While the concepts of project management and project oversight sound vaguely similar, they could not be more different in terms of approach and outlook. No one knows this better than our guest Herb Marshall, who shared his experience in project oversight consultation on a recent episode of “In Systems We Trust.”
Herb Marshall is a retired nuclear Navy officer and former lead field assistant for the Department of Energy Naval Reactors. He and his team oversaw hundreds of millions of dollars of major capital projects including construction, fabrication, reactor servicing, logistics, overhaul, operations, maintenance and vessel decommissioning, and dismantling. During his tenure, he developed a passion for understanding what cultural, organizational and procedural practices lead to the most effective oversight. The lessons learned from those experiences were the genesis for his book, The Project Oversight Guide.
In his conversation with Marquis, Herb highlights the importance of achieving an effective oversight culture and offers guidance on how to motivate clients to embrace the major organizational shift from project management to project oversight.
The Project Oversight Guide
In his experience overseeing capital projects, Herb believes there is a gap in project management knowledge when it comes to the client’s perspective. The widely known and referenced Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), Herb points out, is written from a contractor’s point of view to help guide project teams in effective project execution. However, the client or sponsor is merely a stakeholder, and the PMBOK does not offer advice or guidelines for project owners on their role to see to it that their project achieves its set of objectives.
That’s where Herb’s book, The Project Oversight Guide, proves not only useful but essential to bridge this gap and provide insight into all facets of project oversight. Now as a consultant, Herb is able to put these tools and processes into practice to empower organizations and help them shift from project management to a project oversight organization.
To achieve this, weaknesses within the organization need to be detected and improved upon. The starting point of all Herb’s consultancy work always begins with a template or an audit of all the processes and toolset of best practices for project oversight. This allows Herb to understand the organization’s strong points and what they are missing, and tailor the project oversight guide to the client’s specific needs through training, on-site support and performance improvement.
One element that is scarcely written about in project management literature is the importance of organizational design for project oversight success. Process improvement and training are essential but not enough to ensure the long-term success of overseeing projects. Designing and setting up organizational structures is a crucial step to address the needs of the organization as supervisors of their projects. Herb elaborates more and provides key examples of the importance of organizational design in his book.
Resistance to Change
When asked about the biggest challenge he faces in his work, Herb was emphatic in his answer.
“You can write all the processes you want; you can give all the training you want. Unless you can embed the cultural aspects that are necessary for the organization to shift from being a project management organization to a project oversight organization, you are kind of doomed for failure.”
When an organization takes on a supervising role and outsources to a contractor, there is bound to be resistance to this change, especially from capable individuals who have deep knowledge in project management. You are, in a sense, asking them to step aside and allow someone else to manage their project for them.
Therefore, having the organization buying into the concept of good oversight is essential for the strategy to work. There will come a time when an organization needs to work on a project with requirements beyond its technical capabilities, thus creating the need for outsourcing experts to fulfill those requirements. More often than not, outsourced contractors have their own set of processes that are quite different from their clients. The issue then arises when the client or organization tries to enforce their own system and methodologies onto the contractor. At the same time, a hands-free approach from the client’s side without guidance and input could lead to the contractor delivering unsatisfactory results.
“There’s a balance there,” Herb emphasized, “and linchpin of that balance is having the right oversight culture.”
Continuous process improvement is not a new concept, and certainly not in project management. The PMBOK underscores the importance of documenting lessons learned as a means to improve organizational process assets. Herb’s project oversight philosophy takes continuous improvement up a notch to what he likes to call “relentless improvement.”
“The process is to embed improvement at every level, so you have your built-in process of improvement. You require debriefs of critical events, debriefs of milestones, debriefs of evolutions. You are constantly surveying employees for ways in which they can improve so you're looking for their feedback. Once all of these lessons learned and potentials for improvement roll into one place, they need to be shared across all your platforms.”
This process might sound fairly easy and straightforward, but in reality, it takes a lot of effort to pull this information from employees at an organization. According to Herb, incentivizing people by showing them the benefits of these improvements is the best approach to earn their support. This could be achieved by setting effective objectives that employees care about such as hitting targets and aligning them with process improvement. To reap those promised benefits, employees are now motivated to apply and institute the proposed process improvements with little resistance.
Our conversation with Herb Marshall doesn’t stop here. He later shares morsels of wisdom on setting and measuring goals as well as other insights you simply do not want to miss. You can listen to the entire episode using the links below.