Tanner James Blog

Avoiding death-by-template

John Howarth

“We have to fill out reams of templates and I don’t see the value in that” – this is one of the most common criticisms levelled at project management frameworks in general, and PRINCE2® in particular. So I would like to offer some thoughts as to why this perception is so common and how to avoid ‘death-by-template’ on your project.

The PMO made me do it

You are a Project Manager.  You went to the PMO. They said you have to fill in the templates. So you did. Shame on both parties, say I…

As the Project Manager, your job is to pull together a shared understanding of what the project is going to do and why – in other words, a plan and a business case. You need to do this by getting the right people - stakeholders, decision-makers and so on – together in such a way that they have a meeting of minds. Once you have done that you will need to record everything, and that is what the templates are for. But if you try to achieve this primarily by filling in templates you are going about it the wrong way.

If you work in a PMO, your job is to help the Project Manager do their job. There might be a compliance element to that and you may also have a need for gathering some corporate information about what a project will do. Nevertheless you should be focussed on ensuring that the Project Manager has the skills and support necessary to get the project off on the right footing. Pointing them at the templates is a cop-out. You should be asking what they think they need in order to get the right people together and be asking how you can help facilitate that.

The same then applies to the management of progress, change, risks and issues once the project is underway – for the project manager it is about keeping minds aligned and for the PMO it is about helping them do that. Templates are simply a tool of the trade.

Will the person in charge please step forward

So who is to blame if a project has too much paperwork? The Project Manager? The PMO? As it happens, neither is to blame in my opinion. The person who is to blame is the person who has the role of Project Sponsor (or Project Board Executive if you are using a PRINCE2®. That person is ultimately accountable for the project, and therefore they should be the one to determine how much paperwork is appropriate and how corporate templates should be used/tailored to suit.

“But they don’t have the time/understanding to determine those things!” I hear you cry. Well, have you asked them? If your answer is yes and you still drew a blank, perhaps you could get a peer-level executive with some project management credentials to have a quiet word with them.

Our framework is mainly about templates

You may have a deeper problem on your hands. Take a deep breath, have a look again at the framework, and see what it says about the processes to be followed and who should be involved. Talk to the PMO to see what advice they can give you about processes, who should be involved, key concepts etc – find out as much as you can about anything other than templates.

If you find that your framework really is template-centric I believe you have a systemic corporate issue that requires the attention of top-management in your organisation.

For the record, PRINCE2® is a process-based approach, not a template-based approach. The most recent refresh of the method – the 2009 edition – makes this abundantly clear and I invite the doubters to have a very close look at it before levelling the accusation that the method is about templates.

Are We Running a Programme (or a Program) or a Project?

John Howarth

Are we running a programme or a project?  That is a common question and one that attracts an increased level of debate when there is a P3M3® assessment underway.  So I will share my thoughts and invite other people to enter the discussion based on their experiences.

Spelling doesn’t matter

OK, let us get this one out of the way.  It doesn’t matter whether you using the spelling ‘programme’ or ‘program’. What does matter is the meaning attached to the word.  For this reason I have suggested to Government agencies – admittedly with very little success so far – that they use the spelling ‘program’ for traditional Government programs, and use the spelling ‘programme’ for delivery of major change initiatives.  Bottom-line: be clear what it means in your organization.

Definitions do matter

I want to put reference some definitions here, not just for the sake of it, but because I think it is central to answering the headline question.

The parliamentary website defines a program as:

“Activity that delivers benefits, services or transfer payment to individuals, industry and/or the community as a whole, with the aim of achieving the intended result specified in an outcome statement.” (An outcome is “the intended result, consequence or impact of government actions on the Australian community”.)

In its best management practice guidance the UK Cabinet Office defines programmes and projects as:

“Programme: a temporary, flexible organization structure created to coordinate, direct and oversee the implementation of a set of related projects and activities in order to deliver outcomes and benefits related to an organization’s strategic objectives.”

“Project: a temporary organization that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business outputs according to a specified business case.”

The answer:  It is a matter of choice

Have another look at those definitions because therein lies the answer to the question.  The key words are “temporary” and “create”. From a best practice perspective - P3M3®, MSP®, PRINCE2® etc - a programme is a programme or a project is a project because you choose to create a temporary management structure. Nothing is inherently a programme or a project, it is simply an initiative with certain characteristics. Sure, if you look at the management tests they will provide ‘compare and contrast’ listings examining the characteristics of each. Ultimately, however, it is a choice that needs to be made: “should we run XYZ as a programme or a project?”.


In my opinion the implications are significant in that Government agencies in particular should be very clear about who is making these choices and on what basis.

  • Should you run the establishment of a new program as a programme?
  • Should you run a new program as a programme from cradle to the grave? 
  • Should you run some of the program as a project? 

I think these questions deserve a far more considered response than “That’s not how you spell it”.

Who is making these choices in your organization and on what basis?  I’d love to hear your views.

We Will Manage Portfolios On The Beaches…

Daniel Oyston

I recently read a book Churchill’s Bunker, which describes the headquarters from which the British war effort was directed.   As I read it became clear to me that in fact this was an early example of what we now know as portfolio management.

Portfolio management is a coordinated collection of strategic processes and decisions that together enable the most effective balance of organisational change and business as usual.  It ensures that change initiatives are agreed at the appropriate management level, measurably contribute to and are prioritised in line with strategic objectives and business priorities, and reviewed regularly for progress and ongoing strategic fit.

I have aligned some observations about Churchill’s Bunker to the principles of MoP.

Senior management commitment

Britain’s experiences in the First World War, and the predicted effects of enemy bombing, led to a decision that underground “Cabinet War Rooms” should be available in the event of war to enable the government to continue to function effectively.  After they were constructed in secret underneath Whitehall, Churchill visited them and declared “This is the room from which I will direct the war.” Churchill formed a cross-party War Cabinet to direct the war.

Governance alignment

Churchill sometimes sought what his military advisers perceived as action for the sake of action, without appropriate regard for the required resources (such as air cover) or of the risks – “Churchill is always expecting rabbits to come out of an empty hat.”  However Churchill’s trusted advisers would challenge him when necessary, acting as “critical friends” exhibiting the champion-challenger model. 

Responsibilities for strategy, the war economy, and the allocation of resources could not easily be separated.  In response a Defence Committee, headed by Churchill, was established in the Cabinet War Rooms.  This Committee supervised the conduct of the war not just in terms of grand strategy but also with regard to the conduct of operations, and enabled Churchill to directly supervise military decisions.  Colocation of key military and civilian staff assisted with breaking down traditional silos between the services and between civilian and military leadership.

Strategy alignment

To effectively define a portfolio, it is essential to understand the strategic objectives and to appropriately balance management attention and resources amongst them.  Churchill famously defined the grand strategy for the war in a shared, inclusive and engaging vision for the future in his speeches (“victory at all costs”, “we will never surrender”).  Further, Churchill’s focus was not just on winning the war, but also on managing and realising the “benefits” – the post-war environment and Britain’s place in it.

Portfolio office

A key function of a Portfolio Office is to provide appropriate and reliable information that enables the ‘right’ decisions to be made, including regular progress reporting. A Map Room was the established as the heart of the Cabinet War Rooms and the ‘scoreboard’ of the war.  Information came to the map room from the individual war rooms of the three services and was then plotted on the maps.  This provided the ‘helicopter view’ of all change activities (such as convoys and troop deployments).  Important news was immediately passed on to planning staff, the Cabinet and to Buckingham Palace (the King’s right to be kept continually informed was scrupulously adhered to, ie King George VI was identified as an ‘I’ in the RACI framework).  A secretariat was established which prepared a daily summary for the Committee and helped planning staff to write proposals and reports. Churchill also established a separate statistical section which provided assurance and oversight of statistical reports ranging from the productivity of major dockyards to the accuracy of British bombing.

For most leaders of combatant powers the War was directed from static headquarters.  Churchill’s personal map room (a duplicate of the Map Room in the Cabinet War Rooms) was portable and went with him when he travelled.  At one stage the core of the Cabinet War Rooms, including personnel, procedures and equipment, was moved to Marrakesh and operated from there for several weeks while Churchill was convalescing after illness.

After the end of the war, Churchill was defeated by Attlee in a general election, the results of which were released during the 1945 post-war Potsdam conference.  A further illustration of the effectiveness of the “portfolio office” supporting the War Rooms is that Attlee, with a new foreign minister, was able to take over effectively representing Britain’s interests at the conference, because the other members of the British delegation remained unchanged.

Energised change culture

An important consideration in MoP is Organisational Energy, ‘the extent to which an organisation has mobilised the full available effort of its people in pursuit of its goals’.  The organisational energy resulting from Churchill’s leadership – in particular, his inspirational vision and leading by example – significantly contributed to Allied success.  As identified as a key to success in MoP, the Cabinet War Room created an environment where people could excel and where needless bureaucracy was recognised and removed.

As assessed in Churchill’s Bunker:

The most important feature of this tight and effective organisation…
was the combination of… authority with… [expert] advice,
and much of its effectiveness came from the centralisation of ultimate control.

Churchill’s Bunker – The Secret Headquarters at the Heart of Britain’s Victory, Richard Holmes, 2011

Have you read PM&C’s Guide to Implementation Planning?

John Howarth

In August last year, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Cabinet Implementation Unit, released Guide to Implementation Planning.

Quoting the guide, “The purpose of this guide is to help departments and agencies formulate robust implementation plans that clearly articulate how new policies, programs, and services will be delivered on time, on budget and to expectations.”

The guide notes that there is “ …a wide variance in capability, skills and expertise across the APS.” and continues with “Often these capabilities, critical to delivery success, are poorly understood or undervalued. The clear message here is that everyone involved in implementation planning has an opportunity to learn and seek out the people and knowledge that can help them with their approach.”

Obviously a department’s P3M3® assessment will highlight the variances in capability, skills and expertise while the resulting Capability Improvement Plan will help people “to learn and seek out the people and knowledge that can help them”.

There is a specific section dedicated to benefits in the guide which is useful considering Gershon finding that department’s are weak in realising benefits from ICT enabled projects. Talking with clients regularly, as I do, I have found over the past months that benefits are becoming part of the conversation more and more (not through me introducing it into the conversation but through clients introducing it).

Response to our series of one-day Benefits Realisation workshops has been overwhelming, to say the least, and as one recent delegate said to me “You have definitely found an itch”.

The guide notes that “many departments and agencies [are] using non-proprietary best practice methods as the foundations of their Portfolio, Program and Project Management capability.”

The guide cites that “The most widespread methods used in the APS are the UK Office of Government Commerce’s (OGC - Cabinet Office) suite of best practice management frameworks which include P3M3, Managing Successful Programmes (MSP), PRojects IN Controlled Environments (PRINCE2) and Portfolio, Programme and Project Offices (P3O).”

“The best practice suite sets out what “good” looks like for those involved in program and project management, and draws upon the knowledge of experience and others which ensures quality and consistency throughout.”

The guide also provides useful guidance on elements of implementation including roles and responsibilities, benefits, deliverables, business case, risk management and stakeholder engagement.

You can download a copy of the guide here.

What makes a good P3 Community of Practice?

John Howarth

If your organisation is targeting P3M3® level 3 maturity in portfolio, programme or project management then you need to address this question, because the P3M3 model expects that “Forums exist for sharing organisational experience to improve individual and organisational performance”.

There are many good Communities of Practice out there already, however there is a problem – many of them are run by industry bodies or external organisations such as AIPM or PMI. While very well run and respected, they do not satisfy the P3M3 requirement, because it is has an organisational focus. 

So, here are a few pointers to get you started with your internal communities (or help improve your existing ones).


Why have a Community of Practice? Don’t over-think this. The answer is simple – to share organisational experience in portfolio, programme or project management.  One thing you may wish to think a little more about though is whether you want one or multiple communities? That probably depends on who you want involved…


If your first thought is to get all the project managers together or all the people running PMOs in your organisation together can I respectfully suggest you pause and think deeper. The reason I say that is you risk ‘preaching to the converted’ and/or creating a community which isn’t inviting to others.

I am not saying that project managers and people in PMOs should not be a part of the community, but rather you should cast you net wider. Interestingly, P3M3 provides a ready-made start-point for who you should target, in the sense that if you have already undertaken an assessment you will have identified those in key portfolio, programme and project management roles.

Whether you are familiar with P3M3 or not, I do strongly recommend that you involve executives/sponsors (perhaps they have their own community?) and involve business-side people.


Most Communities of Practice manifest themselves as a forum of some kind and to my way of thinking that is the best and easiest place to start before considering online content such as intranet sites. If you are going to share experience nothing beats talking with one another.

The content of a forum/meeting will obviously vary but I think there are some golden rules:

  1. do provide time for people to chat, perhaps in a structured way such as ‘speed-dating’;
  2. do make it inviting for newcomers and sceptics;
  3. do share knowledge and experience. ‘Show and tell’ or story-telling is a great way to find out what is happening on the next floor in your building;
  4. don’t argue about who has the best approach; and
  5. don’t talk too technically – technique is fine, but it’s much more interesting (and useful) to consider how it works in the real world.

Ideally in work time but not in the heart of peoples’ working day – breakfasts or late afternoon sessions seem to work well.

Pick somewhere that is easy for people to attend. If you run it at your premises then try to find a nice room. How about you talk to the EAs in the Executive Suite - running the first P3 Community of Practice there will send a really positive message.

Hopefully there are a few ideas here to get you started. If you are already running a successful P3 Community of Practice in your organisation please share your hints and tips so others can benefit from your experience.