Subject-matter experts vs project managers

We have often been asked to recover a piece of work that has overrun its time and budget. In a recent example, a client asked us to turn around a project that they believed was failing.
Why the project failed in the first place

The US$8M project had been kicked off without a fully specified mandate or terms of reference. Its timing had been dictated by a CXO without challenge from subject matter experts or support from a properly resourced plan. The budget had been based on available staff and had not factored in any constraints, risks, external dependencies or optimism bias.

A governance structure had been agreed and three of the business’s CXOs sat on its steering board. The ‘project management’ was shared between the two heads of the key functions, both of whom were brilliant operational managers. However, focus was on the results being produced through development of financial models, but little attention given to the management of the work.

There was no integrated project plan, nor an associated budget. Quality criteria were not in place, so no-one had agreed what it took to make the models were ‘good enough’.

Most of the work of the project was required to be undertaken by staff from the two different business functions, who had other day-to-day responsibilities that made demands upon their time. We were asked to place one of our Innovators as a project manager to help them get back on track.

What the innovator observed

The Innovator observed that the project had two halves, roughly equally split between the two functions. Instead of working as a single team, they had become two sides backing their own people whenever a problem arose. This created a ‘blame culture’ and whenever something occurred that led to a deviation from the unrealistic plan.

Some of the team members were carrying out business-as-usual work in addition to the project work. This caused problems because work priorities had not been identified for individuals. Team members were left to prioritise their own activities with little guidance.

Both the functional heads recognised that the project was a problem, but blamed each other. One side had identified previously that a project manager could benefit the project and recover it. They approached us to provide an experienced PM. She spent time with each of the function managers, listening to their issues, understanding their problems and gaining their trust. She also spent time with the teams that were doing the work.

It was clear that both teams were working incredibly hard (to the point that their performance was negatively affected), but not necessarily working smart. The Innovator decided that a simple and high-level approach to turning the work round would be best approach for this project.

What the Innovator changed

She started by getting the CXOs to agree a ‘Terms of Reference’ for the project and the project team. It identified:

  • The desired overall outcome
  • What needed to be done to achieve the outcome
  • Who was going to do the various pieces of work to achieve the outcome
  • Who was required to make decisions (of different types and at different levels)
  • When key milestones needed to be delivered

The Innovator was then able to identify the gaps between the desired outcome and the ‘current’ state of the project. She was then able to work with the subject-matter-experts to re-plan the work to fill the gaps in what was being delivered and what needed to be delivered.

The project steering board was re-convened to preside over making specific decisions on the key issues preventing the project moving forwards. They agreed next steps and key deliverables.

A plan was then constructed with inputs from all the projects participants. It included:

  • Agreed milestones
  • Planned resource levels (accounting for other peak workflows in the organisation)
  • Contingencies for when model runs failed and required re-work
  • Identified risks
  • Budgets agreed and back on track

The work required an unconventional approach to enable it to work with the business’s prevailing culture because the teams were unused to systematic project management. The Innovator kept reporting relatively informal. She maintained plans and had weekly meetings with team heads to track progress, raise issues and manage risks.

The outcome

The project was delivered and passed through into business-as usual. The business’s CFO commented “this is the best run project in [this insurer]”

Our challenge

Our greatest challenge is in persuading clients that they need proper project managers instead letting projects being led by subject matter experts, or worse still a number of low-cost and inexperienced juniors. This is often because businesses don’t see the value in bringing in an expert to design, plan, deliver and achieve business outcomes.