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Advancing project management with a chief project officer

Project management – a structured approach to driving and achieving results through a strategic focus on critical initiatives – is crucial to any organisation’s success. We know that senior executives realise the importance of linking strategy and implementation. According to research done by the Economist Intelligence Unit in collaboration with the Project Management Institute (PMI), 88 per cent of executives say successful execution of their strategic initiatives will be “essential” or “very important” to their organisation’s competitiveness in the next few years.

As organisations face increasingly complex challenges from such forces as innovation, disruption and the demands of a global business environment, the inextricable link between strategy and implementation must be addressed. An understanding of how needed change occurs is also critical – operations run the business, but projects change the business. A formal approach to project and programme management can be the link that ensures an organisation has the capabilities for both change and strategy execution that it needs.

ea_pmi_2Research from PMI’s Pulse of the Profession®: Capturing the Value of Project Management shows that in high-performing organisations, projects successfully meet goals two-and-a-half times more often. We define high performers as organisations in which 80 per cent or more of projects meet business goals as well as deliver on time and on budget. In light of what our research shows, it is not surprising that organisations see added value from having a chief project officer (CPO). This can be a highly effective way of enabling the change an organisation needs to deliver business results, emphasising the strategic importance of project management while elevating both the profession and the practice of project management in the eyes of all employees.

One company that has done this effectively is Telstra, the Australian telecommunications company. Two years ago Telstra hired its first CPO, Alicia Aitken. This was both a bold and logical move for the company, which has a history of commitment to project management and supporting the profession overall.

Having a chief project officer can help your organisation maintain a constant, forward-looking focus on connecting the project portfolio to strategy

Telstra chief executive Andy Penn says: “Our vision of becoming a world-class technology company won’t be achieved without world-class project management. It’s central to the way we work and fundamental to our ability to deliver a brilliant connected future for our customers.”

While there are many organisations that achieve project and strategic success thanks to having a project management office (PMO) or an enterprise project management office (EPMO), having a CPO can help your organisation maintain a constant, forward-looking focus on connecting the project portfolio to strategy. It is common for leaders to be focused on fixing past problems rather than thinking about the capabilities, talent and other resources needed to move forward.

I have seen too many organisations struggle with “what do we do about the problems of the last two or three years?” instead of thinking about “how can we be sure we are prepared to compete in the next three to five years?” Certainly that is how Telstra envisions the CPO role. The company’s EPMO is staffed with people who are experts in project management and can deliver on the promises of today; in contrast, Ms Aitken’s role is more future focused. Creating the CPO role was not a retitling of Telstra’s PMO or EPMO, it was a step beyond.

ea_pmi_3“Telstra is in a period of transition as the rollout of the National Broadband Network progresses across Australia, the pace of technology innovation accelerates and the company grows into new markets,” says Ms Aitken. “In this environment, it is important for the company to have change leadership in place, and my work has been about bringing together a community of over 3,500 project managers and sponsors across 22 countries to lead through this change, and to grow the project management capability at Telstra.”

A forward-thinking focus calls for understanding the constantly changing skills, competencies and behaviours that enable an organisation to deliver over time in many different environments. Some organisations refer to this as being agile. Agility is both a specific project management method and an organisational mindset.

In her group, Ms Aitken says agile and scaled-agile methods are often used in conjunction with sequential techniques such as waterfall and specific customer-driven approaches. “Part of my role as CPO is to bring to life the vision of what professional project management means in 2016, which is about getting projects most efficiently and effectively from ideation to value creation,” says Ms Aitken of Telstra’s approach. “This enables Telstra to be agile with our delivery, independent of project type or methodology.”

Delivery is more important than ever for organisations. “According to PMI’s research, on average, $122 million is wasted for every $1 billion invested due to poor project performance, a 12 per cent increase over last year,” says Ms Aitken. “The role of CPO was created to ensure we have professional project management as a standalone capability distinct from our engineering, IT or business skills to safeguard our portfolio from this statistic. The better we can execute our projects, the more money we will have to invest in delivering world-class technology to our customers on a world-class network.”

A focus on aligning projects with strategy while also managing projects on a tactical, day-to-day basis can help your organisation achieve its desired business results while being a model of high performance and efficiency. Having a CPO can help your organisation be agile and nimble while focusing on delivering business results – qualities that are necessary in today’s unpredictable environment.

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