How to keep your focus on what’s important

Written by Hugo Minney CMgr and Roger Martin Tuesday 17 November 2020
The job of managers is to deliver benefits, but many people are then routinely managed through tasks. To become high-performers, we must create an environment in which questions, truthful answers and new solutions become the norm

Covid-19 and lockdowns in the UK have created a dramatic change in the workplace. Have you noticed how people come together in times of adversity? It’s almost the way project teams form and then reform rapidly as projects stop and start. So how might the wider management community and their teams build on this?

One of the lessons that could be learned is from the project management field and the focus there on ‘benefits’.

The Cabinet Office defines benefit management as “the measurable improvement resulting from an outcome perceived as an advantage by one or more stakeholders which contributes towards one or more organisational objectives”.

Fundamentally this means that benefits:

• should be measurable – if they cannot be measured they cannot be claimed as ‘realised’;

• are the improvement resulting from the outcome (the end result) of the change, they are not the change itself;

• are in the eye of the beholder – in other words different; stakeholders will value the same benefits differently. Additionally, in some cases, a benefit to one stakeholder may be a disbenefit (an outcome perceived as negative) to another;

• create the link between tangible outputs and strategic goals, and;

• ensure there is alignment of effort, resources and investment towards achieving organisational objectives.

In the past, projects were only funded in order to deliver benefits. Some of the biggest investors are demanding a return to the focus on benefit from task-based to purpose-based. The UK Government for example, with nearly half a trillion pounds invested in major infrastructure projects (many of which will run for decades) is promoting Benefits Management. All their reports show the same thing – the more we focus on benefits, the more successful we become by every other measure.

So why is take-up of this approach so slow?

There’s a tension between having control, and genuinely seeking benefits

We wonder if the obstacle is the culture in which management professionals and decision-makers operate, as well as the way we establish programmes of work.

Managers want to be measured on things that they can control – like reaching a milestone within tolerance limits and delivering something tangible such as a bridge or an app on a mobile phone. Yet if we measure by asking about benefits – will the organisation make more profit; will customers flock, or costs decrease? – then we measure them on results that depend on other stakeholders (citizens, the environment, the finance department) and that are outside of their control.

Having worked their way through the ranks, many senior decision-makers are most comfortable in the detail and the tasks. Their practical focus on the doing can mean they lose sight of what’s important. This creates an inevitable split in focus: we exist to deliver benefits, but we’re managed through tasks.

A resolution to this tension

Changing the focus from monitoring activities to monitoring benefits means engaging in the kinds of conversations many teams – and boards – don’t have. Addressing questions such as “will this contribute more benefits than that?”

This means being willing to challenge mindsets. It means giving permission to those in charge of ‘doing’ (project management team or operations staff) and those most affected by the outcomes and benefits of the activity (key stakeholders) to challenge and question. For some, this can feel career-limiting, or impertinent, because “surely they can see a bigger picture” or “we’re wasting time on non-task-related activities”.

We do projects (and manage business activity) to deliver benefits. A characteristic of high-performing teams is that we have a clear purpose – the delivery of identified benefits. To become a high-performing team, we need to allocate time and create an environment in which questions, truthful answers and innovative new solutions become the norm. It will be unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable at first. We need to make our team a safe space, so that what seems like a weakness becomes a strength.

If you were to wonder why we don’t talk about benefits when we talk about project delivery, what questions would you ask, and of whom? Does your team feel like a safe space, a place where you can do things that ordinarily would make you feel uncomfortable? Is it working – are you delivering high performance? What could you do to improve?

Share your thoughts by using #BetterManagers on Twitter and LinkedIn, or let us know your own experiences using #CMIFamily or via email.

Dr Hugo Minney is co-chair of the benefits and value special interest group at the Association for Project Management, and chair of the British Standards Institute (BSI) panel developing the standard for benefits management. Roger Martin is co-founder of The Mindset Difference and a specialist in helping teams create a collaborative project culture.

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