When a project manager is delivering their project at pace it’s like being a rally driver. They are seeking to navigate a course where road conditions evolve as the environment unfolds; sometimes the road is not defined and they have to navigate a route across deserts or open countryside.
The project management community’s response to this is typically to ensure that the car is loaded up with instruction manuals and the roadside is littered with signage.
The driver doesn’t always have the luxury of time to read all of the signs and they degenerate into distractions in the periphery vision as the driver keeps focused on the road.
If a rally driver was asked to stop every mile to explain how they performed on the last section then progress would be seriously impeded; real time feedback provides the insights required. Furthermore, performance is not judged on one race, it is against a series of events which keep refining performance as the series progresses.
The driver would benefit more from understanding how others have driven along the route, sector times and stats, where they have been able to make up time, feedback on real time performance of the car, where accidents have occurred and the consequences of the accidents.
The remainder is left to the discretion of the driver and the navigator. Within the P3M profession, the project manager is bombarded with an increasing volume of signage, rules and regulations, processes and governance when many actually want to know where those before them have faltered
They are experienced rally drivers and are appropriately qualified to drive the car, but may be unfamiliar with the specific condition and circumstances of the track. The track is constantly evolving and weather conditions can change in an instant.
It could be argued that although the lessons learned process could result in changes to the car or routing of the road, the main focus should be on providing the contextural insights specific to the piece of road being traversed.
Furthermore, the race team also require analytics on where the car and driver may not have performed as well as could be expected so that adjustments can be made for the future.
The latter is generally an issue for the Portfolio Management Office. The former is something that is lacking within the dataset.
Although young rally drivers need to be nurtured and provided with opportunities to refine their skills within a safe environment, seasoned practitioners work at the edge of the envelope. They are well qualified and understand the theory.
Their challenge is how to apply the theory in a dynamic context within evolving constraints. It is an issue of prioritisation of management and delivery effort rather than teaching them how to drive.
If an organisation has never delivered a specific type of project before, how can it know which elements of the process need to be prioritised over others? The answer lies within the body of experience, segmented to the specific challenges of the project. But history has shown that systems and methods alone are unlikely to resolve the problem.
Although leveraging insights from experience can help the project team, the project manager does not work in isolation. They are surrounded by governance, assurance and processes, all of which can assist or constrain progress.
It is important that an organisation understands how experience influences the future and whether an intervention is required at project, programme or portfolio level. Moving towards a culture of extracting small margins when currently a lot of organisations are unable to quantify where the margins are large, small or potentially damaging for the business.
I acknowledge that the analogy is not perfect, but I do hope it helps P3M professionals to reflect on the balance of an ever-expanding set of processes and governance vs recruiting the right people and enabling them to perform to the best of their ability with the cards they are dealt.
Martin Paver is CEO of Projecting Success