Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Changing the way we working: delivering impact through better project management

A workshop developed with Andrea Bradley covering the nuts and bolts of formal project management methods like PRINCE2 and MoRPHE, but also placing emphasis on the key question of how managers think and behave.

A summary was published in The Archaeologist 89 (Autumn 2013), pp. 17-21.

This workshop was developed in response to a perceived gap in opportunities to improve the standard of management in British archaeology.  Andrea Bradley of BIPC and I share an unusual perspective on project management, since we both combine experience of commercial archaeology with work outside archaeology and training in the PRINCE2 formal project management methodology.  There have been attempts since the 1990s to use the wisdom and techniques of management theory in archaeological contexts, but these have made little headway until recently.  To begin with we mapped out a brisk introduction to project management theory and terminology, but we realised as we talked about our experience of applying it in practice that much more important than any specific technique was the attitude of the project manager, and so we deliberately constructed the programme to start and end with changing the mental landscape.  All effective Continuing Professional Development must be personal development if it is make a real difference to future performance through changed behaviour.  This article summarises the key points.

Understanding ourselves

Although project management techniques have their place, the need for self-awareness and reflection is greater.  The workshop's first exercise explored our individual values and priorities by identifying our most intense experiences.  For many people this came from their leisure time or family life.  Unless we understand our drivers it is difficult for us to operate effectively.

Exercise: Self-assessment

There are no right or wrong answers.  You will not be showing your responses to anyone else, so be as honest as possible.  The exercise consists of 4 statements, which you are asked to score from 1 (disagree strongly) to 5 (agree strongly).

Disagree Neutral   Agree
I am competent and professional in my role
1        2        3        4      5
I find my role satisfying and productive
1        2        3        4      5
I am passionate about being involved in excavation
1        2        3        4      5
I make a positive contribution to the success of projects
1        2        3        4      5

The time you have taken to answer these questions is probably the longest you have spent on reflection in the last year.  But you answers are vital in setting any goals for improvement.  People are very poor at evaluating their own performance -psychologists have identified the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon where the less we know about a subject, the more confident we are in our opinion.  This is exacerbated by the prevalence in many organisations of a culture is "Don't ask don't tell" about people's performance, except for annual appraisals.  The rest of the time poor performance (or good performance) is not discussed.  One helpful tool is the 360 degree evaluation, where anonymous feedback from bosses, peers and underlings allows you to compare your idea of how you are doing with those of others.  There is a free survey available from www.carregffylfan.co.uk/media.html 

Projects and project management

There is a traditional view that the management of archaeological projects is unique bit is is archaeology, but this exceptionalism was challenged by one of the workshop's exercises.  Participants were asked to report on a recent project that had failed and to identify the reasons for failure.  The answers were: poor planning, poor communication, insufficient time and resources, unavailability of key staff, and inflexibility in the light of changing circumstances.  Nobody reported that C14 dating or a complex occupation phase was the problem.   The issues are generic, and precisely those that the discipline of project management is aimed at addressing.

Project management is a distinctive subset of general management - it gets its character from the fact that every project is temporary, with a defined endpoint and constrained resources.  As a result, projects involve compromises between standards, scope, costs and time: a good project manager is one who makes the right calls in the face of tough choices.  Project management is not, in essence, complex - it can be summarised as comprising three components: talking to people, moving bits of paper around, and thinking.  Moving bits of paper around is usually the easy bit, while thinking is often undervalued.

Formal project management defines a project as a unique temporary activity delivered a specified change with defined budget and resources, using skills from multiple parts of an organisation or consortium, in order to achieve a business aim.  In business, this aim is usually to generate a profit.  Although some archaeologists would say that a successful project is one that has the right academic or professional outputs, no organisation can afford to lose money forever.

PRINCE2 is the widely-used method in the UK, especially in the public sector, and its terminology and structure have become standard.  It is often perceived as paper-intensive and excessively bureaucratic, but one of the principles is that processes should be tailored for the project.  The key benefits of using PRINCE2 is the clarity about aims, progress and standards which reduces the chance of catastrophic failure.  Few archaeological organisations explicitly use PRINCE2, but PRINCE2 underlies English Heritage's MoRPHE project planning process (the replacement of Management of Archaeological Projects (MAP2 and MAP3)). 

The workshop didn't try to provide a full primer on project management, instead focusing on the issues most relevant to archaeology.

Defining roles

Successful projects tend to have well defined roles without overlaps or black holes, and project management therefore spends a lot of time defining the roles and responsibilities of those involved.  PRINCE2 discourages the creation of large steering committees with periodic progress meetings in favour of a project board restricted to those directly involved, meeting when required to make decisions.  The project board includes representatives of the suppliers (those doing the work), end -users (representing the client) and the corporate interests of the institution (the project executive or director).  The project manager reports to the board, from whom authority within defined limits is derived.  When things are running to plan, the project manager can provide brief highlight and checkpoint reports to the board members, but this can be escalated into ad hoc advice and meetings as soon as the project's success is threatened.  Typically the board's discussion will go like this:

Project Manager
Progress is behind schedule and completion is in doubt
We need more time and/or resources to complete the work
We need to ensure that standards are maintained if we are to achieve the intended aims
Providing more resources will reduce the profit generated

These tensions are inherent in any project governance structure - the power of assigning roles like this is in providing a forum and process by which these can be balanced.

Defining the structure

Projects often involve numerous contractors, subcontractors, and stakeholders, in addition to the hierarchy of the project team itself.  It is helpful to draw this structure and share it with others.  Since communication is vital, every link in the structure can be thought of as an information flow, and it is worthwhile considering the medium and frequency with which data will be shared (formal report, email, phone call, or site visit).  Often the process of mapping will highlights some key relationships which have no defined means of communication at all. 

Change, risk and progress

Chang and risk is part of the project landscape.  At the start, there are too many unknowns to predict effectively what will prove possible or desirable.  Good project management allows for this so that the project manager can spot risks and opportunities early and amend plans accordingly.

A thorny issue in archaeology is how we track progress.  It is relatively easy to monitor expenditure and activity to check spend against profile, but this doesn't address the vital question - how much of what needs to be done has been done?  In the end this is largely a judgement call, but project managers should at least be asking themselves this question all the time.

Changing how we work

“The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” Robert M Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Organisations are hard to change, but it is much easier to change our own behaviour.  The workshop ended with a series of practical tips which could be implemented immediately.  

The 'Five Whys' technique of root cause analysis can be applied to any recurrent problem, major or minor.  All it needs is a partner who can ask penetrating questions, and often the problem's solution emerges.   For example: "They've run out of content sheets on site again."  "Why?" "They didn't take enough." "Why?" "There weren't many left in the sore." "Why?" "The last project took most of them but didn't order more."  It would be possible to devise a complex administrative solution, but perhaps all that is needed is a note on the wall of the store reminding people to order more when the supply is getting low.

"Lessons learned" is a phrase that originated with PRINCE2 and has become a commonplace - continuous improvement comes from not repeating mistakes.  Even if there is no formal post-project review (and there should be), anyone can take some time to reflect on their experience and activity to identify what worked and what didn't.

We also need to recognise that we are not brains on legs - our physical and emotional state can affect our work.  I have a rule: no Excel after 4 o'clock, based on the bitter experience of re-doing financial reports the next morning when I'm awake enough to spot the errors. 

Having an impact

Those who attended the workshop found it inspiring and positive at the time, but more importantly they have taken action on returning to work. 

"I now plan out each morning what I hope to achieve, and review it at the end of the day"

"I make much more effort to explain the background to the tasks and to link it to our company objectives"

"I have found myself noticing my emotional state and deciding to postpone difficult conversations until I'm calmer"

Juggling priorities (c) Martin Locock   A photo of a large office whiteboard annotated with multiple tasks and dependencies

Project management is the art of juggling priorities Photo: Martin Locock

Would your oganisation benefit?  If so get in touch to arrange a workshops.


Unknown said...

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