Building a project management culture

In July 2005, Ontario’s special task force report on the management of large-scale information and information technology (I&IT) projects concluded that project management should be considered a core business of the public service.

At the technology and business solutions branch of the Ministries of Education and Training, Colleges and Universities, we have found that the key to making this happen is to set up a project management office (PMO).

The purpose of this article is to share some lessons we’ve learned and perhaps clear up some misapprehensions about what to expect from a PMO. A PMO does not manage projects; nor does it impose top-down rules on those that do. And if it wields a stick, it also offers a carrot.

Soussan Tabari is director of technology and business solutions, Ministries of Education and Training, Colleges and Universities, community services I&IT cluster, Government of Ontario.

When I took up my post as branch director in early 2005, I inherited a challenging array of projects, including sophisticated applications that interface with other sectors. One of our projects, for example, involves building a database of historical information on 2.1 million students in Ontario schools. Another will enable apprentices to apply for support services online. In all, the branch (part of the government’s community services I&IT cluster) has a portfolio of some 25 projects involving an investment of millions of dollars.

I quickly realized that rigorous project management was essential to successfully deliver these complex projects. But each of the branch’s 20 project managers had their own interpretation of project management, and practices, skills and commitment varied widely.

The cluster CIO, Jim Hamilton, and I agreed that a PMO was needed if we were to meet our executive accountabilities for oversight of the portfolio. We were convinced by research showing that organizations with formal project management structures delivered projects more reliably and built applications more cost-effectively.

Core Control

The first step was to find resources for what is generally perceived as an overhead cost. By inserting a small project management charge in the budgets for individual projects and through some internal streamlining, funds were located for a small team of staff, plus interns, secondments and other occasional help, under the leadership of Paul Burns.

We launched our PMO in August 2005. The timing could not have been more apt, just after the release of the special task force report with its emphasis on project management as a core business. The report also noted that an “organization must retain control of project management or else it will lose influence over its projects.”

The branch was already following this prescription, as all project managers were internal staff. Even where deliverables are fully outsourced, our project managers oversee progress at every stage. No longer do we simply issue a purchase order and wait for the goods to arrive.

As I’ve suggested, the term “project management office” is something of a misnomer, as the office does not manage projects. It actually supports, facilitates and monitors the management of projects by others, specifically the 20 project managers who work with business areas and internal and external IT experts.

The overriding goal is a cultural change to make project management the way the branch operates, day in and day out: that is, to make project management a core business. The branch is fostering this cultural change through five fundamental processes: systems, standards, services, co-ordination, and controllership.

A PMO cannot simply proclaim project management as a core business and expect results. Moving forward has taken a collaborative effort with the community of project managers in the branch. The project managers together formed an active consultancy, with terms of reference and open meetings, that helped select the system, develop standards, design training and other services and shape the controllership approach.

The gains we made were largely due to the contribution of several highly experienced project managers and the constructive participation of the majority of the group. While we did not achieve unanimity on all issues (it would be surprising if we had), our project managers as professionals were committed to the success of the initiative and determined to achieve its goals.

Project management is not a new discipline. An established body of knowledge has been developed over literally decades, together with the tools to put it to use. Our task was to tap into this body of knowledge. To do this, the PMO worked with project managers to configure a project centre: a readily accessible online system with templates, guidelines, methodologies, and standards.

Our standards are based on industry best practices and indicate exactly how projects are to be managed and controlled. In early 2007, the latest release of the project centre introduced schedule and cost control that calls for regular comparison of baseline values with actual values to track project performance. We also have detailed standards for managing project scope, risks, issues, changes and planning.

The PMO provides support services to increase project efficiency and effectiveness. At the outset, the skills of the project managers were assessed. Hundreds of hours of training were arranged to fill gaps, and training remains an ongoing priority.

Other services delivered by the PMO include automated status reporting, procurement and cost estimation. This support relieves project managers of routine chores so they can concentrate their energies on running the projects.

Co-ordination with an array of partners helps strengthen project management both within the branch and government-wide. Internally, the PMO continues to openly and fully discuss standards and best practices with project managers prior to their adoption.

The PMO is also working with central agency colleagues to co-ordinate approval pathways so that projects can proceed through the various checks and gates as quickly as possible. The PMO intervened recently in a specific situation to disentangle a project from conflicting timelines and commitments to different parties.

PMO staff are working to prevent such problems by ensuring each project has one detailed, authoritative schedule that reflects all commitments across all organizations involved in the project.

Ontario's Project Management Office wields controllership as a stick, and dangles its services as a carrot at the end.

If services are the carrot offered by the PMO, controllership is the stick. The PMO has developed a systematic reporting structure where all project managers are required to update project schedules regularly and log risks, issues and changes as they occur.

Traffic Lights

In a controllership role, the PMO conducts a weekly assessment of all projects to verify the accuracy, timeliness and quality of the information entered, upholding the integrity of project information.

The project centre generates a weekly executive status report that shows the status of each project at a glance, so that project activities are transparent. These overview reports go to the deputy ministers of the affected ministries, the cluster CIO, the corporate CIO and other senior people.

The executive status report contains traffic-light indicators (green, yellow or red) for each element of the triple constraint: scope, schedule and cost. Project managers choose the indicators for each area and the PMO verifies these choices. In addition, the PMO assigns a traffic light to a fourth category: project information integrity.

In this way, project managers are held accountable for the quality, timeliness and accuracy of all project information, including the information that underpins the status ratings. This administrative aspect is what makes or breaks project management. The evidence shows that if there is no tracking of progress, the risk factor can mushroom. But regular reporting quickly spotlights emerging problems and the need for decisions.

Recently, as a two-year project was entering the final changes, the business area unexpectedly added new requirements. The project management system flagged the change and galvanized action. Staff did an impact assessment, forecasting a two-month delay if the new requirements were included.

The issue went to the steering committee governing the project, which endorsed the changes and extended the timelines. Without a project management process, this issue may well not have surfaced until the original deadline passed, catching everyone by surprise.

Once the PMO and a formalized consultancy were in place, we made rapid progress. We raised our score on the organizational project management maturity model (OPM3) – a comprehensive industry-standard tool based on best practices – from 30 per cent to 45 per cent within a year.

This score is calculated by rating the achievement of each of the best practices on a scale of one to five, then dividing the points achieved by the total points possible. The best practices range from measurable project objectives to documented processes and established controls. While we’re heading in the right direction, we know we’ve just begun.

All in all, it was relatively easy to get rigorous project management off the ground. Keeping it in flight is proving harder. The momentum is extremely difficult to sustain. This is where the PMO, and its controllership function, make all the difference.

With co-operation from all project managers and continued leadership, we are creating a project management culture and making project management a core business.

We are finding that better project management increases the value of the government’s investment in I&IT, resulting in improved service, lower costs and better outcomes for the public we serve.

Soussan Tabari is director of technology and business solutions, Ministries of Education and Training, Colleges and Universities, community services I&IT cluster, Government of Ontario. She can be reached at

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