Moving beyond the accidental project manager

With budgets, resources and outcomes watched closely by regulators, industry and the Australian public, the government is often held accountable in ways the private sector is not, writes Ben Breen.

With only one in 200 government projects delivering the intended benefits on time and within budget, where are the gaps in delivering better outcomes and why aren’t governments addressing them?

Business is becoming increasingly ‘projectised’ or project oriented. As of early last year, the DTA announced that it was working on 84 IT projects costing over AU$10 million in value. But with over 20 major government projects running a cumulative 97 years behind schedule and $6.5 billion over budget, the public sector continues to face challenges that lead to over budgeted projects, backlash and unsuccessful project deadlines.

Addressing the problem early in the delivery of projects is critical, starting with embedding better skills across the board. The good news is, the upheaval of COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions forced many within the public sector to change their working processes. During this time, employees learnt how to use new technologies and apply their skills in different ways.

It created a culture of learning and development and highlighted how integral it is to innovation and problem-solving. So how can executive stakeholders harness this opportunity, and see beyond the balance sheet when it comes to embedding better skills within their own workplace?

Baby steps

There is a lot of evidence that embedded structures and cultures make governments more change resistant than business organisations, by reducing overall organisational health and effectiveness. Similarly, public-sector organisations typically have more risk-averse cultures than private-sector businesses, due to being held accountable to the public.

A related challenge is that public-sector leaders typically have shorter tenure than their private-sector counterparts. For example, a review of ministers of health across 23 countries from 1990 to 2009 found that half of them left office in under two years. Frequent turnover at the top means two things; senior leaders become driven by improving the balance sheet during their time, and that successful public-sector transformations are anchored in frontline staff—the people who continue running the organisation when the leader moves on.

Unfortunately, it’s common to find that frontline staff haven’t been trained effectively for the job. Based on PMI research, many project managers are accidental project managers.

In many cases, employees come up through the ranks as engineers or technicians, and when a new project comes along, they are suddenly elevated, sometimes with little additional pay or training, to the role of project manager.

In many cases, employees come up through the ranks as engineers or technicians, and when a new project comes along, they are suddenly elevated, sometimes with little additional pay or training, to the role of project manager.

Often these individuals’ closeness to a project or an organisation’s processes are seen as qualifications for the role of project manager, while upskilling them to consistently deliver on-time and on-budget as project managers are seen as an unnecessary expense.

Executives must start putting the value of upskilling on the map instead of focusing solely on the balance sheet. Now is the time for departments to re-examine their approach to skills development and embed project management skills into the way employees approach work to ensure more consistent delivery of projects.

Identifying relevant skills

The value of project-oriented economic activity worldwide is set to reach $20 trillion by 2027. However, PMI forecasts that we’ll need up to 25 million new project professionals by 2030 to tackle the evident talent gap, presenting additional challenges for businesses looking for these critical skills.

To properly identify skills needed to improve productivity, government sectors must first ensure employee agility to become work-ready. Where education and training not only develops skills to complete everyday tasks in an efficient and cost-effective manner, but are also taking the changing workplace landscape into account.

A recent study from The University of Melbourne found that 60 per cent of university qualified Australian respondents believe upskilling is key to keeping pace with changes in their profession and remaining employable. Therefore, introducing a project-based learning approach through micro-credentials or project management certifications can increase job attraction, retention and the value workers deliver to their roles.

The benefits of upskilling employees is clear, even in the most technical of roles. Delivering consistent results and improving customer and stakeholder satisfaction, whilst also improving essential team-building and people management capabilities helps create a better work environment and well-rounded team primed for future success. That starts by looking beyond the balance sheet when it comes to the value upskilling can have on government departments.

*Ben Breen is Managing Director Asia Pacific and Global Head of Construction at the Project Management Institute

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at  

Sign up to the Government News newsletter

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required