Need an external perspective?.

If we already have in-house project managers, then why do we need an external perspective?

Internal project managers are extremely likely to have very different ways of thinking and doing things than their external counterparts. There are positives and negatives to this—and sometimes they stem from the same root.

For instance, when an employee becomes entrenched in an organisation, they become accustomed to that organisation’s processes and way of thinking. Although there are clear benefits to understanding processes and motivations, unquestioningly following the same well-trodden paths can often stifle project management techniques and innovations.

Organisations tend to have peaks and troughs in the amount of construction work that is taking place, based on project lifecycles. As a result, when they hit a peak, there are often issues with capability and capacity. This means that there are simply not enough internal ‘boots on the ground’ to ensure the organisation is able to deliver their portfolio. At this point, it makes sense to bring in an external project manager to provide the required horsepower.

This is an extremely effective strategy that many organisations adopt, and it serves them in a variety of ways that go far beyond supporting their internal team and balancing the workload. As external project managers always work across many different types of projects for many different types of clients, they are able to bring a fresher approach which enables innovation and change that would otherwise not take place.

Internal Politics

External project managers are able to implement change in a way that exceeds the abilities of internal project managers primarily because employees of organisations are often unwilling to do anything that may draw unwanted attention. Politics within any organisation is always going to be a big consideration to employees, and so inevitably there is going to be a lot of self-interest at stake.

This means that internal project managers are unlikely to risk making any changes to well-established processes—even if the current way of doing things does not serve the projects they oversee.

Instead, they will stick to the well-worn paths, and if things do go wrong, they will avoid drawing the attention of senior members to the defective processes, substandard contractors, or poor performers that are having a material impact on the project. A lack of innovation and change is not simply a question of failing to improve systems that are already working well; it can often be a matter of failing to improve systems that are negatively impact projects.

Performance Driven

An external project manager has different priorities. They are there to look after the client and the project. It’s as simple as that. They are not vying for promotion or anxious about job security, so the core focus is always on the performance of the project. If the project performs well, then the client is going to be satisfied. The external PM’s self-interest comes from a different source. If they fail to do a good job, they are unlikely to be hired again.

Organisations can use this difference in priorities to their advantage. In order to ensure they are getting the best out of their own project managers, hiring an external PM can provide a really great wake up call. When internal teams see an external PM come in, it can create a level of competition. If the external project manager is performing extremely well, then there is the potential for the internal project manager to be viewed as redundant.

The effect of this is to improve everybody’s performance, so that the internal project manager can show they are as effective, if not more effective, than the external people who are brought in. This results in a better performing project portfolio for the client.

Is Everyone Sitting Comfortably?

The point about performance leads on to considerations around innovation. Innovation comes from being uncomfortable. It’s very hard to innovate when you’re comfortable because there’s no need. Even if things are going to plan, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be better. However, you’re never going to know what better looks like if there is no motivation to find out.

Bringing in an external project manager creates an environment where improvement can be made by creating discomfort, challenging assumptions, and bringing a fresh perspective to an environment that may have become stale, or that is constrained by an unwillingness to draw unwanted attention that may have negative repercussions for the individuals who raise the issues.

It’s always going to be most beneficial to your project to bring an external project manager in at the outset rather than waiting until things are falling apart. The second best time is always going to be now. It’s never too late to get a second opinion.

Tolerance Levels

With large organisations, particularly institutions such as government and universities, projects will often go out of the designated lines of the playing field. Initially, an exception is created—the intention is that it’s going to be a ‘one off.’ However, over time, these exceptions occur more and more frequently. All of a sudden, projects are way out of tolerance because the discipline and scrutiny that was applied in the first instance is no longer being applied. The project is just veering off course because there’s no rigor, accountability, or hard work taking place to keep those projects on track. In the end, they’re not even really deserving of the name ‘project.’ They simply become poorly run activities.

Example – Going Under

The Australian government took the decision to purchase a number of submarines. The promise that they made was to buy the submarines. They never said exactly how much it was going to cost or exactly when they would deliver on this promise.

This means that there are no real consequences to increasing the amount of money originally designated or extending the time frame in order to secure the purchase. Their only priority is delivering on their promise. By not pulling the pin, so to speak, they can deliver on that promise. Even if pulling the pin was the right decision in terms of cost and efficiency, the government would have broken their promise, and this is going to be more damaging to them than spending ever-increasing amounts of taxpayers money.

This kind of problem is endemic in institutions such as government and universities. For this reason, when creating the business case and the project plans, it is essential to create the constraints. So when an exception needs to be made, you can evaluate whether or not the project is still viable.

If you exceed the constraints, you need to reevaluate. Is the project still worth doing? If you keep going outside those boundaries, and you have to keep reevaluating, and the answer as to whether the project is still worth doing keeps coming back as a ‘yes,’ then either the project limits that were established at the start are wrong, or there isn’t the discipline or bravery to pull the plug. NBN is a classic case in point.

Example – NBN

Back in 2009, the government announced the national broadband network (NBN) roll out, declaring that every premises would get fibre, under the Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) scheme. The cost was set at $40 billion, and the delivery time was set at five years. Thirteen years later, most premises still don’t have fibre. They’ve got fibre to the node. The costs have gone from $40 billion to $100 billion, the speeds that were promised haven’t been delivered, the time to roll out is seven years late, and there’s competing technology which has now made the NBN redundant.

An external project manager could have resolved this. However, the corporate mentality is that the project needs to be pursued, even when the project thresholds have been greatly exceeded and the organisation in no longer acting in the interests of the ultimate client, which is the taxpayer in this case. ‘Group think’ means that no one is prepared to raise the flag and say, ‘This isn’t going to work’.

In instances such as this, the function of an external project manager may simply be to say ‘stop.’ A good PM will tell you when you’re doing something you should no longer be doing. It can require a lot of bravery from an organisation to be prepared to let go of a project. It can feel like failure. In my opinion, this is the wrong mentality. In fact, by letting something go, you are simply acknowledging that the original business case was incorrect and whatever planning went into that was based on incorrect assumptions.

Key Takeaways

  • External project managers are not influenced by internal politics or agendas, providing organisations with a neutral sounding board.
  • External project managers bring fresh thinking from alternative industries, whereas internal teams lack that level of exposure to beneficial innovations.
  • External project managers will always act in the project’s and the client’s best interest, not their own, because they’re not concerned about losing their position in the organisation.
  • It’s never too late to bring an external project manager in to offer a fresh perspective and an outside opinion.