Stop admiring the problem – we’ve had enough project and program failures!

Ian Sharpe looks at the Shergold report to find some keys to success for private as well as public enterprises.

©iStock.com/Stuart Monk 

©iStock.com/Stuart Monk 

According to a recent Infrastructure Australia report it’s conservatively estimated that $30 billion is wasted annually on projects in Australian industry. The tally becomes staggering when you consider how much more this might have been if factoring in policy and IT failures.

The recent report authored by former Treasury Secretary Peter Shergold vividly exposed the range of governance failures and their root causes in the context of the Australian Public Service (APS) and its low rate of success in delivering large programs for the government of the day.

As the Shergold report highlights, the term ‘program’ is not well understood. A program is defined as a set of interrelated projects, each of which has a project manager. 'Multiple projects', or 'a program of projects', refers to a number of related projects managed by the same person as a program to achieve one or several organisational objectives.

Failed government technology initiatives get a lot of press, but all industries face worrying odds in their risk of project failure. In the ICT space alone, 94 per cent of large software projects from an international sample fail on one or more measures: timely completion, solving the business need, maintaining delivery quality or simply falling within budget.

We need to stop admiring the problem and get on with fixing it

We are fully aware of this problem by now, especially considering that its nature and scope have been so thoroughly hashed out over 60 years of management research.

Shergold speaks clearly as to why we are not improving. Released in August 2015, Learning from Failure: why large government policy initiatives have gone so badly wrong in the past and how the chances of success in the future can be improved includes case studies revealing the array of problems encountered in the design and delivery of the National Broadband Network (NBN) and the failure of risk management in the Home Insulation Program (HIP) that led to the deaths of four workers.

What stands out from the report is that the reasons underlying project failure in the public policy delivery space are very similar to those in private enterprise. It's a universal problem – so what’s going wrong?

The Shergold report identified various common threads linking each nightmarish scenario, with the most salient being putting good people in bad places, and in failing to include members with all the competencies necessary for success. This deficit is particularly severe when it comes to program managers and Senior Responsible Owners.

How can we fix it?

Shergold offers guidance on how the APS – and, by extension, private industry – can go about fixing these problems. Let's look at each of its four recommendations for enhancing program management.

Clarify where the ultimate buck stops

“For all projects and programs, there needs to be a clear understanding about who accepts end-to-end responsibility for managing implementation, wields delegated authority and where accountability resides.”

In his conclusion D14, Shergold recommends that overall accountability for successful delivery should fall upon a single leader (the Senior Responsible Owner) who oversees the entire program or project. This person should have the necessary executive power to make any necessary changes to the team or the processes they follow.

Currently, we’re effectively setting people up for failure. Even experienced program sponsors can lack the capability to accept full accountability for successful program delivery. Decisions that should be highly considered, owned and delivered by a single actor are either not made or effectively passed on to those lower down the chain, leading to 'management by committee'.

Without clear authority, programs quickly devolve into factional warfare where each subgroup within the program becomes disengaged, stops thinking about how to make the program succeed and instead fights with the rest of the team over who should accept the blame.

We need competence, confidence and experience to lead effective programs.

Build the right capability to both govern and direct programs

“The Australian Public Service Commission should work with industry associations to develop standards of proficiency for public sector project and program managers, with agencies committing to support these staff through career development opportunities, continued education and participation in professional communities of practice.”

In his conclusion D13, Shergold promotes the need for professionalism. The peak body for project management in Australia – the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) – is championing this cause with the Australian Public Service as well as private enterprises to ensure they’re set up for project and program delivery success.

In the UK, the Association for Project Management has upped the professionalisation ante through their application to become chartered – similar to the recognition of the professional standards of accountants.

It’s clear that Industry is ready and willing to help.

“Whilst acknowledging that different departments have different workforce needs, Senior Executive Service selection criteria should place greater emphasis on program leadership when considering a candidate's demonstrated breadth of experience.”

Shergold’s conclusion D16 for program management identified that, while it's a small problem when skills gaps occur at the operational level, it's far worse when it's those in senior roles lack skills, experience or knowledge gained from implementing large projects in the past.

Senior Responsible Owners and program managers must be of the highest quality with competencies in both strategy and operations. Ideally, senior leadership should possess a variety of skills so that they can offer coherent strategy and oversee its efficient execution.

It will go wrong – build tiger teams to help put out fires early

“The APS should establish a 'tiger team' capacity by which service-wide expertise can be harnessed to assist Senior Responsible Officers in the management of high risk, large-scale projects.”

In making his conclusion D15 on program management, Shergold looked to how this strategy has been proven in the UK in government program delivery. Tiger teams are highly-skilled and experienced rapid response teams of experts that add significant value to remediating stalled or underperforming projects and programs.

Drawn from across divisions and agencies, the value of early intervention without distracting the main team is clear.

When we get this right we’ll change the economy

In thoroughly exposing the systemic problems that continue to plague the successful delivery of programs, the Shergold report has convincingly revealed the bigger picture.

To fix something broken, we must first accept that it's broken. Let’s not continue burying our heads in the sand and hoping for the best – it’s not a good defensive plan. (After all, when your head is in the sand it’s clear what part is most exposed!)

We also need to realise that there’s no longer such a thing as ‘Business as Usual’ – we now need to adapt our plans to cope with ‘Business as Unusual’ by embedding the capacity, capability and flexibility to adapt rapidly into any project or program we undertake.

Imagine: just a 10% improvement in infrastructure delivery alone would put $3B back into play for improving Australia. Shergold has shone a light; I say, let’s follow it.

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About the Author

A Principal Consultant at CSC Consulting, Ian Sharpe has worked globally with leading organisations, from NASA to Defence and Fortune 500 companies including Westpac and Telstra, as a senior advisor on leadership, high performance cultures and teams, backed by portfolio, program and project excellence. His professional contributions to Industry include serving as AIPM National President, chairing the two-year national review of the AIPM project and program standards, serving on the Professional Development Council and as Chair of the Governance Committee. Ian is also an accredited AIPM and is one of the first IPMA Assessors in Australia. On the speaking circuit. Ian’s papers have been well received at international conferences and he is a passionate keynote on leadership and high performance teams.