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27 (122) 2016
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Interview

Managing projects professionally: how to take Poland forward

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Michael Dembinski talks to Amec Foster Wheeler’s Gavin Dobbing about what the BPCC and its members can do to assist the Polish government in raising the standards of project management in the delivery of public-sector projects.

Poland's GDP slowdown in the third quarter of this year has been attributed to the hiatus between EU budgets, and to delays in preparing new projects. The Polish government has acknowledged that a lack of skilled project managers in the public sector is an issue, as is its ability to prepare tenders to find external project management organisations. Given the UK's expertise in this area, how can the BPCC help in promoting best practice in project management?

First of all, I’d say that I don’t criticise people who do difficult jobs. My experience working for Amec Foster Wheeler – an international, multi-sector, project management company – is that things are always done in a particular way for good reasons. If it seems that the outcomes weren’t ideal, then care is required when trying to work out why. Projects are carried out by a business or organisation within a legal, regulatory, financial and human resources framework. The framework has to accommodate all conceivable social and economic activity so some degree of compromise is inevitable. It is likely that some of these compromises created unforeseen challenges or placed unexpected constraints on decisions. This is what I feel is often missing in “lessons learned” analyses: to me, it’s less important to apply hindsight to see what we think should have been differently and it’s more important to work out why the decisions that were taken appeared to be right at the time.

The UK Cabinet Office has driven the adoption of some extremely useful frameworks and methods such as PRINCE 2 and Managing Successful Programmes. The UK Treasury has developed an extremely robust method for developing business cases and maintaining the alignment of the project to its business case through its life. The UK Ministry of Defence has formalised techniques for aligning the procurement and in-service support of equipment to the realisation of military capability. UK institutions have developed standard forms of contract that promote developer and contractor working together to resolve issues that arise during the execution of projects. To put it another way, over the last two decades, the UK has made a huge investment in creating an environment that supports project execution.

I believe that UK project managers, especially those who have experience of working in multiple industries, can provide insights into creating an environment that supports project execution. Any cooperation would be a two-way process though. The challenge for any expert is always to listen to his or her client and understand the constraints under which that client operates. There is no point pulling procedures out of a project management library, no matter how great the supporting case studies might be, if there are fundamental reasons why they won’t work in the client’s environment.

In my view, the BPCC has a pivotal role to play: encouraging UK experts with broad experience of project management in different environments to speak with Polish clients; and, helping identify Polish clients who want to draw on international experience. Coaching for newcomers would also be very helpful – giving each party some insight into the other’s business and interests. Once the introduction is made, I also think the BPCC should stick around to understand how the relationship develops (so the BPCC’s advisors become even better at identifying potential opportunities in the future).

Project management skills span engineering and business – what’s the right educational route that equips a would-be project manager with the expertise required to begin a career in this field? Should builders be acquiring business skills – or should business managers be learning about construction? In your experience working in Poland – what should Polish universities be doing to supply graduates equipped with the necessary skills?

There’s no single route to a project management career, though I do have a few thoughts. First, it is exceptionally difficult to be both a project manager and an operational manager at the same time. Decision making, priorities and leadership are all very different and I’ve often seen compromises between project and operational considerations damage both. Second, I think that people are naturally drawn towards either leading projects (significant achievements with defined start and end points) or leading operations (maintenance and growth of a business capability). The most capable project managers I’ve had the pleasure to work with, and whom I see as role models, had a mix of project and operational roles on their CVs. This gave them a more rounded view of the world and made them better at leading both. Third, I think that people have a natural preference and style that draws them towards one or the other. Fourth, project management is a professional discipline. It takes work and study to be successful; taking it seriously makes it much easier to achieve good results.

Things always run more smoothly if business leaders understand the project managers who are delivering for them, and project managers understand the business context into which they are delivering. However, when it comes to senior levels, the best leaders I’ve worked with saw themselves as either business managers or project managers. Their high performance came from focus and specific experience within their chosen domain.

I’m a firm believer that engineering- and construction-related degrees should educate the next generation of project and operational managers on project management. It places their technical learning in the context of delivering something, and prepares them for the increasingly formal methods that will be applied to projects when they graduate.

It's not only the construction/built-environment sector that needs project managers – there are huge public projects in IT, energy and environmental protection sectors, for which large amounts of EU funding has been earmarked. Is there any commonality in terms of the requirements for project managers across the sectors, or is each one completely different?

The leadership and decision-making framework is common to any project, but there are specific considerations that need to be made in each sector. In other words, there’s different learning from experience that should be applied. My personal view is that the most desirable project manager has some multi-sector experience. They will have worked in different environments and will therefore appreciate the need to tailor their style and the project management tools they deploy. However, they need to have considerable experience of working in the sector for the project they will be leading. They will have focused on optimising performance in that sector, they will have read more case studies within that sector and they will be able to seek advice from a network of professionals in that sector. In short, they will much more adept at avoiding pitfalls if they have dedicated several years of their career to high performance in the same sector.

Should the Polish government take the lead in any campaign to create a new cadre of project managers – or is this something for public-private partnership?

Reflecting on your first question, I would say it has to be both. If the Polish government has identified an area for improvement, then there are a number of actions it can take. The UK government led the adoption of project, programme and business case management processes across all its departments to enhance project management of public sector projects. Forms of contract used by public sector bodies, and the way that regulation and scrutiny is applied were adapted to preserve their good points and enhance their contribution to the project management environment.

The private sector can help. It can place its experience at the disposal of the Polish government in finding the detailed measures to execute a project management enhancement policy. At the same time, the private sector needs to listen. There are some very specific constraints that always apply to public sector projects, but not to private sector ones (in particular around responsibility for public money and duty to the taxpayer). These constraints have to be respected when determining what project management methods and tools to apply.

In summary, I suppose that I have just argued that it has to be a partnership between the Government, the public sector and the private sector.

Given the time taken to teach students the necessary skills, and given that many will have to study abroad given the lack of the numbers of lecturers and trainers, is it not already too late to bring Poland up to speed in project management? The current EU budget will have to be given back to Brussels if not contracted by 2020…

I see the challenge you have presented above a little differently. I would say that it’s a question of how to apply good project management practices on the EU-funded programmes, and how create a legacy of experienced project managers (ready for the next round of infrastructure investment). If there is a gap in capability, the fastest way to fill it will be to draw on international project management companies, such as Amec Foster Wheeler, while making the most of the opportunity for mentoring, coaching and shadowing to enhance skills.

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