Setting up for success - Project update #2

Project scope

We’re looking at ways to help people responsible for setting up projects and project teams.

In our role as the custodians of the Digital Service Toolkit, we look for ways to the design and delivery of services across NSW Government with a range of tools and resources.

The output from this work will focus on helping anyone in NSW Government set up projects or project teams for success

Approach so far

Our “round zero” of research turned up some interesting insights based on desk research and SME interviews. You can read about these in our first post.

In this round of research, we were looking to validate the initial findings, fill some gaps and better understand the system that PMs work within during that initial project phase.
Activities included:

• Research interviews
• Mapping of the project management experience
• Lo-fi concept testing
• Ecosystem mapping
• Further desk research

Some opportunities are starting to take shape (although the scope of “setting a team up for success” continues to creep like gnarly weed)

Some interesting learnings

Outcomes as a north star

Every NSW government project that’s spun up has either defined or intended outcomes. How and if these are articulated up front seems to be dependent on the process (business case vs internal initiative) and the weight the outcomes hold relative to the idea or problem that inspired the project to begin with.

For PMs provided clear outcomes, there are some highly practical applications:

  • Negotiating on the scope with leaders and stakeholders to find viable ways to achieve the outcome
  • Aligning and empowering the team (or potential team) to draw a line between their specific skills / knowledge and how they might help achieve the outcome.
  • Setting up project reporting and sharebacks so the context is always set by the outcomes and how they’re being worked towards.

So what happens when there aren’t clearly defined outcomes? Reporting becomes more focused on deliverables, work bends towards making things instead of impact and PMs must find other means to align and empower the project team, to name a few.

Question we’ll be asking: What are the levers that can be pulled to ensure outcomes are explicit in any project briefing?

PMs absorb pressure upfront, and exert it later

A critical element of setting up for success is matching the resources (AKA humans with specific skills) with the project scope. When resources are limited, PMs know the project scope should change.

Despite this we heard on multiple occasions of PMs pressing go on a project without full representation of skills or roles. We get it – the perfect project team seldom exists – but we were interested to hear that experienced PMs pressed on, and either patched the shortcomings themselves, or by pulling on resources to voluntarily give time/effort to help the project progress.

In “successful” situations, the gap was covered and the project completed, though not without significant stress. But in others, the gap in skills led to a roadblock where further time and funding was required.

This in itself was no surprise, but what was interesting was the realisation that once projects were up and running, PMs seem to gain the clout to dictate what’s actually required from sponsors or leaders. This sounds bit like “sunk cost bias” on the part of those authorising the changes – once the project is mature, leaders are adequately invested to resource it as required. An assumption is that PMs know this happens, and it’s part of a symbiotic (albeit stressful and costly) process.

The question we’ll be trying to answer next: Are their ways of giving that “clout” to PMs earlier, in particular those managing a project for the first time? And if not, how do we work with this behaviour (rather than against it) to help set teams up for success?

Also, in an “agile” environment, what’s the difference between an iteration, a pivot and a change request? And how does that language shape the attitudes towards agile?

The back and forth of project scoping

In our last update we spoke last time about the in-it-to-win-it nature of business cases. In this round of testing we heard about the experience of turning those into project plans.

Business cases ≠ project plans, and so the first job of the PM sounds like a tough one. PMs bounce from understanding the project space to creating the definitive documents required to get started.

But as new stakeholders and SMEs shine a light on interdependencies, constraints and good old fashion realities; or resources become available and then get taken up elsewhere, the definitive documents become less definitive, and PMs bounce back and forth between understanding and defining until an agreed project plan is formed.

This seemed to be fairly consistent across the board, but what was different was the perceptions. For highly qualified or experienced PMs, this was part and parcel of the work, and they did it efficiently and took it in their stride. But for less experienced or qualified PMs, that process feels disruptive and counter intuitive. And when the pressure is on to “just get started” (which let’s be honest, it almost always is), that back-and-forth experience is a stressful one. For those thrown into the role without PM nous, this has the encourages taking shortcuts on planning or simply settling for unviable project plans and attempting to work it out on the fly.

The question we’ll be asking next: How can we help first-time PMs foresee and embrace the back and forth, and get maximum value out of it in those high-pressure / short time span circumstances?

Soft skills for hard tasks

Soft skills (understanding and relating to people) and soft knowledge (the patterns of organisations) are built up by PMs over time, and are hyper-useful when they’re thrown into new industries and organisations.

These include things like:

  • Understanding how to build mutually beneficial stakeholder relationships from the first engagement
  • Deciphering core motivations of stakeholders and project teams to align individual goals to project outcomes.
  • Knowing the kinds of questions to ask, and who to ask them of, in order to quickly and efficiently make sense of the project space.
  • Understanding how different services are set up, and how / when to engage them, so their value can be leveraged. E.g. Lead time on hiring new people, how to work efficiently with procurement specialists.

Question we’ll be asking next: How can these critical soft skills and knowledge be transferred to first time or inexperienced PMs?

When is a resource not a resource?

A massive part of project viability is having the right skills in the team (duh).

But it’s not uncommon for those skills to be lacking at the project outset. We heard that it happens when role titles are mistaken for skillsets; resources are shifted as different projects are prioritised; or the skills (and the budget to acquire them) are just not available.

So what happens next? IN some cases, projects push forward till the skills become a blocker to progress (see interesting finding #2).

Other workarounds include:

  • Recruiting external resource on a voluntary basis (“Hey, you care about issue X, wanna help out?”)
  • PMs filling the role themselves by leveraging existing skills or with just-in-time training.
  • Shifting the focus of the project in-flight to better suit the skills available.

What have we missed?

The question we’ll be asking next: What are the smart ways to match up available skills and project scope in the planning stage? And how do effective PMs plan ahead when the skills just aren’t there?

What’s next?

Next up, we’ll be learning researching with more “ad-hoc” project managers (those thrown into the role) and meeting with leaders of varying experience and delivery-maturity to understand what a solution would need to do for them.

We’re also looking for experts who work in supporting functions, (HR, finance etc.). We’re keen to learn what the current and ideal state of their functions look like with regards to setting up teams for success.

Know someone that fits this bill? Let us know below, or via

Know someone else we need to talk to?

For those who have set up projects or project teams, share this registration form: Microsoft Forms)

If you know someone who’s not a PM, but might be helpful for our project (especially ppl involved in funding or supporting project teams), please share their details below or via

What do you think? If you’ve got thoughts, experiences or ideas, please comment below!
(Everything we hear from you guys helps improve the outcomes of the project.)