Project Management style in times of uncertainty

Tuesday, 14 June 2016 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

On a sample of 269 companies the report that Q1 2016 delivered 16% growth at 61 billion was a performance for which Sri Lanka’s private sector must be commended, given the key issue that the country has been up against – policy inconsistency. 

A very senior business professional opined that the new ethos of working in Sri Lanka is to run one’s office on the model ‘Project Management’ rather than the usual organisation structure and job functions. The reasoning for his ideas was that every initiative has a very clear start time and end time and agreed profit deliveries which takes into account all possible changes in policy that will be evaluated by a cross section of varied professionals. Whilst not agreeing with the extreme thought, the idea sure seemed the most practical way of running a business.


Salawa ammunition depot – clean-up of the vicinity  



Project Management – 2016

Given the personality who shared this idea, I researched what Project Management (PM) was. It is essentially a discipline and not a profession. The logic being in today’s uncertain business environment where the variables change so often, it does not matter if you are a marketer, an accountant, or a legal expert, you are called to sit on project teams as a way of life. 

I guess that’s why PM is defined simply as allocating money, time and people in a way to achieve a predetermined objective. The predetermined objective can be the launch of a new brand, importing a consignment of cars, construction of an apartment project or even just doing an extension to an existing hotel property. 

How Project Management works

The first stage in the PM discipline is called the Basic level. Here a typical Project Management team has an initial understanding of what the project is about and what the content are which is where many project management teams operate in.

Then comes the Advanced Stage of Project Management when risks are identified which are associated with the project and the team recognises that complex techniques like change management are required for the successful implication of the project — for example a 360 degree customer care program that you want to launch in a company.

If one wants to really master PM then it must come up to Expert Skill stage where the team gets involved in negotiating business BUP_DFTDFT-20-NA11-1considerations, factors in legal implications and also users sophisticated estimating and tracking mechanisms, to drive key projects in an organisation. Finally comes the Speciality Skill stage of project management where most meetings happen electronically and usually the team members are scattered across different areas geographically.

I guess the challenge is for an organisation to determine at what stage each project is in and to what extent of complexity does a typical project team needs to function is in for the timely delivery of results. Hence the onus lies on the senior management of the company to make this call and infuse this new skill into a company.

CEO survey 2016

But from the recent CEO survey 2016, what has been revealed is that many organisations might not actually be using technical terms like Project Management in day-to-day business operations; they might be calling them cross-functional teams that keep sprouting up across the organisation given the challenges Sri Lanka has been up against last year and especially in the first quarter of 2016. 

This means the first task of senior management is to instil this technical change to teams and sensitise them to the discipline of Project Management, even though working in teams is a way of life in today’s business world. Once PM becomes an integral part of the organisation, then comes the challenge of how one can master the required new skill set that can drive a business executive of today to higher performance in a company, which is why PM is today termed a business skill.

If PM is accepted as a business skill in some organisations, we see that in certain key projects, board members are appointed into the Project Team and the team directly reports to the board on the progress made. This is where one can say that Project Management has achieved a very high degree of maturity in a company. But for this to happen a sense of appreciation by CEOs or MDs must take place that will drive the team to practice this new business skill that is coming into play in Sri Lanka.

Certain blue chips and multinational organisations practice this already which infers that to some extent there has to be a structure of operation if one is to use Project Management as a competitive skill

Agile PM

Given the many economic shocks that Sri Lankan organisations in the private or State sector are getting exposed to, from financial crisis to the global economic down turn and then to the recent floods, we see an emerging development called Agile Project Management taking form. This is essentially when a company is operating in a highly volatile environment and a typical PM team will demand special skills which are technical in nature. But speed happens to become a key factor that is essentially a multiplier.

Some of the key skills which are required are managing frustration in the delivery of projects due to bureaucracy and the teams having to demonstrate a high degree of maturity given the political environment that country operates in. In some situations an Agile PM team might be required when working in unsafe environments, which means that the environment plays an important role in this kind of structuring of PM teams, which I guess we must be aware of.

Expert on PM

Given the basic exposure on the science of PM, I guess it’s important to understand how this new business skill can be mastered. When examining organisations that practice such skills effectively, how they have reached this degree of excellence has been by on-the-job training but also combining some off-site education training which is of technical nature.

The key goal of an organisation is that PM must evolve from a basic skill to possessing expert skill so that it can reflect a better chance of predicting obstacles and then working around them so that delivery of the project happens at the targeted timelines. This is the most important aspect to remember. There is no point mastering the skill set of the delivery if the project is off the time target.

Why PM fails

This takes us to the area of why PM fails in a company, be it private or public sector. According to Standish Group that conducts global surveys in this area, it has been revealed that only 17% of projects ultimately get delivered on time. Almost 50% of projects are forced to change their targeted delivery dates whilst 33% of projects get cancelled.

In the United States alone last year it has been valued that the cost of non-delivery of projects on time has been a staggering 80 billion dollars, which gives us an idea of how important this skill is in today’s environment. I guess it’s important for organisations in Sri Lanka to do a similar exercise so that it tells us how important it is that every business executive of today must be Project Management savvy.

One reason why projects fail is due to clear demarcations not being agreed at the outset. Poor leadership is when one has to be clearly appointed formally, and finally the non-availability of funds at the right time. I guess in Sri Lanka the latter is very real especially in the public sector but in the private sector it has more to do with non-allocation of funding for core activity.

The logic being that until a project is completed there is no revenue coming into an organisation — take for instance the project team that is on the Port City project. Until the project comes to play into the market all monies do not bring any return, which is why the company was demanding $ 125 million compensation from the Government. Hence, one way out is to accurately budget the planned expenditure and stick to this cash outlay so that it does not become a stumbling block for the project team’s performance or it would be factor in policy issues and inform the relevant decision makers of the impact on business. 

PM – ethical issues

Ethics is all about morality. Sir Francis Bacher refers to morality as a trait that tells an individual if a certain activity is right or wrong. Given that most projects are to do with large values there has to be a high degree of delivery on integrity. Some argue that corruption and development goes hand in hand but that does not hold ground in the strictest sense of PM. It is also important to note that ethics do not change with time and the society that it operates in, which is why the selection of the leader plays an important part in the overall delivery projects in today’s world.

Next steps

1) Organisations (private and public sector) must identify activities that can be better run by project teams. 

2) An audit must be done on the current performance based on delivery of tasks based on time lines agreed as against project team past performance.

3) Identification of training gaps and careful skill training must be invested by the company.

4) The delivery of projects must be broken down to responsibility of the team and this must be included into the performance appraisal of the individual.

5) Highlight the importance of PM as a business skill for a new age business executive.

6) The Project Management process must be linked to a web system so that intelligence and leadership skill development techniques come into play.


(The writer is a Board Director in the private and public sector. The thoughts are strictly personal views.)

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