Sunday, June 26, 2022

Barriers to project success - an exercise in found data

I love 'found data'. It's the inadvertent information that gets shared and can reveal something deeper about the world we live in. My annual Christmas card audits (the ACCAs) are an example. It's almost as good as 'found art'.

Some art I found previously...

This found data was from a project management course that I completed this month (June 2022). There were nine students on the course, which was conducted remotely over five non-consecutive days. Seven students were from the NHS, one was from a university and the ninth worked for a public sector body. The project management programme was PRINCE2, which is a methodology that has been widely taught (if not widely followed) for a number of years.

PRINCE2 has seven key principles that every project conducted in line with PRINCE2 is meant to adhere to. They are non-optional. The seven principles are:

  1. Projects must have a 'continued business justification' - they need to be checked regularly to see if they are still viable and will provide a useful product and value for money
  2. Projects should be informed by experience, incorporating lessons from other projects and ensuring lessons are learned during the life cycle of the project
  3. Projects should have 'defined roles and responsibilties' in the project team 
  4. Projects should be 'managed in stages' which includes a clear process for starting and ending projects
  5. Projects should also be 'managed by exception', so higher levels of management are only really involved if circumstances change and projects are unable to go as planned
  6. Projects should 'focus on products' - the result or outcome of the project
  7. And finally, project management and design should be tailoured to fit the context of the project

The person leading the course used an interesting approach to get us to discuss (and learn!) the seven principles. He gave all of us seven votes and asked us which of the seven principles we thought were least likely to be adhered to in our workplace. We could assign as many of our votes as we liked to any of the principles, depending how difficult it would be to adhere to particular principles in our workplaces. That was 63 votes in total.

Now, bearing in mind who was on the course, I found the results really interesting.

Top of the pile, with 20 votes - almost a third of all the votes we were allowed - was the first principle: continued business justification. So, basically, the feeling was that once a project got started it was never checked to see if it was still needed. It would just carry on, regardless. It didn't matter if the landscape had changed, new evidence had emerged, technology had advanced or whatever. There was no stopping it. Projects might even get started without a business justification in the first place. It was somebody's pet idea and if that person had enough clout they could make a project happen.

Next in the pile, with 14 votes - which is the rquivalent of two votes from everyone on average - was 'defined roles and responsibilities'. When we discussed this, it was either people not knowing what they were meant to do, people higher up in the system micromanaging and interfering, or trying to get support from the 'not-my-job' brigade who just refuse to undertake roles in projects. 

Both 'focus on products' and 'manage by stages' earned 9 votes each. The focus of projects is often on the process rather than the outcome, and everyone seemed to have a story about a project that started without a defined intended outcome. Manage by stages also seemed to be a difficult one because projects get launched with very little planning and without a step-by-step plan for product delivery. 

Tailouring and learning from experience both earned 7 votes. There is common phrase about reinventing wheels that crops up regularly. I've noticed a reluctance of people in the NHS to learn from other organisations, or even from other teams in their own organisatrion. The default position is that whatever worked up the road couldn't possibly work here because our job doing the same thing is actually so much harder and more complex! It's nonsense, but it's hard to argue with people who find that belief convenient for several reasons.

And then, finally, 'manage by exception' got 4 votes. That seems to indicate that people do bring problems to those above them in the organisations. Mainly that's because they will have run out of money and are asking for more (he says, slightly cynically).

Mathematically adept readers may have noticed that the total adds up to more than 63 votes, so some people obviously got carried away and lost count of their votes. But the general trend feels true to the discussions we subsequently had.

I'm not arguing for the reliability of found data, and I recognise this is a very small sample size. But it does capture the perceptions of people about the barriers to running projects according to an established methodology. And actually, this kind of subconscious sharing of information may be more reliable than if people were asked under formal conditions to give an opinion. This is what people really think about trying to make projects work in these organisations. 

No comments:

Post a Comment