HR managers who carry out large-scale initiatives without applying project-management principles and tools risk wasting money and undermining their credibility, says Adaps organisational psychologist Joshua Wood.

HR managers are increasingly being called on to run employee-opinion surveys, implement company-wide learning and development initiatives, introduce new performance management systems and handle mergers, Wood says.

“HR staff sometimes fail to see that what they are carrying out is actually a large project and should be treated with the respect it deserves – with a detailed project-management plan, budget, schedule, and risks and issues log,” he says.

“I’ve seen and talked to people who have got a very simple plan that doesn’t take into account all of the knowledge we have about running projects successfully. It might be a very simple Excel file with a list of tasks and dates, without enough detail about the subtasks involved, or about how some of those tasks are dependent on others being on time.”

According to Wood, an HR manager will know their department lacks project-management skills if their initiatives often:

  • go well over budget;
  • are not completed on time;
  • fall well short of the outcomes they were supposed to achieve;
  • have a lot of ‘surprising’ problems from left field; or
  • are not resourced properly.

Before embarking on a project, an HR manager needs to consider its size and complexity, Wood says. “If it’s big and complex, it’s more likely to need a proper project-management plan.”

The manager should also consider the risks involved, such as the impact that missing a deadline or going over budget could have on the business.

“One of the things that a good project plan will have is a really good consideration of the risks and some contingency plans, and it will have an issues log. There will be much more consideration of the things that could go wrong,” he says.

The other key question to ask is whether or not it is a “one off”. Projects for which there is no standardised process to fall back on or experience to draw from are more unpredictable, so they are more likely to run over time or over budget, and less likely to realise all of their aims.

One benefit of adopting a formal project-management process is that a “proper” plan gets signed off by project sponsors at the start, Wood says.

“They’re people in positions of power who are allowing the project to go forward, so they have a vested interest in the project being successful – and they have the power to allow the budget to carry out the project, and to stop the project if it’s not going well.

If the stakes are particularly high, a technique called “stage gating” might help to mitigate risks. “That means a certain bit is done, the sponsors will check whether it’s on time and on budget and going well, and they won’t sign off the release of more money to go forward unless they’re satisfied,” he says.

“It reduces the risk of something going horribly off the rails and no one doing anything for three or four months – you check early on that it’s going well.”

At the end of a project, a post implementation review (PIR) will help to pinpoint mistakes and highlight lessons that can be learned for next time, says Wood.

There is more to project management than being systematic, he adds.

“One of the things I would say that a good project manager might have in common with a good HR person, is that a good project manager needs to be really good at stakeholder management and influencing people,” says Wood.

“They can’t just be technical… they have to be good at finding out what stakeholders want and persuading people and getting them on board. That’s one of the strengths an HR person would probably have that would make them a good project manager.

“They might just need to learn a bit more about the technical aspects. If you’ve got a mentor and maybe read a little bit about it, you can definitely learn on the job. And there are five-day courses and that sort of thing as well,” he says.

First published in HR Daily 17th November 2010.
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