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Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Leaders wanted as project management gets a promotion

Published 09 October 2013 07:49, Updated 26 November 2013 18:35

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Leaders wanted as project management gets a promotion

Mark Schroffel says leadership is a critical component of project management, and should encompass a broader context than just the job at hand. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Management consultant Mark Schroffel got his first taste of project management when, as an army officer in signals intelligence, he headed specialist teams entrusted with “developing certain capabilities”.

More detail than that he cannot provide, but the experience led to him becoming an adviser on project management to government and some of Australia’s biggest companies.

“I work with project managers and the executives who sign off on the budgets,” he says.

Upon leaving the army with the rank of captain in 1997, Schroffel joined consulting firm SMA Management & Technology and specialised in leading change management programs. But his focus changed as he realised that many clients were paying too little attention to the management and governance of projects. His interest shifted from delivering projects to the strategic side of project management: developing project methodologies, advising on the design, management and governance of projects and reviewing projects that had fallen off the rails.

“I’ve seen situations where really good project teams, with the skills and know-how, are let down by the governance of the project,” he says.

As the principal of Melbourne-based organisational development firm Schroffel Consulting since 2003, Schroffel advises companies and public sector agencies on the design and implementation of projects.

His clients include Newcrest Mining, National Australia Bank, Queensland Treasury Corporation and BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance.

Schroffel says leadership has become a critical component of project management – both organisationally and within the project management team – as projects assume greater complexity and diversity with critical strategic impacts.

“Project management is not always about investing in new software or new equipment; it can be reorganising a business, redesigning management structures, bringing about cultural change or improving customer service levels,” he says.

“What business projects have in common is that they involve introducing a new capability to the organisation. These projects, whether it’s a change management program or introducing new technology, will to some extent transform an organisation if implemented as planned.”

This places an onus both on the organisation to ensure that there are governance protocols in place and executive “buy in” to a project to “maintain ownership of a project at a senior level”, and on project managers to understand the business benefits for the organisation.

“Executives can’t afford to be too distant from a project,” Schroffel says.

“It’s not enough to simply rely on the project manager for the success of a program. The project manager’s focus is on getting the job done and delivering the new capability, but it’s up to executives to take ownership and realise the benefits to the business.”

Increasingly, project managers must bring more than technical expertise to the role; as well as having the core responsibility of bringing a project in on time and on budget, they are also expected to take a strategic perspective.

Strategic context is critical

The relationship between the project manager and the responsible executive can be critical to the success of a project, Schroffel says. Likewise, the project manager’s ability to understand a project in its strategic context is critical. “A project doesn’t operate in its own little bubble; it’s part of the ecology of the organisation,” he says.

“Project managers need to go beyond delivering a project, they need to understand where the organisation is going strategically and how their project is going to fit in. Stakeholder engagement, relationship building and communication are critical aspects of the project manager’s role.

“If you’re building something that is going to reach into an organisation a project manager has to be able to work with the organisation and help them understand what’s coming.”

Schroffel says the biggest change in project management during the past decade has been the emergence of project management as a profession, and a growing emphasis on formal qualifications. Although acknowledging that this reflects the growing complexity of project management, he has misgivings about equating professionalism with “a string of post-nominals”, noting “most of the senior [project management] professionals I know don’t seem to bother”.

It’s a pet gripe he has blogged about: “[Project managers] know about the pressure to embellish their CVs with industry accreditations and many have succumbed to the pressure. They join an association, gather evidence to prove their competency and do exams to gain those supposedly all-important post-nominals. I do wonder if all this extra-curricular activity is really worthwhile.”

It is a familiar conundrum for emerging professions: striking a balance between codifying and maintaining professional standards on the one hand, and recognising the legitimacy of practitioners who come from diverse disciplines and backgrounds with experience acquired over long and successful careers.

Professional association

The world’s first project management association, the International Project Management Association, was founded in Vienna in 1965 and the US-based Project Management Institute started in 1969. Australian project managers were not far behind. The Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), originally known as the Project Managers’ Forum, began in 1976. The institute has 11,000 members.

The chief executive of AIPM, Margie O’Tarpey, says “the development of the profession has been somewhat accidental” but she adds that formal qualifications are taking on more significance. One-third of her members hold Registered Project Manager accreditation from AIPM.

O’Tarpey does not consider it necessary to mandate professional qualifications for project managers, at least “not in my lifetime”. But she believes AIPM plays an important role in maintaining national standards of competency and professional conduct.

The institute offers competency-based certification at four levels: project practitioner, project manager, project director and portfolio executive. Members are bound by a code of ethics.

“Project management as a profession is evolving. Where there has been considerable change in the past 10 years has been around issues of project leadership,” O’Tarpey says.

“There’s an understanding that it’s no longer enough for project managers to be technicians.”

One of the ways AIPM seeks to promote project management standards and qualifications is at the recruitment level: encouraging employers to insist on accredited project managers when hiring, and reinforcing with recruitment firms AIPM’s professional standards and competency frameworks when placing candidates.

In 2011, AIPM and the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association (RCSA) signed a 12-month memorandum of understanding which recognised AIPM’s competency assessment framework and professional standards for project managers.

The chief executive of the RCSA, Steve Granland, says the agreement assisted recruiters and their clients to better understand “accepted project management industry standards”.

“The MoU was about providing recruiters with information and advice about the greater focus on standards and qualifications within the project management field,” Granland says.

Project leadership centre

The status of project managers – and in particular their leadership role – got a major fillip in October last year when engineering services magnate and BRW Rich Lister John Grill donated $20 million to the University of Sydney to establish the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership.

The chairman, co-founder and former chief executive of listed resources and energy services company WorleyParsons explained at the time that there was a need to improve the management of major infrastructure projects. “Across the globe there are more large projects than ever before, many of which are vitally important to society. Projects are becoming larger and more complex. Unfortunately the track record of delivering them against the primary objectives of schedule, cost and quality is not good,” Grill said at the launch of the centre.

“The availability of appropriately skilled and experienced senior managers is a critical factor to improving project outcomes and I am confident this centre will play a key role in meeting this need.”

Research by the centre found that out of 300 “mega-projects” around the world, 65 per cent failed to meet their objectives, in part due to “deficiencies in leadership practices”.

Consultations with 60 of Australia’s leading engineering, construction, utility and infrastructure companies, as well as government, also identified the need to improve oversight and governance of projects, risk assessment practices, internal and external stakeholder communications and strategic and design thinking.”

The operations director of the John Grill Centre, Amar Flora, says the centre’s core executive education program for project leadership – aimed at developing the “leadership intelligence and capability” of “current and aspiring project leaders” – will be available from July 2014.

Flora says that the centre’s approach  to executive education will be based on MBA-style experiential and case-study learning and an industry-based program advisory committee will ensure programs stay relevant.

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