Tanner James Blog

Why aren’t we getting better at programme and project management?

John Howarth


“If we have been using MSP and PRINCE2 in the public service for a while now, why aren’t we getting better at programme and project management?”

That was the question put to me by an agency head recently.  It’s a great question, and one I thought worth exploring.

Are we getting better?

My gut-feeling, not evidence-based, is that we are, but only marginally.

Here’s one example.  It is twenty years since we ran our first PRINCE2 training courses in Canberra (yikes!).  When we came to talk about the business case, a noticeable number of participants would pipe up and say “but we’re public servants, so we don’t need business cases”.  These days everyone accepts the need for a business case; but what is the quality of the business cases being produced?  Often they are marginal, and if I was being uncharitable I’d say a few are simply an ambit claim for funding rather than a coherent rationale to invest in improvement.

If you prefer evidence, I don’t think you’ll have to look too hard for reports from the big firms and others saying that we are still not getting programme and project management right.  And Professor Peter Shergold’s 2015 report Learning from Failure spells out the issues very plainly for the APS.

What is the problem?

To my mind the answer lies in the question:  if we have been using MSP and PRINCE2 in the public service for a while now…”.  Has the APS been using MSP and PRINCE2 for a while now?  I would argue it hasn’t.

What the APS has been doing is sending people off to courses to “get qualified”, building home-grown frameworks based on the methods (often awash with templates), and engaging contractors who are “MSP/PRINCE2-qualified”.  Project and programme managers, whether APS or contract, are then expected to use MSP or PRINCE2 to manage the programme or project on which they are working.

Well, here’s the news, and I’m very sorry for those people who have so far being nodding in agreement and saying to themselves “yes, that’s how we do it”:  doing those things is not using MSP or PRINCE2.  Not by a country mile.

What are we not doing?

In my blog, The one simple thing most SES officers get wrong with programmes and projects I wrote that “The dominant way SES officers should look at programmes and projects is as organisations.  Temporary ones.”  This is the most critical point.  Programme and project management isn’t a solo endeavour.  If we keep placing focus on the individual project and programme managers, we will keep getting it wrong.  It is about creating temporary organisations.

Tailoring the methods is also critical.  Knowing how to do so requires a good deal of experience.  Tailoring doesn’t mean re-writing chunks of the manual in your own words, creating additional processes and activities, or creating turgid templates.  How many people realize that PRINCE2 doesn’t contain any templates?  You can tailor the methods to create your own departmental frameworks, but creating a framework isn’t the same as making sure it is effectively adopted by programmes or projects.  You can also tailor the methods directly to suit an individual initiative.

Application is the other key.  Skillful application of the principles and themes.  There is a world of difference between the results of a well-run product-based planning workshop with the right stakeholders in the room and someone sitting at their desk for days on end word-processing a “plan”.

So unless you have properly established role-based temporary organisations, tailoring based on experience, and skillful application, in my opinion you are not yet using MSP or PRINCE2.  Hence you might be part of the average department or agency that is still not really getting better at programme and project management.

Want to get the governance , tailoring and application right?

Tanner James is available for short, sharp engagements to help you optimise the way you manage your programmes and projects – big or small – based on the issues raised in this blog.

If you would like to know more, please call me personally on 0407 404 688 or email me at .  I would be very happy to come to meet you, answer questions and provide further information.

What do you think?

Please feel free to comment on the blog itself or via Linked In.



Less management gives you more success

John Howarth

“We don’t have time for project management.”  “We can’t afford the overhead of PRINCE2, so we use a ‘lite’ version.”  “Our SES doesn’t want full MSP.”  “We use Agile so we don’t need project management, that’s waterfall.”

Over the years I have heard dozens of remarks like this, and while I usually politely smile when I hear them, inside I am shaking my head at the fundamental lack of understanding they reflect.

“We don’t have time…”

This is the underlying message:  we don’t have time.  It has become an everyday badge of honour in the workplace:  “I’m flat out / under the pump / getting smashed / in back-to-back meetings / haven’t looked at my emails” etcetera, etcetera.

Why has it become cool to be poor at time-management and setting priorities?  Why do people feel proud of the fact they are not spending time on things they should be spending time on?  Why are many managers and leaders so hopeless at saying no, or making commitments responsibly?

I make these observations simply to set the context:  “I don’t have time” is the bane of the modern workplace, and not simply something that affects good programme and project management.

The consequences

The consequences of not having time, or to be more specific not spending time on programme and project management, are severe.  Over the years many reports have made this plain, and I find it astonishing that the APS has done nothing in response to Professor Peter Shergold’s 2015 report Learning from Failure, which spell out the issues very plainly.  (Perhaps people haven’t had time to implement his report?!)

What are the consequences?  They are that people launch headlong into significant change initiatives based on bravado and hope, with no real idea what needs to be done, or how it will be done.  There is an absence of thinking and communication in the planning process, for which a high price is paid in implementation.  Yet people still spend a great deal of time and money filling in templates, and portraying what they are doing as programme and project management.  It isn’t.

So what should we be doing?

Effective programme and project management is really very simple.  Get the right people into the right roles, have them think and communicate based on a set of clearly understood principles and concepts to shape a plan, then exercise control against that plan.  The granularity of the plan must vary, with detail for the short-term and broader view for the longer term.

None of this should involve paying permanent staff, or worse still contractors or firms, to sit and write documents for you.  Having people fill out templates is a mugs game, and has nothing to do with professional programme and project management.

Instead, have people in the key roles think and communicate face-to-face, and only record their conversations with the bare minimum documentation to avoid misunderstanding down the track and provide an adequate audit trail.  How much time should be spent on such face-to-face communication?   – as little as possible, but sufficient to ensure everyone is on the same page.  Focus on the fundamentals, and don’t get caught in detail.  In other words, less is more.

Want to escape from the template-treadmill and get your time back?

Tanner James is available for short, sharp engagements to do a template detox and help you optimise the way you manage your programmes and projects – big or small.  If you would like to know more, please call me personally on 0407 404 688 or email me at .  I would be very happy to come to meet you, answer questions and provide further information.

What do you think?

Please feel free to comment on the blog itself or via Linked In.

What does the USA election have to do with the Australian Public Service? – a great deal, but that’s not why you must read this.

John Howarth


 The IPAA ACT 2016 conference took place on Thursday 10th November, and it was a superb event.  Congratulations to IPAA, the speakers and everyone involved.  The conference was filmed and video content is now available online, including a series of short and easily watchable highlights packages from each session and complete transcripts.  These are all available from the IPAA ACT web site at

Two things happened the day before the conference, both of which were very notable.  The first was the USA election, and the second was the speech given by the Australian Cabinet Secretary.

What does the USA election have to do with the Australian Public service?

The first was that Donald Trump won the USA presidency.  The primary theme of the conference was Thinking Big, very apt, and the speakers for the first session did a great job in ditching their carefully prepared speeches and instead offering their observations and insights into the global thunderbolt.

I recommend you have a look at the conference website, but for me a few critical themes emerged:

  • Trust – people across the globe lack trust in their governments.
  • Stakeholder engagement – governments must engage people more authentically.
  • Diversity – is vital to making better decisions.
  • Disruption, innovation and agility – are not words reserved only for digital trendies:  they are accurate descriptors of primary forces in health, socio-economics, education and disease.
  • Political volatility – is harming public policy, and making implementation difficult

    Policy Implementation Capability

    The second thing that happened the day before the conference was that the Cabinet Secretary, Senator the Hon Arthur Sinodinos AO, spoke at the Prime Minister’s Awards For Excellence In Public Sector Management.  A full transcript of his speech is available on the IPAA conference website, and again I commend it you.

    I was delighted to hear that one of the things the Prime Minister is being encouraged to pursue over this term is how the government invests more back into the capability of the public service.  He said that you can have great strategy, but if you can’t get it implemented or botch execution there’s no point.

    He referred to the work done over the last five years in the cabinet office to improve the project management capabilities of the UK Government.  They did this by investing in project management expertise within the public sector.  Not just seeking to outsource everything or outsource expertise, but actually build or rebuild the internal expertise.

    The Cabinet Secretary spoke about the importance of learning from failure (coincidentally, or perhaps not, the title of Professor Peter Shergold’s review).  The words that stand out are:

    “There are some things here like around the management of major projects that in my day job as cabinet secretary, I'm going to come back to with some of my colleagues within government because we're very keen to create that sort of sense of excellence in project management”.

    The current Australian Government is clearly committed to rebuilding that in-house expertise, so watch this space.

    Want to know more about improving your policy implementation capability?

    If you would like to know more about using programme management or project management to improve you policy implementation capability, please call me personally on 0407 404 688 or email me at .  I would be very happy to come to meet you, answer questions and provide further information.

    What do you think?

    Please feel free to comment on the blog itself or via Linked In.


    B is the most important letter in DTA

    John Howarth

    Last month in my blog I advocated a change of name for The Digital Transformation Office (DTO), and proposed it should be called The Government Transformation Office.  Well, it got its name change, though not the one I proposed – the DTO is to become The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA).  So what’s new and what’s the significance of the change?

    What’s new?

    Last week in a speech to the Australian Information Industries Association at the National Press Club, Angus Taylor, Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation, signaled major changes to how the government intends to pursue its digital transformation agenda.

    The DTO will morph into the DTA, with big changes involved not just a rebadging.  A new leader has been appointed - Nerida O’Loughlin, currently a deputy secretary for the Department of Communications and the Arts, will take over as leader from Paul Shetler, who is now Chief Digital Officer.  (Whether that is a high-powered advisory role or a euphemism for “Digital Special Projects Officer” remains to be seen.)

    Department of Finance functions related to ICT policy and ICT procurement will move to the DTA, reflecting a broader and more strategic approach.  There is also talk of a whole-of-government PMO function being a part of the mix following PM&C and Finance work in that area.

    While there are speeches and media commentary available, precise details of the structure and functions of the DTA have not yet been released.  What is clear however is that this is a big deal – if you are in the business of digital transformation in the APS you need to watch this unfold very closely.

    What’s the significance of the change?

    I was present at the AIIA lunch where Angus Taylor spoke, and I found what he said very heartening.

    I haven’t seen a transcript of the speech, but I can assure you he used the “B-word” many times – benefits, benefits, and benefits.  Did I mention benefits?!  It was wonderful to hear an elected member of the government stand-up and speak passionately and eloquently about benefits, business cases and programme management – and yes, he clearly knew exactly what those terms meant and used them in the same way as a competent programme or project management professional.

    I have written several blogs on the topic of digital transformation, but one thing is clear:  if you don’t know how to deliver benefits through programme management you might want to re-think your digital career.  It’ll be interesting to see who doesn’t come back after the Christmas holidays this year.

    Want to know more about managing digital transformation?

    If you would like to know more about using programme management or project management to manage digital (government) transformation in the APS, please call me personally on 0407 404 688 or email me at .  I would be very happy to come to meet you, answer questions and provide further information.

    Other blogs on Digital Transformation

    Is it time to drop the D from the DTO?

    What will the Prime Minister’s vision mean for programme and project management in the APS?

    How to create a Digital Transformation Plan

    This is why Digital Transformation Coordinators can’t sleep…

    Digital Transformation - War or Peace

    What do you think?

    Please feel free to comment on the blog itself or via Linked In.

    Zero to Hero - Do I have to do all of PRINCE2?

    Ray Ahern

    Do I have to do all of PRINCE2?

    PRINCE2 can be overwhelming to a new Project Manager in particular.  This is even more so if you start by believing you need to create a large wad of documents to be able to run a good project.

    You can cut through this fear by realising that some parts of PRINCE2 will offer the new project manager more value than others.  Your dilemma is that you need to work out which bits.

    Whilst it will vary from person to person and project to project, in my experience, a few parts of the method are the critical enablers that will get the rest of PRINCE2 working for you.  Looking to meet these challenges first can smooth the way for later:

    • Establish ownership and connections with the user and supplier environments - even an imperfect Project Board that can connect you with your users and the people who will supply the solution
    • Do product based planning – this will support you later with scope management, cost management, assignment of work, risk identification and later with any proposed changes
    • Structure work assignment and management – this sounds fairly obvious but seems to be one essential that many people forget
    • Establish change authorities– having authorities and limits of authority established up front will save you lots of time later by avoiding those awful arguments about who can approve a change.

    Most commonly when an inexperienced project manager hits a problem they will throw their hands in the air and forget PRINCE2; when actually PRINCE2 would give them a way of solving those problems.  Rather than making that mistake, an experienced PRINCE2 exponent will think about “what part of the PRINCE2 method could help me here?”

     If you start with the basics I’ve given you above and then every time you hit a problem look to the method to help solve your problem you will soon gain a lot of proficiency at using PRINCE2.  You will certainly be better placed than someone who tries to implement PRINCE2 by writing every document suggested by the manual!

    Is it time to drop the D from the DTO?

    John Howarth


    The Digital Transformation Office (DTO) is only 15 months old.  An infant.  It’s tough being a new kid.  Especially when you’re little.  The big kids push you around.  Sometimes you just want to flee back home.  But there comes a time when little kids need to grow up.  Which begs the question, is it time to drop the D from the DTO?

    Kindy is fun

    I attended the DTO Canberra Open House in July this year, and I have to say it was very enjoyable.

    Walking into the DTO takes you into a wonderful world of Kanban boards, user stories and all manner of wonderful visuals.  It has the same vibrant feel as a kindergarten – the walls are covered in colours and pictures, and all staff members are alive and enthusiastic with an energy that only people with great passion for their chosen field bring to a room.

    Workplaces inside and outside the public sector could do a lot worse than seek to foster this same sense of energy.

    So what’s the problem?

    While kindy is fun, you can’t stay there all your life.  You need to move on from small things to big things, and from fun things to challenging things.  As the years go by we lose the luxury of being able to spend lots of time and resources carefully crafting objects that others coo over.  We learn about dealing with large, complex issues, and working with insufficient time or resources.

    It seems to me that some of the kindy analogy applies to the DTO.  It has a loud voice, and has clearly had a beneficial impact in disrupting the ICT development status quo in the APS, and championing a commendable vision for simpler, clearer, faster public services.  But what it has achieved so far is small in comparison to the challenges faced when looking at whole-of-government change.  Alpha and Beta releases in a few targeted areas are a good start, but there is a need for substantial scale-up, in a governable and manageable way, before it can be said there has been major progress with the digital transformation agenda.

    Dropping the D

    I can’t blame the DTO for its name, after all, digital transformation is in vogue terminology the world over.  And the Prime Minster, no less, has created a cabinet sub-committee called the Digital Transformation Committee.

    Well Prime Minister – how can I put this delicately – you got it wrong.  The name shouldn’t reflect the technology, the name should reflect what you are trying to achieve.

    So here is my proposal:  that we drop the D, and replace it with G – the Government Transformation Committee, and the Government Transformation Office.  I think that might just capture the public’s imagination right now.  By all means press on with digital enthusiasm, but harness and direct it with strong programme management capability.

    I look forward to the Honourable Angus Taylor, MP; Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation, lobbying to have his title changed!

    Want to know more about managing digital transformation?

    If you would like to know more about using programme management or project management to manage digital (government) transformation in the APS, please call me personally on 0407 404 688 or email me at .  I would be very happy to come to meet you, answer questions and provide further information.

    What do you think?

    Please feel free to comment on the blog itself or via Linked In.

    The role of the blueprint in MSP

    Matt Overton

    A common question I’m asked during MSP training is around clarifying the role of the blueprint in the design of a change programme. MSP best practice advises that you shouldn’t confuse the future state that the programme will deliver with how you’re going to get there. It is also suggested that you should focus on where you want to be before you agree where you are (the current state).

    The confusion is understandable considering that many change programmes are not as vision-led as we would like and instead are emergent, being derived from extent projects.In addition, we tend to conflate the roadmap of how we’re going to get to the end state with what that end state looks like.

    This is particularly true of the plan-on-a-page deliverable, which provides an all-in-one solution.

    My advice comprises three parts. Firstly, discuss the future state in the absence of a time horizon. You’re likely to have more free-form debate and ideation. Secondly, once agreement has been brokered, move onto the ‘how’ – the time and money – and ‘what’, including the incorporation of initiatives that are already in flight. Thirdly, focus on the current state since, from that, you’ll be able to judge the extent of the change and the speed by which it will need to be achieved.

    I’m less concerned about these three parts being combined into one deliverable providing that their intent is understood from the outset. It’s more about the talking than the typing…

    Matt Overton,
    Tanner James Principal Consultant and Trainer

    The new APS P3M Community of Practice and Centre of Excellence

    John Howarth

    In my last couple of blogs I wrote about SES officers (one simple thing they get wrong with programmes and projects and what happens when they speak freely about programme management or project management).

    While SES officers are critical to effective programme management or project management, the engine room is the community of APS practitioners who have a passion for making these disciplines cornerstones of high quality policy implementation.

    I was therefore delighted to see the Departments of Finance and Prime Minister and Cabinet have launched a renewed P3M Community of Practice and Virtual P3M Centre of Excellence to support APS collaboration in building P3M capability.

    P3M Community of Practice

    The P3M Community of Practice (CoP) is an APS wide network of P3M practitioners who come together to share, learn and promote good portfolio, programme and project management practices.  The vision of the enhanced CoP is to build a collaborative knowledge sharing network of P3M practitioners to strengthen APS delivery capability and promote greater recognition by the APS.

    Membership is voluntary and open to permanent or non-ongoing APS staff.

    Virtual P3M Centre of Excellence

    The concept of a virtual P3M CoE is to provide free exchange of APS focussed P3M advice; where professionals can connect and learn from each other, solutions can be developed to common challenges and P3M capability can be built across the APS.

    What will the P3M CoP and CoE achieve?

    In my opinion a great deal.  Much good work has already been done by the P3M CoP, and if you haven’t already been involved, I commend it to you.  It’s a great way to learn from the experience of other public servants facing similar challenges to the ones you face.

    As trainers and consultants we spend a fair bit of time “connecting” people in different parts of the APS to one another.  That’s fine, and it’s a role we’re very happy to perform, but it’s even better to see the APS establishing mechanisms by which the collective wisdom of APS P3M practitioners can be harnessed for the good of all.

    Note to SES officers – make sure you give your P3M specialists time to attend and contribute to time these initiatives (I couldn’t resist signing off on that note).

    Want to know more?

    There are more details on both these initiatives on this Department of Finance webpage.

    To find out more about the CoP, you can send a message to

    If you would like to know more about programme management or project management in the APS, please call me personally on 0407 404 688 or email me at .  I would be very happy to come to meet you, answer questions and provide further information.

    What do you think?

    Please feel free to comment on the blog itself or via Linked In.

    Bloated Project Boards

    Ray Ahern

    Do you have bloated Project Boards that are made up of every person with a vague interest in your project?  Is all the focus of the Project Board on the latest technical issue rather than the big picture?

    Project Boards are meant to be focused on the Business Case for the project; that is, whether the project is (and remains) ‘good’ for the business.  They are not meant to focus on technical issues and technical milestones.

    The Board does however need to be assured that those things are under control.

    How do they do that without loading up every board meeting with technical people?  The answer lies in the role of Project Assurance.  An appointed Project Assurance person reports to one or more Project Board members about the project. 

    Whilst they must have access to the project, they do not direct the Project Manager.

    Of course, a Board member may come from a technical background and be very comfortable understanding the system architecture, for example, but not understand or have sufficient visibility of the finances. In that case, the Board member might appoint someone as Project Assurance from a financial perspective and not have the technical assurance.

    As these choices depend on the project and the individual Board member, Project Assurance is a role that should be appointed by the Project Board, and indeed each Project Board member, to suit their specific needs.  Some organisations choose to have mandatory assurance roles such as Security, Finance, Safety and System Architecture, and this is fine.  However appointments do need to be tailored to each project.

    Ray Ahern,
    Tanner James Principal Consultant 


    This is what happens when SES officers speak freely about programme management or project management

    John Howarth


    In my last blog I wrote about the one simple thing most SES officers get wrong with programmes and projects: they don’t think about programmes and projects as organisations.  (Read that blog here.)

    This observation generated quite a lot of interest, and so this month I thought I’d share with you what happens when SES officers are given the opportunity to speak freely about programme management or project management.

    “SES officers speak freely?  Yeah right!  Like that’ll ever happen…”

    If that was your reaction, and you wouldn’t be the first person I have known to react that way, then I would invite you to (re)open your mind.  Senior executives are humans like the rest of us, and they have thoughts and feelings that are not necessarily evident simply from observing what they say and what they do.  If you have the capacity to develop trust, respect and rapport with your SES, you are far more likely to have an effective engagement with them where they say what’s on their mind.

    Assuming the pre-requisites are in place for an authentic conversation to occur, let’s examine what happens when the door closes and the conversation begins.

    How do you start an executive conversation about programme/project management?

    Hello, my name is John and I’m here to tell you all about PRINCE2.  It has seven principles, seven themes and seven processes.  I’m going to explain all those to you and we’ll look at the templates as well.”  That is about the worst possible opening line I can imagine.  It might be somewhat exaggerated, but it is painfully close to some of the internal presentations I have witnessed.  What is the single most common flaw?  Launching into an explanation of {insert PPM topic of your choice here} without first establishing any context or ascertaining what those present want to get out of the discussion.

    What is the right way to start the conversation?  Assuming you have dealt with “meeting hygiene” factors such as how long the discussion will take, introductions etc, how about inviting each participant to briefly address:

    • What brought them to this conversation;
    • What programme/project management means to them;
    • What experience they have in programme/project management;
    • Topics they’d like to cover in the discussion; and
    • What they want to take away from the discussion.

    If you have limited time, a killer question which I picked up from an executive coach years ago, and still use to this day, is:  “what would make this conversation most useful for you?”

    The things SES officers are usually seeking

    Context.  It is no use launching into the specifics of MSP, PRINCE2, P3M3, your framework, why benefits management is important etc etc, if you haven’t first established where the discussion fits into their world.  For example, most SES discussions touch upon the concept of “run the business versus change the business” very early on.

    Purpose.  Before explaining the “what” of programme management or project management, you need to understand the “why”.  Did you notice I didn’t say explain the why?  Your job is to understand why the topic at hand is relevant and useful to the executive(s) you are speaking with.  This requires you to have a practical understanding of their role and their challenges, so you can correctly position your PPM topic as a means to assist.  If you can confidently identify with and articulate the problems they have, and explain why programme management or project management can help address those problems, you have a firm foundation for a productive conversation.

    Mental Model.  SES officers are busy people, they have to cover a vast array of topics under great time pressures.  Most likely they don’t have the time or inclination to absorb the detail, so you won’t be thanked for droning on about detailed terminology definitions and nuances for hours on end.  They are seeking a simple mental model that allows them to relate the disciplines you are intimately familiar with to the context and challenges they face.

    Practicalities, Problems and Perceptions.  Theory is fine, but you need to know how to make these things work in practice, and how to address known problems and perceptions.  Some examples:

    • We don’t have time for this;
    • We have enough templates to sink a ship and they don’t add any value;
    • Qualifications don’t prove anything;
    • This is important but my staff can handle it on my behalf;
    • Our superiors have said we’re not going to have one of those; and the timeless classic…
    • We don’t do it like that here.

    What happens

    If you start the conversation effectively, understand what is being sought, and know your PPM back-to-front, then in my experience what happens is a very powerful conversation.  Lightbulb moments.  Ah ha moments.  Engagement.  Understanding.  Excitement even.

    It is hardly ever about the detail.  It is virtually always about the fundamentals, for example:
    • Using a role-based temporary decision-making structure that cuts across organisational boundaries.
    • Effectively engaging people from the real business areas.
    • How to avoid death-by-template.
    • Making benefits and products real.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop there, and save the rest for future blogs.

    Want to know more?

    If you would like to know more about engaging SES about programme management or project management, please call me personally on 0407 404 688 or email me at .  I would be very happy to come to meet you, answer questions and provide further information.

    What do you think?

    Please feel free to comment on the blog itself or via Linked In.

    1 2 3 4 5 .. 7 Next