What is a Project?

Before we talk about project management, we need to be clear what a project is.  A widely accepted definition is:

A project is a set of activities that are co-ordinated to deliver outputs within a specified time, to an agreed quality and within cost and resource constraints.

When is a project a project?

It’s not always easy to identify a project from a ‘business as usual’ task, but there are some common characteristics of projects. A project will usually:

  • Solve a problem or lead to a change in something
  • Do something new, or a one-off activity
  • Deliver clearly defined and unique products or outputs
  • Have a start date and a definite end date
  • Require one-off investment over and above mainstream budgets
  • Be delivered by a group of people from different teams, services or organisations
  • Be risky.

There will often be an element of judgement as to whether a proposed activity or change would be best managed as a project. The decision as to whether the proposed project really is a project will ultimately need to be taken by the relevant Programme Director as part of the new project approval gateways, with advice from your Directorate Programme Manager.

What is a Programme?

As above, we also need to understand what a programme is and how we distinguish a programme from a project.  Again, a widely accepted definition is:

A programme is a group or portfolio of projects which are co-ordinated and managed together so that they achieve related outcomes.

The key differences and relationships between projects and programmes are:

Projects

Programmes

Projects deliver outputs (products or services)
Outputs work together to deliver outcomes

Programmes deliver outcomes

Belong to a programme

Are made up of a portfolio or group of projects

Are focused on delivering products or services

Have a strategic focus

Have a narrow scope with clear, precise outputs from the start

Have a wide ranging (often cross directorate) scope

Have set timescales and budget

Have loosely defined timescales

Aim to avoid any changes in scope

Evolve over time

Require operational management attention

Require senior management attention

Principles of Project Management

The starting point for the PMS is to make sure we are putting our resources – our time, effort and money – into projects that will help us to improve services and contribute to our priorities.  Having a structured approach like this provides:

  • Proper definition to projects, making sure it’s clear what will be delivered, by when, and with what resource, and that appropriate approvals have been given
  • Clear roles and responsibilities, and clear delegation of responsibility
  • Controls to provide early warning of deviations from the plan, as well as risks and issues, and a way of managing them
  • Good communication channels, making sure management and stakeholders are involved at the right time, in the right way
  • Regular reviews of the project to make sure it is still viable, worthwhile and deliverable
  • A common language across the council and a process that is repeatable.

This project approach isn’t going to guarantee that every project will be successfully delivered. However, having a consistent approach to managing projects will mean that:

  • All projects are prioritised using a consistent and coherent set of standards and based on a detailed business case
  • Projects are more likely to contribute to council priorities and service improvement
  • Projects are more likely to be delivered on time and within budget. 

Principles of Programme Management

Managing Successful Programmes (the programme management equivalent to PRINCE2) defines programme management as the action of carrying out the coordinated organisation, direction and implementation of a portfolio* of projects and transformation activities to achieve outcomes and realise benefits of strategic importance to the business (*note that use of the term “portfolio” in PMS is different to the Council’s Executive Portfolios).

(Compare this with project management, which is defined as the planning, monitoring and control of all aspects of a project and the motivation of all those involved in it to achieve the project objectives on time and to the specified cost, quality and performance.)

Programme management helps us to break down high level policy or strategic objectives into manageable chunks (projects) and co-ordinate activities across the council. Programme management provides a framework to look at the ‘bigger picture’ and help manage projects to ensure priorities are set, conflicts are resolved and resources are focused on the projects that will deliver strategic objectives.

Many of our frustrations and failings in the past stem from the fact that we have been trying to do too many projects at the same time and therefore haven’t been able to plan or resource them properly. The new PMS is therefore based around a strengthened approach to programme management, enabling us to put in place much more effective control on activities and use of resources.