Rules of Thumb for Programme Management 

I recently graduated from the Major Projects Leadership Academy, an 18 month programme run for the Cabinet Office by Oxford’s Said Buisiness School

I found the programme incredibly useful and have committed to sharing some of the insights and thinking in my own organisation where I am Senior Responsible Owner for a portfolio of 15 programmes. One of the sessions encourages us to discuss and record ‘heuristics’. These are the shortcuts or rules of thumb, the nuggets of wisdom which we routinely use to drive actions in our projects and programmes. The following is a list of 5 culled from my work; I hope you find them useful or thought-provoking and I have included links wherever possible for those who would like to dig deeper, using examples from Denver airport, the Space Shuttle disaster and Barings bank amongst others to help illustrate the points. 

Build your bridges before you need them.  This is all about stakeholder management; projects and programmes are primarily about people – their motivations, thoughts, loyalties, trust. 

Building bridges means going out to your stakeholders and building a relationship and gaining mutual trust (like making a deposit in a bank) before you need to rely (make a withdrawal) on that relationship. Never let yourself get to the stage where the first thing you do to a stakeholder is ask them for something or have them say ‘I told you so’ like happened at Denver Airport. 

Just because it’s massive, doesn’t mean it’s not true.  

There is an assumption when working in large programmes that ‘someone somewhere’ has all the answers. In my experience it’s necessary to evidence rather than assume that. Over the years I have worked in programmes that have literally forgotten what it is they are delivering, that have no way or plan to understand whether a milestone has been met, ones that manifestly will run out of money before completion and others that have no risk management at all!  So, just because something appears so thunderously obvious or large, you really can’t afford to assume anything at all, especially if joining a programme ‘in flight’. 

Wash the laundry. With dirty laundry you essentially have 2 choices: acknowledge that it’s dirty and wash it, leading to fresh clothes, more choices etc. Or you can close the lid on the laundry basket and hope it goes away, leading to less choice over what you wear and an increasing stench that will never go away!  

Programmes often have ‘bad things’ in them, typically schedule or cost over-runs but sometimes issues of poor governance, shaky requirements or bad practice. Every time I have seen this, attempts to suppress or ignore the issues have, after short-term relief, led to far more damaging co sequences than if the laundry was washed straight away. In the case of minor schedule or cost issues, I have seen them emerge as major and usually irrecoverable ones so I try to welcome bad news and treat it as a problem to be solved so that I’m able to get to the issue while it’s still small enough to be treated. A healthy and inclusive approach to risk scanning obviously helps to head off these things as early as possible. 

Make no space for Delusion and Deception. Bent Flyvberg has conducted some excellent work analysing delusion and deception in major projects. He finds that often, major projects are started because facts are manipulated to over state the benefits and down play the risks. This can develop into a cultural approach to ‘managing information’. Delusion happens when an overly optimistic approach is adopted by a ‘can do’ organisation or people, leading to hopelessly unrealistic plans. So what do we as programme managers do?  Well, firstly acknowledging that these 2 issues are toxic is important. Next, evidence is always your friend. Whilst strategic deception may be something of an ‘external environment’ concern, as a programme manager it’s essential to be clear about what benefits you can actually deliver with the resources you’ve been given. It’s then up to the sponsoring group whether and how they communicate that. Delusion is much more controllable. By insisting on evidence-based plans you can detect it in schedules: I have frequently found project schedules that are wildly optimistic because they are based in ‘work must be done by’ dates and then systematically delete tasks and events that don’t fit. You’re the only loser here because in the short term you feel cosy but the reality is – you already have a schedule overrun!  Time to wash the laundry….. I find the use of open questions to determine the basis of estimate or cost often reveals these delusions. Also, an approach I used in aviation safety; rather than looking for evidence to disprove something (i.e. It’s safe to fly unless we find something wrong), using a mindset that asks ‘why is it so’ (i.e. What evidence is there that it is safe to fly?) helps to cut through what is often a mix of delusion and bluster. 

The relationship is (almost always) more important than the issue. Another stakeholder one to end with. Things happen, plans fail, risks manifest and people make mistakes. As the pressure mounts in high-stakes delivery it is very tempting to make this personal at whatever level. But think about it for a bit – most issues aren’t going to break a programme or even still be a factor in say, a year from now. But people will and how you all deal with challenges and failures, even if caused by bad behaviour, will linger long after the issue has gone so how you deal with these things is probably at least as important as what you do. 

That it, 5 heuristics, short-cuts, rules of thumb or whatever you want to call them that form part of my approach to programme management. Do these ring true?  What are yours?

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