It always amazes me in large programmes of work how, over time, the programme tends to grow arms and legs.
What do I mean by this?
In order to manage and control the programme, activities have to happen to provide data to senior stakeholders in a structured manner. The capture of this data takes time and effort. The structuring of this data in a consistent manner across all work streams takes time and effort. The reporting of this data in powerpoint slides plus the time in meetings talking through those slides all takes time and effort. Over time, these activities to monitor and control a project end up taking over the activities that are actually delivering the project benefits. What this means in the end is that a large percentage of time of those people who need to be delivering project products end up doing things that do not contribute to those project products. A cottage industry is created of wasteful activities.
It gets worse…
What is even worse, is that when programmes get towards that time when projects start to report status as amber and red, these activities tend to grow even more. The justification for this is that as things start to go wrong, the decision makers want to know more about what is happening. Therefore, they require more and more information from the doers. This is actually the worse thing that can happen when things are starting to go wrong as all energies should be focused on the right tasks and the right tasks are those tasks that deliver the agreed project products.
What should we do?
If you stick to a few important principles then you can get around this. Some of these principles come from lean and agile practices.
1. Always focus on what adds value
I went to a talk once on motivation when I was working for a large consulting firm. An Olympic rower was talking about how he made decisions coming up to a big race. If he wasn’t sure what to do, he asked himself “If he did it, would it make him go faster?”. If he answered “yes”, then he would do it. If he answered “no”, then he would not do it. This is a very simple rule to help him determine the difference between a value-add activity and an activity that would not help him meet his objectives.
2. Constrain the cottage industry
Identify a few people on the programme that are accountable for gathering and reporting on this data and limit the involvement in status updates and status meetings to these few people. Make them accountable for what is happening in their area but let their teams get on with what they are doing
3. Provide support to the cottage industry
Quite often those people mentioned in point (2) above are the most expensive resources on the project. They are there because of their skills in some specific area such as (a) deep industry knowledge, (b) experience of delivering similar programmes or (c) deep product knowledge. Therefore, all the activities that could be handed over to administrative support should be done so. I come across examples of this every day. For example, a spreadsheet might need to be put onto a set of slides to present in a Steering meeting. This takes time but only requires Microsoft skills which are not expensive. Typically, a programme office provides this sort of support so make sure you have one in place with the right level of skilled people.
The important thing about all of the above is to recognise that these activities are important, but that they can easily take over. Everyone always wants more information but make sure that people do not lose focus on the things that are important to the overall deliverables. Remember that in order to complete the project, people have to deliver products which can then be used to deliver benefits to the customer. Do not let anyone forget that.