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Do you want to improve efficiency, be seen as more professional by clients, and effectively deal with peaks in workload? Project management can help. In the first of a series, Debbie Bondi makes the case for legal project management, and explains how it works in practice.

One only has to think about the cost overrun of the Scottish Parliament building or the trials and tribulations of IT projects across the private and public sectors to realise that projects are often in the press for all the wrong reasons. These tales of woe underscore the necessity of having ways to manage projects effectively, and I’ve spent much of my career establishing projects to avoid these problems, and rescuing those that have gone ‘off the rails’.

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In most organisations, managers and partners must not only do their own work, but also consider how work is carried out by themselves and others to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and remain competitive. There are numerous techniques to choose from. In this article, I consider one of the most widely-used approaches: project management. This is not intended as an exhaustive project management handbook, but aims to cover some of the areas most relevant in a legal context.

What is a project?

The term ‘project’ is used in an informal sense to describe all sorts of activities, so it’s worth pausing briefly to define its meaning in the context of formal project management. There are a number of definitions, but the key features are that projects:

  • have a temporary quality with defined start and end points
  • relate to something new or novel which carries a level of risk, and are often associated with trying to change something
  • require a variety of resources from different disciplines and involve multiple ‘interested parties’.

Projects are fundamentally different from ongoing ‘business as usual’, where there is an established and repeatable way of doing things to deliver day-to-day operations.

Project management refers to the tools, techniques and approaches used by project managers to deliver projects. Another important role is that of the project ‘sponsor’, who should wield sufficient power and authority to be able to promote and back the initiative within the organisation and support the project manager as required.

The role of project management in the legal sector

Given the high degree of change faced by legal firms and teams, there are many situations in which project management has proved to be useful, including the following:

large and complex pieces of client work which would best be managed as a project

  • situations where the client has embarked upon a large transformation initiative of which the legal element is just one strand, and the project has stalled – the law firm can take the lead to get the project ‘over the line’ and help the client achieve a critical deadline
  • major projects which the client is managing themselves, where they expect the law firm to be familiar with project management approaches so that they can participate fully in the project and facilitate its progression and completion
  • the provision of project management to clients as a line of business in its own right, for example providing project management of procurement projects
  • internal change projects within the law firm itself – for instance, introducing hot-desking, developing a more client-centric approach or establishing regional offices
  • developing staff and improving their productivity by helping them to introduce project management techniques into their own work.

Project management is often considered as a technique suitable for large pieces of work, but there are times when it is equally applicable to small initiatives, especially where there is significant complexity or risk.

The case for legal project management

Advocates of project management would advise that it is simply an attempt to manage certain types of work well rather than leaving it to chance; detractors may cite increased overheads and bureaucracy. So what benefits can an organisation expect to reap if they choose to introduce the approach formally?

  • You will see an improvement in efficiency and effectiveness, as there is no longer a debate about how to approach a project, materials can be reused, and there is the opportunity to refine and improve the approach over time.
  • Specialists such as lawyers can focus on using their expert skills, leaving the management of the work to others.
  • Clients will perceive you as more professional.
  • Issues will be surfaced early, meaning that problems can be dealt with promptly.
  • You can deal with peaks in workload by sourcing contract or permanent project managers.
  • You will be better able to achieve results, as you can set expectations about what will and will not be delivered (often termed a ‘no surprises’ approach).

With all these benefits, it seems hard to understand why an organisation wouldn’t want to adopt a project management approach, but there are some valid criticisms which need to be addressed.

First, for project management to be useful, it needs to be tailored to the specific circumstances. It can be a major ‘turn-off’ to have a bureaucratic, heavyweight management process for a tiny, low-risk piece of work. Unfortunately, inexperienced or dogmatic project managers sometimes fail to do this tailoring, bringing the approach into disrepute.

Second, project management is a disciplined approach to managing certain types of work. Some people dislike the structure that project management imposes and the increased predictability it brings. They may feel their creativity is constrained by defined scopes and deadlines, or prefer the adrenalin rush associated with working in ‘fire-fighting’ mode. However, experienced project managers are used to finding ways of working that balance the needs of individuals with the need to coordinate the project effectively.

Finally, some up-front investment is required in establishing the competencies required for project management.

All three of these concerns can be addressed by taking a measured approach to the introduction of project management, and by engaging specialist advice where necessary.

The practicalities

1. Setting objectives

Early on in the project, a key role of the project manager is to ensure that objectives are clear and agreed. This can be more challenging than it at first appears for a variety of reasons.

There is often a tendency to rush into action without taking time to consider what needs to be achieved and what the options are. For example, clients will often explain that they have a project to implement a new IT system, but in reality, very few people need a computer system for its own sake. The actual objectives may be to improve an inefficient process, comply with a new regulatory framework, improve data security, or some other business imperative. The new IT system may be just one of a possible range of means to meet this end.

Also, it is very common for the various parties involved to interpret requirements differently and make unconscious assumptions about what is meant, which can prove costly. Time spent in the early stages removing potential ambiguities in the project is always justified.

The practical means to address both of these challenges is for the project manager to spend time engaging with the key players, particularly the sponsor and other senior individuals. In my experience, senior stakeholders are only too keen to talk about a project, and this allows the project manager to gather information, identify differences of opinion and address these, with reference back to the sponsor for support where necessary, and to provide constructive challenge where necessary. The project manager needs great sensitivity, because if they probe and question too hard, this can cause upset and frustration, and give the impression of lack of support for the initiative. Conversely, taking an overly gentle approach can fail to uncover important issues that may have serious consequences for the project later on.

Having ensured the objectives are clear, project management involves considering different ways to achieve the objectives and weighing up the costs and benefits of each, so that a decision can be made about the best way forward. In the example of the IT system above, it may be more cost-effective to design a new process using an existing IT system, rather than investing in a new one. The project manager is not generally responsible for making such major decisions; their focus should be on making sure that impartial evidence is prepared so that others (normally senior management) can make sound decisions based on robust information.

2. Building the team

Since projects are inherently transient and require a variety of resources from different disciplines, a temporary team (known as a project team) needs to be formed. Identifying the resources required and forming an effective team is one of the roles of the project manager, and this can be challenging for a number of reasons.

  • Most or all of the members of the project team will have a line manager other than the project manager. It is not uncommon for a line manager to be unhappy that their resource has been allocated to the project.
  • Some members of the project team may only be available part-time as they need to continue with their ‘day’ jobs, placing them under additional stress.
  • Individuals from different specialisms often have a different world view, which can lead to misunderstandings or disagreements.
  • Members of the project team may work in different locations.

The project manager should work collaboratively with the line managers concerned to discuss their concerns and expectations. This may involve the project manager helping to build a case for why the line manager needs ‘backfill’ resource, and/or discussing how the performance of their staff will be assessed with respect to their contribution to the project.

Once the project team members have been identified, the project manager should arrange some sort of kick-off event. This should cover the objectives of the project (ideally presented by the sponsor), the overall plan and approach insofar as it is known at this point, plus agreed ways of working. This meeting gives the team a chance to get to know each other and start to form as a high-functioning team. The event should be as interactive as possible, and ideally be held face to face, to heighten the sense of engagement (although audio or video conferencing can also be used very effectively if this is not possible).

Overall, the role of the project manager should be to ensure that the entire project team is focused on the goal of the project, and that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.

3. Planning and scheduling

The next stage is identifying the steps and the resources required, defining a schedule, and making sure everything is effectively coordinated. A detailed plan provides: confidence to all concerned that the work required has been understood; a logical basis for publishing milestone dates and setting expectations; and a baseline against which progress can be measured.

The project manager cannot create the plan in isolation; they will need to collaborate with all those responsible for delivering aspects of the project, plus relevant specialists, in a collaborative fashion to identify the detail of what needs to be done, how long it will take, who will do it, and any dependencies and risks. This collaboration both ensures the plan is robust and has a high degree of credibility, and helps forge a high-functioning project team with a common goal.

4. Tackling barriers to change

Since projects involve change, they can invoke strong passions in stakeholders. Machiavelli put this very well over 500 years ago when he said that ‘there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new’.

In order to overcome these barriers, the project sponsor needs to be appropriately senior, and prepared to argue the case for change at a senior level and support it through thick and thin.

The role of the project manager is to identify and understand the causes of any barriers to change, anticipating these where possible and engaging the help of others in this process as necessary. Once these issues have been surfaced, decisions can be made about what to do. In some cases, simple reassurance may be all that is needed; in others, the objectors may have very sound points which the project needs to tackle. However, some barriers may be much more deep-seated and intractable, and the project manager should discuss these with the sponsor or their nominees to agree a way forward. It is important to recognise that the role of the project manager is not to address these issues themselves, but to ensure they are visible, managed and monitored.

Methodologies, frameworks and approaches

There are a number of widely used project management methodologies, frameworks and approaches, and a variety of certification routes associated with them.

In a UK context, PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments) is one of the best known methodologies, and provides a series of management processes defining what must be done, how, in what order and by whom. In some respects it is quite prescriptive, although the methodology emphasises the concept of tailoring to individual circumstances.

PMBOK (the Project Management Body of Knowledge) is a framework which originated in the US and focuses on core practices and a wide range of techniques that can be applied to manage a project. It is generally considered to be less prescriptive than PRINCE2.

PRINCE2 and PMBOK are often seen as competing approaches, but they can be complementary, with experienced project managers selecting appropriate techniques from both methodologies.

Other common terms are ‘waterfall’ and ‘agile’. Waterfall refers to a sequential approach where, for example, all requirements are gathered in detail at the outset, before design and planning commence. Although this makes sense logically, it can prove problematic in some contexts, as a client can wait for an extended period of time before seeing any tangible outputs from a supplier. Agile approaches recognise this weakness and involve a more incremental, iterative approach, where the supplier creates smaller components based on current knowledge, with which the client can engage, providing ‘course corrections’ as necessary. Both waterfall and agile have a place, depending upon the precise characteristics of the project.

Many organisations choose to develop their own approaches based on these methodologies and frameworks.

What next?

Project management does not need to be introduced in a ‘big bang’ style; some organisations will choose to focus on increasing staff skills in areas such as risk management or effective delegation, as a precursor to a broader project management initiative. In the next edition of Managing for Success, I will address how a project management competency can be established in practice, some common challenges to doing so, and techniques to address them.