project successful??  A good example is the Sydney Opera House; was the Sydney Opera House successful or not?

Was the Sydney Opera House a success or not?

The project ran significantly over budget finished very late and was technically less than perfect; $millions are currently being spent rectifying many of the technical deficiencies in the building. But can anyone say Sydney Opera House is not one of the most recognised and therefore successful buildings in the world?[1]

Success is an ephemeral concept! Different people will have different perspectives and judge the success or failure project differently. Neither a project nor a program manager can control many of the factors that have made the Sydney Opera House worldwide icon but they can address the concept of success with their stakeholders and then work to deliver a successful outcome based on these discussions.

So what is success? There are probably three key elements, but these frequently create a paradox that requires a balanced approach to success. The three fundamental elements are:

  • The Iron Triangle (Scope + Cost + Time)
  • Benefits realised (or maximised)
  • Satisfied stakeholders (but, when??)

One of the key paradox is a myopic focus on the Iron Triangle particularly time and cost can frequently destroy benefits and leave the stakeholders unhappy, but focusing on keeping stakeholders happy can frequently have detrimental effects on the Iron Triangle. There are no easy solutions to this problem[2].

In my view, the successful delivery of a project or program requires:

  • Achieving the overall goal for the project;
  • Delivering its objectives; and
  • Meeting its success criteria.

But, to achieve success you need to define and agree the project goal, the project objectives, and the project success criteria with your key stakeholders with a view to achieving a combination of stakeholder satisfaction and value created. The goal and objectives frame the project’s work and direction. The success criteria frame how the objectives are achieved.

 

The Project Goal

Goals are high-level statements that provide the overall context defining what the project is trying to achieve. One project should have one goal (if there are multiple goals you are most likely looking at a program of work[3])!  For example:  Within 180 days, reduce the pollution in the rainwater runoff from a council tip by 98%.

The goal is a key statement in the Project Charter[4] and if the project is to be successful, all key stakeholders need to agree the goal.  The goal needs to be specific and should define the project in a way that focuses attention on the key outcomes required for overall success from a technical and strategic business perspective[5].

 

Project Objectives

The objectives are lower level statements that describe the specific, tangible products and deliverables that the project will create; each objective (and the overall goal) should be SMART[6]. For the runoff project the objectives may include:

  • Develop wetlands to trap 99.8% of sediment
  • Install channels to collect and direct the runoff
  • Install screens remove floating debris
  • Etc….. There will be a number of objectives……

Each objective requires defining and specifying with clear performance criteria so you know when it has been achieved. This may be done by the client or by the project team during the scope definition process. The performance criteria may be defined by a set of precise specifications that are specific and measurable or may be defined as a performance requirement with either:

  • The external contractor to provide the specific details of how the objective will be achieved, or
  • The internal project team to develop the details in consultation with the client

The defined objectives are the building blocks that facilitate the achievement of the goal and the creation of the benefits the organisation is expecting from the project[7]. The benefits need to be realised to create value.

 

Success criteria

Success criteria are different they measure what’s important to your stakeholders. Consequently, they are the standards by which the project will be judged at the end to decide whether or not it has been successful in the eyes of its stakeholders. As far as possible the stakeholders need to be satisfied; this includes having their expectations fulfilled and in general terms being pleased with both the journey and the outcome (in this respect scope, cost and/or time may be important).

Success criteria can be expressed in many different ways some examples include:

  • Zero accidents / no environmental issues;
  • No ‘bad press’ / good publicity received;
  • Finalist in the project achievement awards;
  • Plus the goal and all of the objectives achieved (yes – you still need to do the work).

For any project, the success criteria should be split between project management success criteria which of related to the professional aspects of running the project; plus project deliverable success criteria which are related to the performance and function of the deliverable.

Documenting the success criteria is important, it means you can get project stakeholders to sign up to them, and having them clearly recorded removes ambiguity about what you are setting out to do. The four basic steps to create useful success criteria are

  1. Document and agree the criteria; each criteria should include:
    1. The name of success criteria,
    2. How it is going to be measured,
    3. How often it is going to be measured, and
    4. Who is responsible for the measurement.
  2. Use continuous measurements where possible. For example, rather than ‘finish the project on time’ measure progress continually ‘no activity completes more than 5 days after its late finish date’.
  3. Baseline today’s performance.
  4. Track and report on your progress.

As with any performance indicators, the art is to select a few key measures that represent the wider picture if there are too many success criteria defined the impact will be severely reduced. For example, the effectiveness of meetings, communication and stakeholder attitude could be measured scientifically using the ‘Index Value’ in the Stakeholder Circle[8] or pragmatically by measuring the number of open issues against a target (eg, no more than 5 high priority open issues).

 

Summary

Goals and objectives are the building blocks required to allow the realisation value from the project’s outputs; they are essential ingredients in a successful project but are insufficient on their own.  The role of success criteria is to direct the way work at the project is accomplished so as to meet stakeholder expectations, and to craft a perception of success in the stakeholder’s minds.

Project success is an amalgam of value created for the organisation and your stakeholders being satisfied with the journey and the outcome.  This concept of success may seem subjective, but it does not have to be. Successful organisations work to take the guesswork out of this process by defining what success looks like and agreeing these definitions with the key stakeholders, so they all know when the project has achieved it.

This means the key to stakeholders perceiving your project as successful lays in understanding the criteria they will measure success by, incorporating those measures into your project success criteria, and then working to achieve the criteria. But even this is not enough, to engage your stakeholders you need to communicate the criteria, communicate your progress and communicate your success at the end. For more on effective communication see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PM-Knowledge_Index.html#PPM07

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[1] For more on the success or failure of the Sydney Opera House see Avoiding the Successful Failure!:  http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Resources_Papers_046.html

[2] For more on paradox see: https://www.projectmanagement.com/blog-post/30669/The-Problem-With-Paradox

[3] For more on differentiating projects and programs see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1002_Programs.pdf

[4] For more on the project charter see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1019_Charter.pdf

[5] For more on project success see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Mag_Articles/N001_Achieving_Real_Project_Success.pdf

[6] SMART = Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-framed.

[7] For more on linking objectives and benefits see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1042_Outputs_Outcomes_Benefits.pdf

[8] The Stakeholder Circle® index value see: http://202.146.213.160/help-files/stakeholder-engagement-profile/#engagement-index

The reference case for management reserves

Risk management and Earned Value practitioners, and a range of standards, advocate the inclusion of contingencies in the project baseline to compensate for defined risk events. The contingency may (should) include an appropriate allowance for variability in the estimates modelled using Monte Carlo or similar; these are the ‘known unknowns’.  They also advocate creating a management reserve that should be held outside of the project baseline, but within the overall budget to protect the performing organisation from the effects of ‘unknown unknowns’.  Following these guidelines, the components of a typical project budget are shown below.

PMBOK® Guide Figure 7-8

The calculations of contingency reserves should be incorporated into an effective estimating process to determine an appropriate cost estimate for the project[1]. The application of appropriate tools and techniques supported by skilled judgement can arrive at a predictable cost estimate which in turn becomes the cost baseline once the project is approved. The included contingencies are held within the project and are accessed by the project management team through normal risk management processes. In summary, good cost estimating[2] is a well understood (if not always well executed) practice, that combines art and science, and includes the calculation of appropriate contingencies. Setting an appropriate management reserve is an altogether different problem.

 

Setting a realistic management reserve

Management reserves are an amount of money held outside of the project baseline to ‘protect the performing organisation’ against unexpected cost overruns. The reserves should be designed to compensate for two primary factors.  The first are genuine ‘black swans’ the other is estimating errors (including underestimating the levels of contingency needed).

The definition of a ‘black swan’ event is a significant unpredicted and unpredictable event[3].  In his book of the same name, N.N. Taleb defines ‘Black Swans’ as having three distinct characteristics: they are unexpected and unpredictable outliers, they have extreme impacts, and they appear obvious after they have happened. The primary defence against ‘black swans’ is organisational resilience rather than budget allowances but there is nothing wrong with including an allowance for these impacts.

Estimating errors leading to a low-cost baseline, on the other hand, are both normal and predictable; there are several different drivers for this phenomenon most innate to the human condition. The factors leading to the routine underestimating of costs and delivery times, and the over estimating of benefits to be realised, can be explained in terms of optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation.  The resulting inaccurate estimates of project costs, benefits, and other impacts are major source of uncertainty in project management – the occurrence is predictable and normal, the degree of error is the unknown variable leading to risk.

The way to manage this component of the management reserves is through the application of reference class forecasting which enhances the accuracy of the budget estimates by basing forecasts on actual performance in a reference class of comparable projects. This approach bypasses both optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation.

Reference class forecasting is based on theories of decision-making in situations of uncertainty and promises more accuracy in forecasts by taking an ‘outside view’ of the projects being estimated. Conventional estimating takes an ‘inside view’ based on the elements of the project being estimated – the project team assesses the elements that make up the project and determine a cost. This ‘inside’ process is essential, but on its own insufficient to achieve a realistic budget. The ‘outside’ view adds to the base estimate based on knowledge about the actual performance of a reference class of comparable projects and resolves to a percentage markup to be added to the estimated price to arrive at a realistic budget.  This addition should be used to assess the value of the project (with a corresponding discounting of benefits) during the selection/investment decision making processes[4], and logically should be held in management reserves.

Overcoming bias by simply hoping for an improvement in the estimating practice is not an effective strategy!  Prof. Bent Flyvbjerg’s 2006 paper ‘From Nobel Prize to Project Management: Getting Risks Right[5]’ looked at 70 years of data.  He found: Forecasts of cost, demand, and other impacts of planned projects have remained constantly and remarkably inaccurate for decades. No improvement in forecasting accuracy seems to have taken place, despite all claims of improved forecasting models, better data, etc.  For transportation infrastructure projects, inaccuracy in cost forecasts in constant prices is on average 44.7% for rail, 33.8% for bridges and tunnels, and 20.4% for roads.

The consistency of the error and the bias towards significant underestimating of costs (and a corresponding overestimate of benefits) suggest the root causes of the inaccuracies are psychological and political rather than technical – technical errors should average towards ‘zero’ (plusses balancing out minuses) and should improve over time as industry becomes more capable, whereas there is no imperative for psychological or political factors to change:

  • Psychological explanations can account for inaccuracy in terms of optimism bias; that is, a cognitive predisposition found with most people to judge future events in a more positive light than is warranted by actual experience[6].
  • Political factors can explain inaccuracy in terms of strategic misrepresentation. When forecasting the outcomes of projects, managers deliberately and strategically overestimate benefits and underestimate costs in order to increase the likelihood that their project will gain approval and funding either ahead of competitors in a portfolio assessment process or by avoiding being perceived as ‘too expensive’ in a public forum – this tendency particularly affects mega-projects such as bids for hosting Olympic Games.

 

Optimism Bias

Reference class forecasting was originally developed to compensate for the type of cognitive bias that Kahneman and Tversky found in their work on decision-making under uncertainty, which won Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics[7]. They demonstrated that:

  • Errors of judgment are often systematic and predictable rather than random.
  • Many errors of judgment are shared by experts and laypeople alike.
  • The errors remain compelling even when one is fully aware of their nature.

Because awareness of a perceptual or cognitive bias does not by itself produce a more accurate perception of reality, any corrective process needs to allow for this.

 

Strategic Misrepresentation

When strategic misrepresentation is the main cause of inaccuracy, differences between estimated and actual costs and benefits are created by political and organisational pressures, typically to have a business case approved, or a project accepted, or to get on top of issues in the 24-hour news cycle.  The Grattan Institute (Australia) has reported that in the last 15 years Australian governments had spent $28 billion more than taxpayers had been led to expect. A key ‘political driver’ for these cost overruns was announcing the project (to feed the 24-hour news cycle) before the project team had properly assessed its costs.  While ‘only’ 32% of the projects were announced early, these accounted for 74% of the value of the cost overruns.

The Grattan Institute (Australia) has reported that in the last 15 years Australian governments had spent $28 billion more than taxpayers had been led to expect on transport infrastructure projects. One of the key ‘political drivers’ for these cost overruns was announcing the project (to feed the 24-hour news cycle) before the project team had properly assessed its costs.  While ‘only’ 32% of the projects were announced early, these projects accounted for 74% of the value of the cost overruns.

Reference class forecasting will still improve accuracy in these circumstances, but the managers and estimators may not be interested in this outcome because the inaccuracy is deliberate. Biased forecasts serve their strategic purpose and overrides their commitment to accuracy and truth; consequently the application of reference class forecasting needs strong support from the organisation’s overall governance functions.

 

Applying Reference Class Forecasting

Reference class forecasting does not try to forecast specific uncertain events that will affect a particular project, but instead places the project in a statistical distribution of outcomes from the class of reference projects.  For any particular project it requires the following three steps:

  1. Identification of a relevant reference class of past, similar projects. The reference class must be broad enough to be statistically meaningful, but narrow enough to be truly comparable with the specific project – good data is essential.
  2. Establishing a probability distribution for the selected reference class. This requires access to credible, empirical data for a sufficient number of projects within the reference class to make statistically meaningful conclusions.
  3. Comparing the specific project with the reference class distribution, in order to establish the most likely outcome for the specific project.

The UK government (Dept. of Treasury) were early users of reference class forecasting and continue its practice.  A study in 2002 by Mott MacDonald for Treasury found over the previous 20 years on government projects the average works duration was underestimated by 17%, CAPEX was underestimated by 47%, and OPEX was underestimated by 41%.  There was also a small shortfall in benefits realised.

 

This study fed into the updating of the Treasury’s ‘Green Book’ in 2003, which is still the standard reference in this area. The Treasury’s Supplementary Green Book Guidance: Optimism Bias[8] provides the recommended range of markups with a requirement for the ‘upper bound’ to be used in the first instance by project or program assessors.

These are very large markups to shift from an estimate to a likely cost and are related to the UK government’s estimating (ie, the client’s view), not the final contractors’ estimates – errors of this size would bankrupt most contractors.  However, Gartner and most other authorities routinely state project and programs overrun costs and time estimates (particularly internal projects and programs) and the reported ‘failure rates’ and overruns have remained relatively stable over extended periods.

 

Conclusion

Organisations can choose to treat each of their project failures as a ‘unique one-off’ occurrence (another manifestation of optimism bias) or learn from the past and develop their own framework for reference class forecasting. The markups don’t need to be included in the cost baseline (the project’s estimates are their estimates and they should attempt to deliver as promised); but they should be included in assessment process for approving projects and the management reserves held outside of the baseline to protect the organisation from the effects of both optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation.  As systems, and particularly business cases, improve the reference class adjustments should reduce but they are never likely to reduce to zero, optimism is an innate characteristic of most people and political pressures are a normal part of business.

If this post has sparked your interest, I recommend exploring the UK information to develop a process that works in your organisation: http://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-green-book-appraisal-and-evaluation-in-central-governent

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[1] For more on risk assessment see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1015_Risk_Assessment.pdf

[2] For more on cost estimating see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1051_Cost_Estimating.pdf

[3] For more on ‘black swans’ see: https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/black-swan-risks/

[4] For more on portfolio management see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1017_Portfolios.pdf

[5] Project Management Journal, August 2006.

[6] For more on the effects of bias see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1069_Bias.pdf

[7] Kahneman, D. (1994). New challenges to the rationality assumption. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical
Economics, 150, 18–36.

[8] Green Book documents can be downloaded from: http://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-green-book-appraisal-and-evaluation-in-central-governent

Phronesis – A key attribute for project managers

Phronesis (Ancient Greek: φρόνησις, phronēsis) is a type of wisdom described by Aristotle in his classic book Nicomachean Ethics. Phronesis or practical wisdom[1] is focused on working out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance. Aristotle understood ethics as being less about establishing moral rules and following them and more about performing a social practice well; being a good friend, a good manager or a good statesman. This requires the ability to discern how or why to act virtuously and the encouragement of practical virtue and excellence of character in others.  But in a post-truth world, the ability to use ‘practical wisdom’ to discern what is real and what is ‘spin’ in rapidly becoming a key social and business skill. So prevalent is this trend, the Oxford English Dictionary named ‘post-truth’ its 2016 word of the year.

This problem pre-dates Donald Trump and ‘Brexit’, but seems to be getting worse. How can a project manager work out the right way to do the right thing in the particular circumstance of her project when much of the information being received is likely to be ‘spun’ for a particular effect.  There may be a solution in the writings of Bent Flyvbjerg.

Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, Chair of Major Programme Management at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University, has a strong interest in both megaproject management and phronesis. A consistent theme in his work has been the lack of truthfulness associated with the promotion of mega projects of all types, worldwide and the consequences of this deception. To help with the challenge of cutting through ‘spin’, and based on his research, he has published the following eight propositions:

1. Truth is context dependent.
2. The context of truth is power.
3. Power blurs the dividing line between truth and lies.
4. Lies and spin presented as truth is a principal strategy of those in power.
5. The greater the power, the less the truth.
6. Power has deeper historical roots than truth, which weakens truth.
7. Today, no power can avoid the issue of ‘speaking the truth’, unless it imposes silence and servitude. Herein lies the power of truth.
8. Truth will not be silenced.

There is, of course, a book, Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice[2] that goes into more detail but just thinking through the propositions can help you apply the practical ethics that underpin phronesis.  Being virtuous is never easy, but regardless of the power brought to bear, sooner or later the truth will be heard.

The problem is which ‘truth’, understanding and perception will influence what people see, hear and believe to be the truth. Nietzsche, a German counter-Enlightenment thinker of the late 19th century, suggests that objective truth does not really exist; that objective absolute truth is an impossibility. The challenge we all face is the practical one of understanding enough about ourselves and others (we are all biased[3]) to achieve a reasonable level of understanding and then do our best to make the right decisions (see more on decision making), and to do the right thing in the right way.

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[1] From Practical Wisdom, the right way to do the right things by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharp.  Riverhead Books, New York 2010.

[2] See: https://www.amazon.com/Rationality-Power-Democracy-Practice-Morality/dp/0226254518/

[3] See,  The innate effect of Biashttp://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1069_Bias.pdf

Governmentality – the cultural underpinning of governance

Governmentality1Two major governance failures in recent times highlight the importance of organisational culture in delivering a well-governed entity.  Professor Ralf Müller has adapted the term ‘governmentality’ to describe the systems of governance and the willingness of the people within an organisation to support the governance objectives of the organisation’s governing body. When the willingness to be governed breaks down, as these two examples demonstrate, governance failures follow.

Toyota

The Lexus ‘unintended acceleration problem’ from 2009 has cost  car manufacturer Toyota a staggering $1.2 billion fine to avoid prosecution for covering up severe safety problems and continuing to make cars with parts the FBI said Toyota “knew were deadly.”  In addition to numerous civil actions and costs of reputational damage.  The saga was described as a classic case of corporate culture that favoured the seemingly easy way out instead of paying the cost and doing the right thing.  But, the actions of the people who magnified the problem by attempting to cover up the issues fundamentally contradicts the ‘Toyota Way’ that has guided Toyota since 2001. The Toyota Way has two core principles, respect for people and continuous improvement (kaizen).

Respect for people puts ‘people before profits’, and this is not an idle slogan.  Following an Australian Government decision in 2014, all motor vehicle manufacturing in Australia will cease by 2018 (this affects General Motors Holden, Ford and Toyota). In February 2014 Toyota president Akio Toyoda personally came to Australia to tell his workers of the closure and Toyota’s commitment to its staff through training and other activities has maintained staff commitment at our local Altona plant with everyone working to make the “last car the best global car!”.

The difference between the “people first equals customer first” attitude demonstrated in the approach to closing the Altona plant where people are still being released for paid training to up skill for new roles and the ‘customer last’ approach that dominated the Lexus saga is staggering.  The reaffirmation of the ‘Toyota Way’ may have been driven in part by the Lexus disaster but this does not explain why quality and customer service was allowed to fail so badly in the company that practically invented modern quality.

Volkswagen

A similar dichotomy is apparent in the Volkswagen diesel engine emissions scandal.  A company renowned for engineering excellence, from a country renowned for engineering excellence allowed engineering standards to slip to a point where the cars being sold were illegal.  The actual emissions were only part of the problem, Volkswagen engineers had developed a software program dubbed the ‘diesel dupe’ that could detect when the cars were being tested and change the engine performance to improve results. When the cars were operating under controlled laboratory conditions – which typically involve putting them on a stationary test rig – the device appears to have put the vehicle into a sort of safety mode in which the engine ran below normal power and performance thereby reducing emissions. Once on the road, the engines switched out of this test mode.

Governance issues

Neither of these issues involved ‘a few bad apples’ – the excuse used by most institutions to explain banking and financial scandals. They both required extensive management involvement and cover-ups or acquiescence. A substantial subset of both organisation’s management felt that doing the wrong thing was in the best interests of either themselves or the organisation (or both, at least in the short term). But the governing bodies of both organisations would seem to have maintained a commitment to their overall philosophy, the ‘Toyota Way’ and ‘Engineering excellence’.  So what caused the governance failure?

Governmentality

One element that seems central to both of these failures was a breakdown in the willingness of managers to comply with the overall governance philosophy of the organisation which in turn caused the governance processes to fail; this is the domain of governmentality. Governance cannot be successfully imposed on a population that does not want to be governed!

Governmentality2Governmentality is a term coined by philosopher Michel Foucault around 1980 and refers to the way in which the state (or another governing body) exercises control over, or governs, the body of its populace. The concept involves a complex series of two-way transactions involving:

  • the way governing bodies try to produce the people best suited to fulfil those governments’ policies;
  • the organised practices (mentalities, rationalities, and techniques) through which people are governed, and
  • the techniques and strategies by which a society is rendered governable.

In the same way as governments rely on most people complying with legislation most of the time, organisational governance mechanisms such as ‘project management offices’ and ‘portfolio management’ cannot function effectively without the cooperation of the people being governed. When governmentality breaks down and people no longer support the governance processes they cease to be effective.

The challenge facing every governing body, in every organisation, is in three parts

  1. Creating an authentic vision and mission for the organisation.
  2. Creating an effective governance system that supports the achievement of the vision.
  3. Creating and maintaining an ethical culture that embraces and supports governmentality.

Effective governance systems can weed out the bad apples and correct errors, but they cannot oversee the actions of every manager all of the time if the majority of people do not wish to follow the governance dictates, or actively work to subvert them.

Developing the ‘right culture’ by employing the right people (and importantly offloading the wrong people) starts at the top.  The governing body needs to ‘walk the talk’, their CEO and senior executives need to model the desired behaviours and ‘doing the right thing’ needs to be encouraged throughout the organisation.

Achieving this requires authenticity and a holistic approach to the way the organisation functions; all of the elements need to work together cohesively. Achieving this is the primary responsibility and challenge for the ‘governing body’, in most organisations, the Board of Directors!

If you get the vision, mission and culture right, even major lapses such as the ‘Lexus unintended acceleration problem’ can be overcome.  Despite the damage this caused, Toyota is now the world’s largest automotive manufacturer with a market capitalisation that is nearly double that of Ford and GM combined.  This is also the reason why Objectives, ethics and culture are the top three elements in my model for the ‘Functions of Governance’.