The government of Canada’s transformation agenda continues to drive change across the public sector, requiring delivery of a large number of increasingly complex, high-profile multi-million dollar projects. This, coupled with the introduction of Shared Services Canada to manage IT infrastructure, has increased the complexity of the IT project environment, governance, oversight and decision-making, due to multi-department involvement and accountability.
Despite several cross-government and departmental initiatives to improve project management capability and capacity over the last 20 years, only incremental improvement has been realized. At the same time, the federal government continues to rely heavily on contracted supplemental staffing to resource critical projects.
Over the past four years, our firm reviewed over 20 major federal transformational projects and found that these projects were primarily resourced through a combination of employees and contractors – few of which had previously worked together. Despite having trained, certified and experienced resources, project delays and budget overruns were often evident and sometimes spectacularly so: 75 percent of projects reviewed had a medium- to high-risk of failure of scope, schedule and/or budget.
The source of these deficiencies was multi-causal, but there was one common theme across projects: misaligned accountability.
Management theory has long told us of the benefits of high performing teams, and though hotly debated among management experts, the generally accepted characteristics include open communication, trust, respect, positive team culture, agreed approaches, and clear roles and responsibilities.
Why is it then, that when departments initiate some of their most complex projects, they assemble a project team of individuals with different backgrounds and approaches who have never worked together?
Team members often have different values and disciplines, and are experienced with different, sometimes conflicting, approaches, methods and tools. Typically, the PM approaches are not synchronized; conflict can range from difficulty making decisions, to team members consciously allowing other members to fail.
There may be no onus on team members to support other members resulting in processes not being followed and actions not being followed up. Without common processes and agreed goals, a project team member can cause key elements of the project to stall due to insufficient knowledge-sharing within the team.
Given these resources are often acquired through staffing actions or engaged on separate contracts, the personal goals of team members are not necessarily aligned to the goals of the project. The primary goals of project resources are often personal: public sector resources are driven by career progression/preservation; contracted resources seek revenue stability. In both instances, resources are incented to perform in their role regardless of other project areas or overall project performance (with the notable exception of the responsible project manager).
The misalignment of goals is compounded in that the reporting structure is not aligned to the project structure. Management of contracted staff is often not aligned to the accountability structure within the project, particularly when project leadership roles are externally contracted. This results in the project leadership having limited direct authority over the project team, constraining their ability to synchronize approaches and foster successful team behaviours. In addition, the accountability of the staffing companies that provide resources is limited to ensuring individuals meet experience profiles, with little to no accountability for project success.
In too many instances, procurement practices have driven resource selection into an environment that is more aligned to “buying staplers” than to procuring professional teams to deliver a department’s complex activities. Selection is typically based solely on amount of experience, education and accreditation which can lead to the resourcing of ineffective teams; those criteria do not ensure the resources have appropriate capabilities. The key competencies known to improve performance – leadership, tenacity, drive, emotional intelligence, ability to communicate, attention to detail, ability to understand key risks and to allocate time appropriately – are largely ignored.
Transformational projects should look to establish their project teams in a way where the team functions effectively, is accountable for project delivery, and is comprised of resources with the full range of interpersonal and PM skills necessary to deliver complex projects in a challenging environment.
Organizations should look to procure a team – and hold the team accountable for project delivery – rather than procuring individual PM resources. This team accountability will incent team behavior, ensure the team is aligned to a single project management approach and methodology, ensure alignment of individual goals, and help drive the selection of resources based on capability/skill – ultimately leading to improved project delivery performance.
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