From a career overseeing the delivery of portfolios, programmes and projects across the legal, scientific and medical sectors, I can tell you that there are golden threads which allow organisations to punch above their weight in terms of project delivery. In this article I will share insider knowledge, as well as some fundamental practices deployed by good project management professionals. Whether you work for a large or small set of chambers, in-house, or for a regulator, the same core principles will apply.

Go bespoke: customise your ‘PMF’

A project management framework (PMF) is an invaluable tool. It details the controls and processes to be carried out at different stages of project initiation, delivery and closure. There are many off-the-shelf frameworks and methodologies such as Prince2, Waterfall, Agile for Project Management and MSP for Programme Management, some of which readers may be familiar with. Each have high levels of complexity, however, as these were originally designed for large organisations. So when I hear colleagues in the legal sector complaining about the endless bureaucracy associated with project management, this is often a tell-tale sign that a framework has been plucked off the shelf and adopted wholesale without proper consideration given to what elements are actually needed based on current working practices and resources.

Your PMF should be customised to meet the main aims of your business plan and designed to ensure that all key delivery aspects are managed in a holistic manner, providing transparency on what work will be delivered by whom, and to what timelines. Strategies relating to how risks should be assessed, data protection implications, which stakeholders need to be engaged etc can also be incorporated. This allows from the outset a better understanding of what you are really committing to delivering and how this will be resourced when embarking on a big new piece of work.

Drawing up a PMF – and getting everyone working under its auspices – will not happen overnight but will allow for efficient ways of working and delivery. Once your tools and templates have been created, regular communication and engagement is then key to ensure that everybody understands how to apply them. This will keep work ticking over and allow the leaders in the organisation head space to respond when emergencies arise, with the comfort of knowing that work will continue according to the plans created. This combination of predictability and agility is a factor tightly linked to success.

Change management methodologies decrease resistance and embed change

Resistance to change is normal – especially if not instigated by ourselves. Change professionals are qualified in the application of a structured process and set of tools for leading the people side of change to achieve a desired outcome, ie helping to overcome resistance to new ideas and policies. Change is often resisted when people feel it is being ‘done to them’ so getting staff engaged via workshops and focus groups etc will help them understand why the changes are needed and why their involvement is crucial to the benefits materialising. Change professionals will help folks work through the Forming and Storming stages (Tuckman’s model of development) and create mechanisms for feedback. This provides mutual benefit – members and staff don’t feel their concerns are being swept under the rug along and we gain a deeper understanding of how that change might impact everyone who is touched by it.

The Prosci ADKAR change management model suggests five steps to ensure change is embedded: 1) Creating awareness of the need for change; 2) Create desire to participate and support the change by showing the benefits the change will bring ; 3) Create knowledge of how to change; 4) Create the ability to implement the change; and 5) Build in reinforcement to sustain the change.

If change is managed properly, it will help dispel some of the fear surrounding new initiatives and will be a good way to ensure that your programme delivers the intended benefits and that all involved feel engaged and empowered throughout the process.

Glory is not in never falling but in rising each time we fall

If we can learn the lesson of what tripped us up to begin with, then that’s even better. Talk about what practices or behaviours supported/hindered the delivery of the project. This is a great way to get feedback about how the project was run and sets the bar (sorry, bad pun but I had to) about how to approach new projects.

Such sessions need to be conducted without naming and shaming while still extracting the core reasons why projects did well or failed. Project management practices can then be adapted to ensure that future projects avoid the known pitfalls. A ‘lessons to learn’ register should also be created to capture cross-cutting organisational lessons and this then becomes a key organisational asset that gets shared with all those who embarking on a new project. This helps to ensure that corporate knowledge of best practice is not lost when key staff leave and that the mistakes of the past do not keep haunting us.

Streamlined governance structures enable effective and quick decision-making

Clear lines of responsibility with simple governance structures ensure that bottlenecks do not hinder progress. I have seen organisations where the decision-making process resembles mille-feuille and this is often the enemy of progress and employee empowerment. Does the head of chambers/department really need to sign off on everything or could delegation lead to quicker turnaround? Having clear lines of responsibility defined in your PMF is of utmost benefit. Once roles and responsibilities are defined, the project sponsor knows exactly what to expect from the project manager, project board members and project team members. This helps to ensure there is no wasteful duplication of efforts and facilitates working in an agile manner.

Another major governance pitfall is when, in the spirit of collaboration, two or more project sponsors are appointed at the same time. This has the potential to cause much confusion, especially if the sponsors have different working styles. I have seen teams given conflicting advice about how to progress and work being undone and redone because the other sponsor did not agree. A project sponsor has to be someone with the decision-making authority to confidently steer the direction of the project therefore this role best sits with a team head or another senior leader. Collaboration is usually a good thing but too many cooks do spoil the broth so having clear, simple governance structures with roles clearly defined will help work progress smoothly and enable deliverables to be achieved in a symbiotic and efficient manner.

Don’t be an EDIot

Equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) pays in every sense of the word. Research from both McKinsey and Deloitte suggests that companies with more inclusive cultures are twice as likely to meet financial targets, three times more likely to be high performing, six times more likely to be innovative and eight times more likely to have better business outcomes. The CIPD defines a psychological contract as ‘the perceptions of the two parties, employee and employer, on what their mutual obligations are towards each other’. Organisations with a positive psychological contract with their staff are rewarded with high levels of commitment and this normally translates into better performance, less sickness and staff turnover.

We all know of cases where companies have breached equality laws and paid hefty fines for poor practice. It is sometimes tempting to think of EDI just in terms of compliance but best practice means going beyond a tick box exercise and, instead, embedding key EDI principles into project management templates and practices. For example, investigating the impacts a proposed strategy or project could have via the completion of an equality impact assessment at key stages of the project lifecycle will ensure that the deliverables of the project do not cause adverse effects to some groups and that the changes brought about actually deliver positive EDI changes (‘Use projects to deliver real diversity’, Jaspal Kaur-Griffin and Amit Popat, Project, Autumn 2021). Integrating equality objectives into your PMF will ensure that EDI gets implemented and delivers the intended benefits. 

If the idea of following these principles to run your own project is enough to warrant you reaching for the headache pills, consider instead contacting the Association for Project Management which has a plethora of qualified and experienced project professionals who will be able to help you:

Views are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation she works in.