Sunday, 22 May 2011

Project and Programme Management #01


This is the first of a planned series on project and programme management. I have always held back from blogging about this subject – especially the basics – as there is so much material already available. However there seems to be a never failing demand for people to want to know the basics (e.g. questions and discussion threads on LinkedIn and the like), so hopefully this will help. If even just one or two readers find this useful, it’ll have been worth doing. Please feel free to post comments, especially suggestions for future topics.

What is project management?

At its most simple, project management is the process of making sure that a piece of work (a “project”) is delivered successfully. People will argue about what is meant by “successfully”, but actually there’s only one right answer: it’s whatever the people for whom the piece of work is being done define as success! You’ll also see a lot of debate about what is a project. PRINCE2 defines it one way, PMI another, APM yet another... and so forth. Again, for practical purposes: i.e. for you, the reader, a project is whatever your organisation chooses to call one. Some organisations will have very clear, standardised descriptions – often based on PRINCE2, etc.; others will have much looser, or even no definition. So context matters in terms of your daily working life. There’s no point in arguing with your sponsor that actually what he or she is asking you to do isn’t a project because it doesn’t conform to an industry standard definition. Your job is to get “it” done.

So to recap: a project is a piece of work (that is defined as such in your organisation) that has to be delivered successfully (using the criteria for success in your local context).

Now to waylay those who will be up in arms about this rather more loose definition than PRINCE2 at al, let me just say that I agree with those definitions, and a later post will talk about how to introduce project management methodology into an organisation. But above all I want to deal with real life, and it doesn't help to get all semantic when you’re given a job of work to do!

What is programme management?

It won’t surprise you, if you have got this far, that whilst I accept that there are equally good definitions in methodologies such as MSP (managing successful programmes), I’m again taking a pragmatic view and relating this to one’s local situation. So in general a programme is a group of pieces of work (call them projects) that have to be delivered to the same success criteria as above (i.e. whatever your organisation/sponsor defines as success). Because a programme consists of more than one piece of work, it generally takes longer and is more complex to manage, but at heart it is the same as project management.

So why have project and programme management?

If it’s that simple, why have these “black arts” of project and programme management at all? Well the biggest reason – and one that I have encountered in every organisation I’ve worked in on project management over the last 20 years – is that the people wanting the work done actually find it very hard to define exactly what they want, and what their success criteria are. So this means that as well as being able to manage the delivery of the project or programme, you need to be able to make sure the scope is well understood, and the success criteria are properly defined; and that both of these are agreed.

An example of scope and success criteria


Let’s take a rather simple, silly example, but one that will hopefully make the point.
Imagine your new boss knocks on your door and says: “Your next project is to make me a cup of tea”. Sounds easy enough, but...

  • When do they want it?
  • What sort of tea do they want (Earl Grey, Darjeeling...)
  • How strong do they like it?
  • Do they take milk and sugar?

and so on. So before you start making your cup of tea you need to find out all this information. Where do you get it from? The obvious answer is the person who will be drinking it. Is that your boss? We could imply it from their demand, but they don’t actually say this: perhaps they have a visitor and the tea is for them. This sounds so obvious, but time and again I’ve seen people embark on projects without checking out what needs to be delivered with the people who are going to use the product!

So that’s scope: you need to work out in detail exactly what is wanted, and get the information from the right sources.

Success criteria

So now it’s easy: you just follow through and deliver the product exactly as defined in the scope. So exactly five minutes later you present your boss with a cup of Orange Pekoe tea, with a drop of milk and no sugar. It’s in their favourite mug, as requested, and piping hot, also as required. They thank you kindly, but then thirty minutes later you get an email saying they need another cup of tea because the one you made has gone cold. She had been called out of the office and when she got back it was cold. She’s not going to blame you, but still – to her – the “project” has not been successful.

So as well as teasing out all of the requirements, you need to agree them in the form of acceptance criteria. This will be a list of what has to be delivered, plus the agreed “tests” to accept that it meets the requirements.

And basically, that’s it!

In my next post I’ll talk about how to go about gathering the information for the project or programme scope.


Below are links, in alphabetical order, to the four main project management organisations (there are others, but these are the key ones), plus a link to the MSP site. Note that the two OGC sites (PRINCE2 and MSP) are being changed - the links are correct as of 22/05/2011)

APM (Association for Project Management)*
DSDM Atern

MSP (Managing Successful Programmes)

* Not to be confused with APM Group (APMG) who do the accredition of PRINCE2, MSP and other frameworks.

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