HR executives can take the lead in helping their organizations excel in increasingly important project work. Among other issues, they need to ensure employees understand the strategic relevance of the specific projects and need to create performance systems and cultures that reward involvement on project teams.
One key change that has largely eluded the attention of management gurus is the shift in how work gets done. The modern enterprise has become project driven and this change presents significant new challenges and opportunities, especially for HR professionals.
Project work comes with a package of idiosyncrasies. No two projects are exactly alike. Project teams rarely rotate intact from one project to the next. Talent is added and subtracted as needed or as it is available. Similar needs are often met with dissimilar solutions. And projects tend to be "green field" activities, without benefit from previous "lessons learned." Excelling at managing projects and people requires a broadly embedded understanding of how effective project work happens and of the new behaviors needed for success. It is a challenge for which HR professionals are uniquely suited.
Here are six key areas in which HR professionals can help lay the foundation for excellence in project management.
The ability to respond quickly to changing business needs and customer demands is a good thing. Or is it? We would argue that an organization that strives to speed up its response time to specific needs risks ending up with nothing more than the ability to do the wrong thing faster.
Most business and customer needs can be met in a variety of ways, but not all solutions will be consistent with how the organization wants to be positioned in the market. Nor will every profitable project take the organization where it needs to go. To be of real value, the projects into which an organization puts its efforts need to be tied to its strategy.
There are a number of ways in which human resource executives can help leaders move strategy from a statement to an operating reality. The senior HR executive can take a lead role in helping the top team set up a system for evaluating proposed projects in terms of their strategic relevance and impact. HR can also take responsibility for ensuring that all those assigned to projects understand how their goals relate to the overarching strategic goals of the business.
Current and Future Leadership
Historically, top managers have been selected for their financial skills more than for their ability to manage complex projects. The modern organization requires leaders who can translate a broad strategic vision into manageable projects and sell them up (to the board and shareholders) and down (to the organization and customers).
HR can play a key role in recruiting and developing a new breed of leaders, with broader, more project-relevant skills. When interviewing candidates for management positions, they need to look for individuals with proven success in not only formulating, but also implementing organization strategy; people who have a track record of bringing complex projects to completion; and those who can inspire others to get work done.
Interestingly, these skills closely parallel those of successful project managers. As HR executives work with project managers in their organization, they need to closely observe and mentor this rich source of future executives.
What is project quality? On time, on budget and on specification, right? Not necessarily. What if landing a man on the moon before the Soviets had cost the United States an extra $20 million dollars? What if Henry Ford had taken an extra four months to launch the Model T that built an industrial giant? Would these projects have been labeled failures? Not likely.
Meeting cost and schedule expectations is important, but these are often indicators of efficiency rather than of quality. A quality project is one that meets customers' needs -- even if it takes more time or spends more money than was originally planned.
To produce a quality product, a project team must continuously survey, anticipate, clarify and confront issues in and around the project to ensure that the end result will delight the customer. If the customer's needs change, so must the project plan.
HR leaders must install behaviors that separate the need to find the cause of a problem from the need to make a choice on plan actions. Problems, decisions and actions can't be addressed the same way. Each requires people to gather, sort and analyze different information differently. And rarely can a person come to the best resolution alone. It almost always requires help from others to provide needed information or to implement. Having a common, visible approach to resolving project issues speeds and improves outcomes.
For the HR executive, this means ensuring that the workforce has the communication, interpersonal, teaming and critical-thinking skills necessary to turn on a dime.
Many organizations have protocols, processes and procedures in place to control the initiation and implementation of projects. These are valuable and necessary to efficiently and effectively deploy resources to the highest-value projects. But these protocols can devolve into a low-value, bureaucratic, paper-pushing exercise unless the people using them understand the "why" behind the "how."
The challenge for HR is to provide the workforce with both the protocols and the thinking processes behind them. There is a logic to defining, planning and controlling projects, and the better all involved understand that logic, the better they can participate in projects, and the faster they can move from project to project.
Many project managers believe that you can't communicate too much during a project. We beg to differ. Unnecessary communication distracts the project team from achieving results. Technology has enabled rapid -- but not necessarily rich -- communication, which often results in data overload. Project-team members are overwhelmed by reports, spreadsheets and e-mails.
To keep project teams from drowning in paperwork, HR leaders need to work with IT and telecommunications professionals to ensure that the necessary data-collection tools are in place -- and unnecessary ones are eliminated.
They can also ensure that project management training includes proper use of the correct communication tool. For example, each step of a project-management methodology can be broken down into a series of questions. What is the project intended to accomplish? What is the best way to accomplish this? What is the logical order of work? What specific part of the project are we having trouble with? Communication can be greatly enhanced if it is centered around a specific part of the project-management process.
Performance Environment and Culture
In order to excel at projects, an organization needs to have a performance system that supports this approach to getting work done. This is where HR executives can shine.
First, top to bottom, everyone in the organization must understand what project behaviors are expected. It must be clear when in the process the behaviors are expected to be exhibited. People must have the time, tools and resources to do as expected. Sufficient rewards and incentives must exist for proper project participation. Finally, frequent and meaningful feedback is needed to either let the team know that its project work is meeting company goals or, if not, what it needs to do differently to turn the situation around.
HR can work with management to ensure that all these elements are present in the performance system for project teams as well as for all members of the workforce.
Developing an organization that excels in project work requires significant culture change, widespread strategic competency, new skills to be transferred in the classroom and reinforced on the job, project-attuned information systems and a performance system that makes serving on a project team a privilege, not a punishment. At every step, human resources is the ideal choice to coordinate, communicate and serve as catalyst in the transformation.
Andrew Longman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president of marketing and partner in the Princeton, NJ-based consulting firm of Kepner-Tregoe, Inc. He is co-author of The Rational Project Manager: A Thinking Team's Guide to Getting Work Done (John Wiley & Sons, 2005). Since 1958, Kepner-Tregoe (www.kepner-tregoe.com) has focused its efforts on helping organizations around the world improve their critical-thinking, project management and human performance management skills.