137 – EPM, PMO or JACI. What are our CEO’s talking about now?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1180 words

project flow diagram

I recently attended a presentation on enterprise portfolio management or project management offices in Victorian local government. It seems to be the latest idea that has caught the attention of CEO’s in their search for solutions to problems they can see.

I must have been working in local government for too long. I have seen management by objectives, evidence-based decision making (or decision-based evidence making as I like to more accurately describe it), total quality management, reengineering, and more recently, lean and high performance teams. It is as though we look out our window and see someone doing something that looks like what we think we should be doing and we just copy them.

In two of the long reads (here and here) the shortcomings of copying the private sector are dissected by Peter Drucker and Henry Mintzberg. Gary Hamel has a further go in his paper featured in this post. The public sector has a history of copying management approaches from the private sector that don’t work for public services. My view is that local government needs its own ‘local government management’ not another management idea from the private sector. We just don’t have the confidence in ourselves to create it.

In learning more about EPMs and PMOs, the approach has implications that I haven’t heard discussed by anyone in local government.   Implementing a project management office has the potential to be a fundamental change in operating model. Instead of managers running the same programs each year and managing some projects (usually capital works) the emphasis will shift to managing everything by projects. As much expenditure (capital and operating) as possible will be ‘projectised’ to force managers responsible for the projects through rigid control points to provide ‘corporate oversight’.

This is a change from the historical operating model for local government in which managers have delivered programs (i.e. services) that they have refined and learned to manage over time. It is like the one project repeated over and over each year. From one year to the next they might review problem areas but little changes. It is stable and predictable for everyone – the manager and their team, the organisation resourcing the service, and the community receiving it.

You might argue that it is too stable and unresponsive to changing needs, and you may be right. However, changing to ‘management by projects’ has implications beyond everyone having to learn some new and complicated processes. I suppose the people thinking this is a good idea have some reasons.

The first is likely to be the failure by councils to properly complete their capital works programs. This is a widespread problem and can result in commitments not being met, inefficient use of resources, and unnecessary financial imposts on communities.

The second is the lack of skills in generalist managers to run projects, especially when they are complex. Implementing a PMO is a form of management specialisation, which is being encouraged by universities producing the large number of project management graduates entering the market.

A third reason that is unlikely to be front of mind is that the increasing number of projects in local government reflects demand for greater responsiveness to the community. Organisations want to meet new or emerging needs without creating long-term funding commitments. The solution is often to establish a project, maybe a pilot. Some projects reflect short-term needs that are now being accommodated.

It is interesting to think about the implications of ‘projectising’ more operating expenditure and forcing managers of projects through rigid control points (you should see the flow charts in some project management guidelines). When senior management have to sign-off it immediately creates bottlenecks. The Executive at many councils already struggles with its workload. The worthy few on the Executive charged with making sure everything is as it should be will become inundated with the workload required to properly understand the value of each project in sufficient detail to decide whether or not it fits in to the overall strategy or if it is a current priority or if it is feasible to implement, and whether or not to let it go ahead.

I have heard that this is already causing problems for those hardy councils going down this pathway. As a result they are bundling projects into portfolios or programs (fancy that – sounds a bit like the way we have always done it) that are then approved. I am not sure exactly how this helps prevent unnecessary or poorly conceived projects from getting through. They will be masked in the program (again, a bit like they are now).

The other potential implication is that the imposition of highly standardised templates and project management processes will bureaucratise project management to such an extent that any potential to be more responsive to the community will be lost. I can see why the leaders of the project management office implementation want them – it allows them to cover for the less skilled or disciplined project managers. Maybe they also believe in centralising control of everything with the Executive.

Really though, every manager could do this every day to standardise and ‘proceduralise’ and control other people’s work. I am a big fan of systems and believe that systems improvement is the answer to the generally low levels of local government productivity and performance. But forcing everyone through a system that they have had little influence in creating and that has control points that can’t be avoided won’t fit well with the culture of most councils. It is an application of scientific management that could be straight out of a book by Frederick Taylor. And it has all of the potential shortcomings associated with disempowering and controlling management approaches.

There is a real risk that the creativity and energy of everyone working in the system will be lost. As it is, this is a ‘gift’ that people choose to bring to work. The few leaders involved in designing the process will be doing all the thinking by forcing everyone through their control points. It is the problem of any ruling elite. Modern society is the outcome of freedom from serfdom and the ability for everyone to contribute equally. It is the same with the modern organisation.

Some of the questions I would like answered before being convinced that the project management office isn’t JACI+ are:

  • Is an operating model of ‘management by projects’ what is really needed to deliver improved and sustainable local government performance?
  • Will it potentially create more instability and uncertainty than the organisation and community can cope with?
  • Will the whole organisation be resourced for the additional administration required to check through all controls – i.e. are there enough controllers not to create bottlenecks and are those required to be controlled able to keep up with the paperwork?
  • Could project management be improved through a more supportive and helpful approach?

+JACI is ‘just another copied idea’ being pressed into service in the absence of some original thinking about the actual problem at hand.