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Where is all the project talent?

External consultants are being engaged to drive major projects but is this the solution?
We explore the need for greater focus on the talent embedded in organisations to realise value from these business defining projects.

Australia is facing a project boom and the Federal government’s latest budget commitment of $75 billion on public infrastructure projects over the next 10 years highlights the critical need for highly competent project directors to lead stakeholders through the minefield of issues these projects face.

Government entities who are struggling to identify internal candidates with the necessary level of competency to lead these projects are having to engage external consultants to fill this requirement, reportedly at $3,000 a day. It is not the price tag that should shock the public but the lack of pre-investment being made into key personnel through focused and relevant upskilling to help navigate these projects and ensure they get results for communities.

Stakeholder demands: Quick fix versus elevating capability from within

Sadly government have a poor record of delivering on projects with the recent Census fail and the Queensland Department of Health payroll project which ended in debacle with costs estimated at $1.2 billion still fresh in taxpayers minds. Yet leading companies also struggle with recognising the need to elevate the capabilities of those leading their most significant projects. Learning and development annual budgets are generally well funded to the branches of the general management teams yet those charged with delivering on $100 million plus projects are not afforded the time or dollars to develop the key skills to traverse the myriad of issues of the strategic and sometimes landmark projects.

Bringing in external consultants to meet the demands of their stakeholders is a quick fix that will not help realise the full potential of these projects.

External consultants have suitable technical skills to support key elements of project delivery however sitting alongside the organisation, rather than embedded in its work practices and culture, impacts their ability to work with key stakeholders to cover the strategic imperatives and ensure the right project evolves through iterations between business and the project.  

Unique skills required for business-defining projects

Successful completion of key projects is essential to enable an organisation to deliver on its strategic plan. But these “business defining” projects are challenging and require unique skills for those leading these projects. Project leaders need to act like mini CEO’s dealing within a complex stakeholder matrix; linking cross functional teams; and optimising allocation of risk between owner and contractor through sophisticated contractual arrangements – all above and beyond the technical challenges of the project.

Recent PMI research finds those “champion” organisations who master projects are prioritising development of leadership skills (76% of “champion” versus 16% of “underperformer” organisations) and strategic and business management skills (65% versus 14% of “underperformers”) in their project teams.

Three key reasons why organisations should focus on investing in their project talent

For those organisations preparing to deliver on key strategic plans through projects there are three key reasons why they should focus on investing on their project leadership talent to ensure they are operating at an executive level.

Project leaders need to ensure their project is fully aligned with the business / organisation strategy. They need to engage with the executive leaders within their organisation, as well as the key stakeholders, including customers and community, to ensure the project is the right solution to deliver the strategy and optimised value in the most effective way. These project executives need highly developed leadership skills to be able to forge and influence these complex relationships over a period of time.

A great organisation is a learning organisation, and capturing lessons from previous projects – good and bad alike – is one of the most effective ways of feeding back successful practices into the organisation. By reflecting overtime on these lessons aggregated from projects across the organisation senior management can assess whether it is external or internal issues hindering their projects and make changes to mitigate these in the future.There is so much at risk for organisations who don’t support their project talent and harness their knowledge. The recent resource downturn saw a spate of organisations collapse their Project Management Offices, history has shown that this capability remerges in effective consultancy roles for organisations but unfortunately, the lessons learnt are usually lost in the process.

Often leadership teams have shorter tenures within the organisation than their major projects. An unfortunate outcome of our democracy is the continuing change in governments usually mean a change in heads of departments who have been overseeing the project, or the company CEO move onto new opportunities. This reality should elevate the strategic imperative of stabilising the leadership of key projects with highly competent project executives and maintaining a sustainable core capability through prudent succession planning.

Organisations can do well by identifying and investing in their current teams who are immersed in the organisations strategic goals and understand the organisational framework.  Great leadership talent is usually within the ranks, dormant, waiting for the right learning opportunities to equip them to the next level of leadership.