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A special edition of the DPPM book, titled "Deeply Practical Project Management For The Canadian Government" is available here. Five key recommendations are summarized in the preface, and copied below. They are likely largely applicable in any government organization. Please let us know if we can help you train your team or get your projects organized!


A Note About This Special Edition For The Canadian Government

Eventually a young manager displayed the first red chart. I stood up and clapped. That’s when everyone understood the key became identifying the problems, and helping each other find solutions.”
- Alan Mulally, Ford CEO, “How to turn around a business losing $17B.”

From 2007 to 2017, I taught about 200 project management classes to about 2,000 students from all departments across the Canadian government. I spent about 4,000 hours with these dedicated civil servants, and deeply appreciate how passionately they want to help. It is clear they need two main things: a practical, implementation level explanation of the global standard Project Management Institute (PMI) best practices, and a focus on five key points.

Does government need a different PM process from the tried and true PMI framework? Not at all. Some projects in government have most work done by contractors, some are purely internal without any contract involvement. The same is true in industry. Complexity is the common challenge in project management, so the PM best practices have been specifically developed to manage that complexity, no matter the organization. The only thing that changes in government is the governance points, such as the phasing of estimates through initiation, or the structure of senior level reviews, which are outside project management and differ in every organization.

What most people in government require is a practical description of the PMI processes for someone that doesn’t necessarily want to obtain a PMP certification, but wants to know how to apply the best practices in their current work. This reference aims to meet that need, providing a deeply practical implementation description of the PMI processes for use on real projects in real life. The framework applies to projects of any size, from any domain, and can help anyone who manages or works on projects to maximize the probability of their success.

What is particularly needed in government is an emphasis in five key areas, summarized below. These are required in any organization, however, for reasons of history and culture, are especially important in the government and deserve a special focus. Most of the issues in government projects will be resolved if these five points become part of the standard way of operating. All are described further in the body of this reference. I hope they help you.

1. One Project Manager. Every project must have a single Project Manager with full authority and accountability to ensure project success throughout its life-cycle, and the courage to tell the truth about the project status at all times. [s. 1.7, 2.6, 3.13.2, 5.10.3]

When there is not one empowered individual, with the exact title Project Manager, with the responsibility to ensure the correct process is followed end-to-end, and able and willing to T3 (tell the truth) about the scope, schedule, budget, and risks, then problems are inevitable. If a senior manager needs a briefing, up to and including the Prime Minister, it must be given by that one Project Manager – this is what single-point authority and accountability means. The Project Manager must be the one to not only assemble project status updates, they must be the one to give them. This gives the Project Manager three synergistic attributes at once: great accountability, great power, and great courage.

Far too often I have heard government project personnel say they reported their project as red, but it was changed to yellow by the next level of management, and then to green for reporting to the top-level. “We can’t tell them that”. “It’s not really red, it’s more kind of orangish”. “It’s red right now, but it’s trending green”. This is what must be avoided, if we wish projects to be successful. That success starts by empowering a single Project Manager to be the single conductor of the symphony.

By simply having a Project Manager, fully empowered by the Sponsor with the authority and accountability they need, therefore with the courage to manage proactively, and willing to tell the truth, then the chances of problems are vastly reduced, and the likelihood they will be surfaced for assistance when there is still time to recover are vastly increased.

2. Plan Bottom Up. Only approve project execution after the Project Manager and a working level team have prepared a bottom up plan using the standard PMI process, and honest dialogue has been held with the Sponsor to realistically balance the scope, schedule, and budget. [s. 3]

All too often, executives believe it is their job to dictate all three of a project’s scope, schedule, and budget, without dialogue with an implementation team that has run the standard project planning process to ensure the three are in balance. This has predictable results: plans are not realistic, and teams feel little motivation to live up to clearly unrealistic plans. All the PM best practices are simple and practical – the issue is simply in making sure they are implemented. The Project Manager must start by protecting the Sponsor, Customer, and project team, by ensuring a proper plan has been prepared, briefed, and the constraints realistically balanced before execution begins.

Fortunately, using the project management best practices, a realistic plan with +/- 10% accuracy can be developed with less than 5% of the overall project effort, so everyone knows what they are getting into before they start. This planning formalization and efficiency is the greatest benefit of the PM best practice process.

It is also critically important that the small group of subject matter experts that carry out the planning be the same people, or managers of the people, that will go on to execute against their own plan. Otherwise, again, the plan will be impressive and unrealistic, and the implementation team will neither buy into nor try to achieve it.

3. Delegate Risk Management. Every Project Manager must have a risk budget they themselves aggregate from individual quantification of the time and cost of a set of specific execution risks, and the project team must conduct real risk mitigation planning on those risks before the project starts. [s. 3.11, 5.6]

When Project Managers do not plan and do not have authority to manage their own risk budget, the result is under-sized budgets, delayed risk response, and blocked staff growth. If the rest of the project management process is to have a chance to work, the team that will drive the project must itself conduct professional risk planning to identify specific execution risks, carry out mitigation planning to reduce the problems they will have to manage themselves, size a realistic risk budget using the standard best practices, and have authority to spend that budget pro-actively when they deem it necessary.

The executive level should always have a secondary risk budget. However, when executives define the project-level risk budget by top-level approximation, or measurement only with low, medium, and high, or from 1 to 5, there is far too large an error range, and the project team itself does not have the critical sense of empowerment required for optimum project performance. In this, as in so much of project management, perfection is not the goal. What is essential is that the proper process be carried out so the problems are reduced to the greatest extent possible, and the risk budget is sized as accurately as best practice can contribute, so the issues that remain will fall within a manageable level.

4. Estimate Staff Hours And Track Them. The hours of government personnel working on projects must be estimated by the planning team, and then later tracked, to ensure the estimates are realistic, and the workload across the organization is balanced with the available resources. [s. 3.8.1, 4.2.6, 4.2.7]

Ironically, skipping project time estimates for government personnel because “they get paid anyway” hurts those personnel most of all. When staff hours are not estimated and tracked, schedule baselines are not realistic and often under-predict the actual requirement by several times. And in an almost universal issue across government, personnel across the organization have much more work on their plate than is understood, or can be realistically accomplished, resulting in schedule extension of almost all projects, therefore frequent change in priorities, and a cycle of demoralization. Fix project management in government, and morale will follow.

When team hours are estimated with an understanding they will be later tracked, the first benefit is a staff learning process leading to more accurate estimates over time. The second benefit is management identification of a clear project prioritization, and likely postponement of many projects, to ensure the workload matches the available resources based on hard data. This process does not need a hundred million dollar software application, and for almost all projects can be effectively managed with a labour loaded Gantt schedule, kept updated for reasonable accuracy six to twelve months out. The result will be better project performance, less disruption across the organization, and entry into a virtuous cycle of increasing morale.

5. Visibly Reward Honesty. The example of Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who turned around Ford when it was losing $17B a year, is the culture to strive for. When he arrived, his managers were reporting all their projects as green, or yellow at most. He told them this seemed odd for a company losing $17B a year. As he later wrote: “Eventually a young manager displayed the first red chart. I stood up and clapped. That’s when everyone understood the key became identifying the problems, and helping each other find solutions.” (s. 3.13.2, 5.10.1, 5.10.3)

Most projects will have issues with at least one of scope, schedule, or budget, just as the nature of complex efforts in a dynamic world. It is not even possible for most Project Managers to personally cause these problems. Therefore, it is only the second priority of the PM to succeed. Their first priority must always be to T3 – “tell the truth”. This is the non-punitive, supportive culture the working level must see rewarded for them to commit to their best efforts, surface problems when they are easiest to address, and ultimately obtain the best project performance possible.

Most people in government are dedicated public servants that want to do the best job possible. However, you will always get the behaviour at the working level that top management visibly reinforces in the middle levels. That rewarded behaviour must start with the example of a T3 culture from the top.

Excellence is achievable. A virtuous cycle of increasing achievement and morale is possible. To get there, these five points must be actioned throughout government at all levels, since most of the issues are on small and medium-size projects that actually consume most of the government’s budget, but never hit the newspapers. The example must start at the top. But only by doing it right from the bottom up will staff develop, and performance on the large projects improve, over time. That result is absolutely within your grasp.


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