Thought Leaders

Agility On Board

project managers

This article looks at two major trends which together should be driving a change in business operating models; projectization and agility.

The projectization of work has been gathering pace throughout my 36 year career. Not only that but the scale and scope of ‘project’ based activity has mushroomed, evidenced by:

  • The evolution of programme and portfolio management
  • Enterprise PMOs as commonplace
  • Mega projects
  • UK Government’s Major Projects Authority
  • The Major Projects Association…I could go on[i].

Of course it varies widely but when project based activity is moving towards 30-50% of FTSE 500 company investment, would a Board remain competent if it lacks project based experience? Executive training also falls short. It makes no sense that such training focuses on how to build a strategy but with little or marginal content on how to lead strategic transformation.

Would you hand your 17 year-old your car keys, tell them how a car works and then just let them go? And yet the proportion of Board members of FTSE 500 companies with a projects background is very small. Whither the Chief Project Officer?[ii]

Issue: Board members don’t ‘get’ projects.

Countless studies show that general (both cross-sector and global) project success rates stubbornly remain at an average of just 30-40%. Some argue that the increasing complexity, scope and scale of project activity is being matched by improvements, e.g. in recognition of people techniques such as communications, team working and leadership, along with the emergence of collaborative  technologies and fast internet. Keeping pace is not good enough as some organisations achieve 90% success rates.

Examine these and you will find projects integrated into their operating models, like words through a stick of rock. The Boards in such organisations understand that successfully creating value from project investment depends in part on what happens inside the project, but also what happens in its organizational hinterland – their bit. Conversely, where success rates are average, how often do project managers find they are almost fighting their organisations for the survival of their project?

Issue: Projects are marginalized compared with business-as-usual activity.

Perhaps THE other major business trend impacting operating models is agility. The evidence for creation of value from agility is legion, whether in projects or more widely[iii]. Agile businesses are more profitable. Within IT departments agility is increasingly the norm, and is mandated for UK government digital services.

But what agile? Because software development so often occurs in projects, agile development methods, e.g. Scrum are commonly confused with project management. They are NOT the same and if used as such mostly and very expensively fail. Project management agility, which by the way is not a new and different project management, but an adaptation of agility to the whole of project management. Agility is not a life-cycle, therefore the Waterfall vs Agile debate is a nonsense.

Issue: Agility and its use is frequently and expensively misunderstood.

People say to me “that is all well and good in theory but in the real world….”. In the real world there are the 90% organisations great at projects that can serve as models. Look at how they work and how true project management professionals work. Both exhibit agility usually without realising it. Therefore agility can serve as a model for creating value from projects.

The adoption of agility may not just mean value creation, but survival. Just look at sector disruptors such as Amazon in retail. Online retail is becoming a, if not the dominating retail business model. Disruptors have embraced agility. Agility does not suit some organization business models and cultures, but dare they resist change?

Put the trends of projectization and agility together successfully and you have the potential for anything from survival to competitive advantage. But only if an organization is prepared to change how they work, their operating model, their organization culture. A new operations that integrates project and business-as-usual activity, where agility is embedded top to bottom, strategy to coalface. Which brings me back to the Board. Only the Board can lead and sustain such a transformation so the big sell starts with them.

There is no magic bullet but as a profession we could do (and continue) the following:

  • The big sell to Board level
  • The big sell to corporate and organizational bodies, e.g. CBI
  • Project management as a core MBA subject
  • Project management and agility as core to business training for all managers
  • Project management in the school curriculum
  • Promote a better understanding of the project profession within HR and recruitment companies
  • Promote better understanding of projects in the media

APM has this in its sights and was the key message at the Fellow’s Forum 15th June 2022. As Kotter would say, keep the energy going.

[i] International Journal of Project Management Volume 24, Issue 8, November 2006, Pages 663-674

International Journal of Project Management: From projectification to programmification, Harvey Maylora, Tim Brady, Terry Cooke-Davies, Damian Hodgsond

[ii] The Rise of the Chief Project Officer by Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, April 26, 2022, Harvard Business Review

[iii] – Understanding Agile in Project Management (APM)

  – The Evolution of the Agile Organisation (PA Consulting)

  – Workplace Agility: The True Secret To Improving Productivity And Efficiency (Daniel Newman, Forbes Magazine)

Adrian Pyne is author of Agile Beyond IT.

PM Today Team
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