Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Titanic lessons for programme and project management

Last week I discussed perceived problems relating to the Titanic Signature Building and the perceived funding shortfall related to the procurement approach.  Now more information has emerged which goes beyond procurement and provides lessons for programme and project management.  To me there some shortfalls in the areas uncovered.

Today the Northern Ireland Audit Office published its report on 'signature projects' which provides further insights into a portfolio of five projects (£159m), of which the Titanic Signature Building is only one.  Interestingly the review is published prior to completion of the projects, so it can only be hoped that there will be a further report.  There must also be a rationale for publication at this stage, presumably to collect lessons learnt.

Looking across the portfolio, delays and shortfall in delivery are attributed to deficiencies on overall project planning, management and governance arrangements, a shortage of funding, time-limited funding, match funding issues and inadequate programme and project level performance management.   One of the criticisms is that each project stood alone and project actions plans were developed independently and organically.  Those are useful lessons which I don't intend to argue with, but merely supplement.

It is surprising that it does not seem to been recognised that this was a 'Signature Programme' and should have been managed as such, completed with a Blueprint and what were standalone projects managed as a Dossier, or at the very least a Portfolio.  Indeed as opposed to the NIAO view that an 'over arching projects board' would have been helpful, what was needed was a Programme Board.  That Board then could have looked across all the projects and also considered the total economic impact as opposed to discrete project boards defending their own interests.

But were the individual projects well managed?  Well the NIAO conclude that even at the project level there were a lack of SMART objectives and consequently a lack of performance management.  Time, cost and quality in terms of project performance management aren't sufficiently addressed, so I'm not surprised that outcomes don't feature.  I'm reminded of an excellent paper on 'muddling through'.

Also amazing is that while the projects date back to 2004, funding was only identified in 2008. In the meantime funds were diverted from elsewhere - no questions appear to have been asked about the impact of that displacement of funding!  We find a wonderful recommendation "When public sector capital projects are approved for implementation, every effort should be made to ensure that funding is made available at the same time".  Why are MSP and PRINCE2 standard methodologies not just advocated?  Is it conceivable that Northern Ireland could have a collection of major capital projects started but then completion unaffordable?  

While discussing the NHS IT procurement fiasco recently, I highlighted the need for senior politicians to be closely involved in projects, fully appraised and potentially act as SROs - the NIAO haven't identified that as a problem, so that lesson may need to be learnt some time in the future.  Some projects seem to have SRO's while other don't - of course SRO's relate to programmes as opposed to projects. We now also have a new role, the 'Project Promoter' - to me this is a major flaw, SRO's like (Project) Executives, are accountable, responsible, ensure the funding is in place and act as champions, 'Project Promoters', who lack a role definition in the report, only appear to be champions without accountability.  So, from the public sector, who exactly is responsible/accountable for this major investment?

It seems no time since the spotlight was on the Millennium Dome and the VfM calculations relating to visitor footfall.  Therefore it would have been assumed those lessons would have been taken on board (excuse the pun) by those responsible for the Titanic Signature Building and exposed to a robust sensitivity analysis.  Sometimes projects just keep on giving the same lessons to be learnt for the future!

"When will they ever learn", when will we learn?"

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