I have been on a two day advanced project management training course delivered by Patricia Healy from Marana Consulting. Some of my colleagues were surprised I went. They know that I started studying project management in the 1980s, that I have managed hundreds of projects and indeed delivered project management training. I went because I wanted a refresher. In this regard, I have to say that it was a very good course.
One of the difficulties for someone with my experience is that our knowledge is gained partly by doing. Some of the big things now were simply not invented when I started. The early days of Prince2 date to 1989, although it would be many years before the current version emerged. PMBOK started in 1996. All this creates a number of difficulties.
First, there are subtle shifts in jargon. While the concepts actually remain the same, their naming shifts. Take a simple example. When I started learning project management, we used the term parametric pricing to describe comparisons based on historical data and comparisons with other similar projects. Parametric because these comparisons set estimating parameters. However, the terms top down or analogous estimating appears to be the current use to describe the same process. Now the problem is that if you use the wrong jargon, people don’t know what you mean.
A second difficult is that we now live in a credentialed world. If you don’t have formal qualifications in project management and the capacity to talk learnedly about, say, Prince2, then your experience counts for little. Unless you can drill through and get people talking about specific things such as estimating problems, your knowledge will count for little.
To add to the problems, the actual project management capabilities in many areas of Government are limited. There are very particular reasons for this. A key one is the focus on form rather than function or purpose. You do this and that, create this and that, but it really doesn’t matter. You have an implementation plan, a communications plan, a risk management plan because you must have these things. The plan as an action device is neither here nor there. You just have to have the plan.
This may sound jaundiced and indeed it is. This was the area where Patricia was remarkably good. She showed us, and we were all project managers at different levels, how we might use the project management process to achieve our objectives. It became a tool for our use, not one imposed from on high. None of us were blind to the practical application issues, but we all saw how we might improve performance.
And then from a purely Jim perspective, she gave me some tools and techniques that I actually didn’t know, despite all my experience. One was the way to crash a project, the term used when you must shorten the time frame and provide advice on the costs of so doing. I thought that this technique was bloody brilliant.
Anybody involved with projects will have experienced either a project over-run or a demand to shorten time horizons. We all have techniques for managing in these circumstances. The technique that Patricia demonstrated centred on critical path analysis. It’s advantage from my perspective is ease of application in smaller projects; you don’t need a computer application, but can use a simple working sheet.
We all use project management techniques. It’s called planning. Project planning takes that a step further by creating a degree of rigour. When my daughters were at primary school, the curriculum included project management. In my naive way, I was surprised but thought that was good, that the techniques learned would carry through.
It didn’t quite work like that because the real world isn’t like that. Both girls are good planners when required, but I doubt that they use many of the techniques taught then. De Bono’s hats, a problem solving technique, would be an example. Part of the reason for non-use is that the the techniques were not integrated into the later curriculum. They lacked relevance as a consequence.
A second and more important reason lies in the very nature of project management. Project management takes time. It is a set of processes and tools whose relevance varies depending on what you need to do, If you blindly apply the whole process, use every tool, then planning comes to dominate doing. This is what often happens in government where the tick box approach becomes all. This doesn't work.
If you think of project management as a process and tool kit that you apply to the degree that it’s relevant when it’s relevant, then it becomes very powerful. That is the reason why Patricia’s course was perceived as good; it was personally useful.
Do I feel another Belshaw reform program coming on? Perhaps at a very micro level.
A number of my colleagues have done or are doing either the certificate IV or diploma courses in project management. They find, will find, that much of what they learn simply sits on the shelf because its just too difficult and time consuming to apply. Maybe, just maybe, it might be possible to create an environment that will encourage selective use.
This environment will not come from on-high. The higher up the food chain people go, the more disconnected they become from working realities. They simply forget or acquire different priorities. Meantime, the worker bees have to get on with their jobs. Change might come if enough of the worker bees adopt the techniques on a selective basis as a way of both managing their own work and managing up.