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In Praise of Public Servants

Someone once said that life was like learning to play piano in a public concert. I think I know what they mean. We all feel vulnerable when we make mistakes. Nobody likes being seen making a mistake. So we try to do this secretly, don’t we?

When it comes to the area of project management and strategic change this works itself out in a different way: it is very hard to see good case studies. Why? Because a “warts and all” account might show the organisation or people within it in a poor light. They would not publish such a report.

This is a pity because the rest of us could learn valuable lessons. We could learn from their mistakes and so avoid failure in those areas.

But that is not going to happen. Organisations can suffer reputational damage, even damage to their stock prices if some juicy failure leaks into the public domain. As a result, there is a dearth of learning.

[shareable]Unwillingness to share case studies – good or bad – means a dearth of learning.[/shareable]

The opposite can also be true: an organisation innovates, makes a breakthrough, a disruptive change. As a result, that firm makes huge inroads into a market previously dominated by its competitors. So is it going to share how it achieved the breakthrough? Senior management gets uneasy. Surely this would erode their competitive advantage. Better to keep it under wraps. And so more potential learning is kept from us all.

An Outstanding Exception

There is an outstanding exception to this pattern. And this exception has played no small part in my own career. The exception is the public sector; particularly, the UK Central Government. Here we have a Government that is subject to intense, and sometimes very public scrutiny.

In the area of major public projects, over the three decades from the 1960’s, there were some major failures: such as Trident, TSR2, and Nimrod. The UK Central Government began to set about identifying and defining what it called project management “best practice.” It codified it, first into a methodology called PROMPT, then PRINCE®, and finally PRINCE2®.

And it did this publicly.

Private sector consultants were not ready to praise these efforts too quickly. Some were even quite critical, in fact, but the truth was we all benefited from this sharing.

A Rude Awakening

For the early part of my career, I worked in the public sector in the UK, in local government across three bodies. After 15 years of working in local government, I made the transition to the private sector.

Yes, Minister, BBCAt that time, we were watching TV programmes like, “Yes, Minister.” I believed the stereotypes. Public bodies were extremely bureaucratic, stuffy, hierarchical, formal, and conservative, whilst private sector organisations were all entrepreneurial, more casual in dealing with each other, and, above all, innovative.

In 1990 I made the transition to the private sector.

I was in for a rude awakening.

I found the organisation I had joined was far more hierarchical, bureaucratic, self-indulgent and inert than I had experienced in the public sector. My government days felt positively entrepreneurial. This was counter to all the stereotypes.

The truth was, and still is, that within central Government there is much progressive, innovative work. This had to come forth when the public was seeing so much waste on major projects. Excellence emerged.

[shareable]My government days felt positively entrepreneurial.[/shareable]

Much of my career has centred around progressive management approaches such as PRINCE2®, MSP™, P3O® and more recently, Better Business Cases™. These have all helped UK public programmes succeed more often than not. Partly driven by HM Treasury, partly by the Cabinet Office, and partly by the National Audit Office, the UK Government has raised its game in programme and project management significantly. And all this in the context of a fairly hostile national press and intense political scrutiny through the Public Accounts Committee.

Managing Successful Programmes™

With MSP (Managing Successful Programmes), I recently was part of the panel on a Webinar, hosted by Axelos the owners of MSP, and I noticed keen interest from all over the world. This framework is, in many ways, ahead of its time. For example, I was asked: “Can you make MSP agile?” My answer, in brief, was, “It already is agile.” And I went on to explain why.

Last year the Banco Central do Brasil invited me to speak at a conference in Brasilia on MSP programme management. I used the London Olympics Case Study. You can imagine, less than 17 months away from the Rio Olympics they were all ears. I am continuing to discover other countries benefiting from the wealth of good practice coming out of the UK Central Government.

Better Business Cases

Better Business Cases (BBC) is another gem. Pioneered out of Whitehall and the Welsh Government, BBC takes the business case and turns it into a strategic tool that develops in a most appropriate way throughout the start and life of a project. We hear of the UK’s NHS using this to good effect.

Say “business case” to most project managers, and you can watch their eyes glaze over. BBC turbo-charges the approach and handling of the business case.

[shareable]Better Business Cases is another gem.[/shareable]

So, all’s well then?

So, is all well then with UK Government “best practices”? I’m not so sure. Not so long ago the Cabinet Office effectively sold off its ownership of most of these management methods and practice to a private concern, Axelos. To give them credit, it seems that Axelos is making gains in scaling adoption across the globe but I’m not sure that the development of these products will be as vigorous, rigorous and authentic as it was when it clearly came out of public sector ownership.

Also, major government projects now have the Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA). Several of my clients have been through this programme and speak very highly of it. One of my associates has actually worked with the faculty. However, there is a strong protection by Oxford University’s Said Business School of its intellectual property. This is a traditional academic value system of protecting and hoarding intellectual capital, and this School has a particularly assertive commercial agenda. So the rest of us are not likely to benefit from some of the key learning within the Academy as much as we might from a more generous, sharing approach.

It seems that more Central Government outsources, no doubt for otherwise good reasons, there is a loss in helping better practice more generally, that nobody in the private sector can give.

[reminder preface=”Question:”] What are your views and experiences on this?[/reminder]

 

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Roger Roberts - 09/09/2016

Hi Patrick,

From my experience, you are correct in your assumptions. Having worked for a number of blue chip corporates, each one has established its own project management practices, often using Prince2 and MSP as templates for their own ‘composite’ method built to meet their specific needs. Also Practitioner ‘status’ in Prince2 and MSP are also seen as prerequisites for progressing through the organisation’s internal Project & Programme Management practice. However, the investment required in maintaining and updating these methods generally leads to them becoming out of date and therefore less effective. Few people tend to renew their accreditation as it has served its purpose for their internal needs. Project & Programme Management therefore becomes stuck in a timelock.

The beauty of the UK Government’s approach has been the public scrutiny, both in terms of success and failure in projects and programmes, but also in taking feedback and updating the methods.
I am familiar with the origins of the Major Projects Leadership Academy at Oxford University’s Said Business School. It is based on new and ongoing research funded through the Business School and therefore requires a return on investment – however that is measured – through scientific papers, numbers of graduates or financially. Only by going through the Academy will you learn their secrets.
Both Prince2 and MSP are Agile Methods, as you adapt the processes you use based on the needs of the work being planned. A mechanic doesn’t go slavishly through the whole engine inspection process to eventually find there is a blockage in the fuel pipe. They assess the symptoms, they test some theories to eliminate causes or bring focus to the actual cause, before deciding on their course of action. Based on that they undertake the work. Project & Programme Management is no different. You assess the needs, agree the scope, plan what you will do and then execute through an assembled team of people and other resources required to do the work, check and testing you are still on the right track.

Let’s hope that Axelos retain and maintain the UK Government’s original ethos when building on Prince2, MSP and BBC!

Reply
    patrickmayfield_bvk2y7 - 10/09/2016

    Roger, Thank you for taking the time to put together this thoughtful comment.
    I’m glad to recognise in you a kindred spirit who appreciates the “public service” of this contribution to management thinking. I really appreciate it.

    Reply

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