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Can Organisations Standardise Their Approach to Project Management and Still Remain Adaptive?

September 17, 2019

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Maggie Korde

Programme Project Management (PPM) Lead
Save the Children International

Our sector is notably opposed to the language of standardisation. So, when preparing to speak at the Humentum conference this year on how large organisations can standardise their approaches to project management and remain adaptive, the first thing I did was try to find an alternative for that phrase.

A quick google thesaurus of ‘standardise’ throws up a long list of equally, often more, uncomplimentary terms. To institutionalise, to stereotype, to regiment or mass produce. Not things most Project Managers or organisations would want to be associated with.

Scrolling down to the list of antonyms for ‘standardise’ gave even more reason to want to avoid it. To mix up, prevent, change or differentiate. These are camps which any PM worth their stripes would much rather sit in. Our primary goal is to instigate change. To prevent bad things from happening. 

The terminology I encountered wasn’t lending itself to my key premise, which was that standardising is a good thing for project management approaches, but then I found a list of alternatives to ‘standardisation’.

Adapt: the industry’s favourite project management buzzword. Adaptive Project Management; widely agreed by our sector peers and increasingly by our donors, in name if not always in practice, to be the antidote for a substandard project and programme outcomes. It was also the very thing I wanted to speak about – how standardising and adapting need not be two opposing concepts.

The Debate

At one end of the spectrum, you have the ‘Cookie Cutter’ argument where you apply a standardised template, approach or way of working to any situation regardless of context. At its worst, this approach would show no regard for local nuance, operating environment or possible innovation.

At the other end of the spectrum we get ‘Wheel Reinvention’, which is the idea that every time we begin a new intervention, we start from scratch in all the thinking and planning needed for that one project.

Where we have landed at Save the Children is somewhere between the two. We believe that in the middle of cutting cookies and reinventing the wheel comes our best practice and our minimum standards.

Our approach to addressing this has been through the PPM PRIME Project. Taking the findings of a current and future state analysis three years ago, we are responding to the summary problems of (1) inconsistent approaches to project management and (2) variable standards of data collection practices in PPM (Programme Project Management) and PRIME (Project Reporting Information Management and Evidence) respectively.

The Approach

We are standardising, but in the design of PPM, we are also trying to avoid wheel reinvention. PMD Pro (soon to be rebranded as Project DPro) is a project management approach that has been designed by and for our sector. Save the Children played an integral role in its creation before it was first published in 2010 and continues to provide input to updated versions. Our current and future state analysis showed that where staff were currently using a recognised approach to project management, this was most often PMD Pro.

Our new PPM methodology is therefore firmly rooted in PMD Pro. This is important to us as it increases inefficiency both in the short and long-term. In the short-term, by lessening the change impact when we roll it out, and in the long-term by allowing us to lean on the updates and training packages that PMD Pro already invests in.

It is also vital to our sector that we ground our PPM in PMD Pro. We are one of the largest child rights NGOs, and we partner with others on most of our interventions. Speaking the same language as other project management professionals across our sector means that working in collaboration is more easily achieved.

The Specifics

In deciding to go down a level from what PMD Pro gives in terms of detail, we had to be careful not to develop something too regimented and in which we could ensure adaptive management would thrive. Here are five examples of how we are doing this:

1) Focusing on the What and not the How

We re-wrote our version of PMD Pro’s project management life cycle and broke this down further into 15 procedures. The procedures are intended to be useful to all our projects regardless of size, context, theme and location.

They need to be low enough to be clear and informative on what is meant, but not so granular that they obstruct work. We stripped out anything we heard was not mandatory, and crucially, we focussed on the What and not on the How.

2) Learning and Adapting as a Procedure 

In our adapted project management lifecycle, we put learning and adapting around the outside of the visual with the intention that this would be a cross-cutting principle of some sort. Sticking it in the graphic showed its importance, we felt, and having it wrapped around the cycle demonstrated its use during every phase of a project. However, we then thought better of this and realised that, if at Save the Children, a ‘procedure’ is what is mandatory then the only way of ensuring that actual learning and adapting was happening was to put this into its own procedure and to give practical guidance around how to go about this.

We therefore have a procedure for learning and adapting. It includes such actions as comparing new data to past data to try to establish patterns and taking time to pause and reflect on how the project might be enhanced and adapted based on the information your Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning (MEAL) teams are collecting.

3) Logical Framework Thinking

In the new world at Save the Children, our definition of ‘project’ states that every project should be backed up by a logframe. We know the logframe isn’t the only game in town with regards to logical thinking; however, due to the fact that (1) it is what our current and future state analysis showed staff were most comfortable with using (2) it is still what most of our donors require, we decided to go with that for our PPM methodology.

The intention is to develop an informed culture of adaptive management.

4) Devolving Decision Making

Devolving decision-making can be tough to do in large organisations that already have set structures in place within offices. This is where strong project management can come in, as, through the application of a considered process for setting project governance at the outset of each intervention, we can at least set the parameters for that project.

It is for this reason that in our Set Up phase, Save the Children outlines the use of an Authority Matrix; the tool outlines who is responsible for which decisions throughout the life of the project.

5) Communication and Information

Communication and Information are both key principles of adaptive project management. Changing our minds and course-correcting to respond to the moving situation on the ground is a good thing. Those affected by the project, however, do need to be brought along on the journey with us.

  • The children and communities we work with should be advised to expect a different intervention to the one we (hopefully) shared widely with them at the start of the project.
  • Partners and sector peers also need to know if our project approach is changing as we want to ensure we contribute strategically to the broader intervention in that location and not manage our project in a silo.
  • Lastly, of course, donors need to know as permission is often in their hands. 

The Conclusion

There is no doubt we will not have this down perfectly, but we will endeavour to improve things incrementally, and much like the approach we are promoting for external project management, we will adapt if it’s not working.

Lastly, we will hopefully share what has not worked on the PPM PRIME project widely with our peers – just as many organisations have shared with us their valuable lessons learnt, so that together we can be known as a sector for excellence in project management.