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Setting up a project management team

Most organizations face the challenge of repeatedly resourcing projects, and critically allocating good project managers. A common answer is to set up a central project management team.

This can seem relatively easy, but there are pitfalls on the way to setting up a successful project management team. In this article I will look at four key questions anyone setting up a project management team must consider, and then outline the main steps in setting up such a team.


The key questions

The first and most important question is: what is the role of the team?

This might seem like a simple question to answer: the role is to provide project managers. In reality, there is a spectrum of roles that can be performed by such a team. At one end of this spectrum, a simple project management team is a resource pool whose only role is to provide project managers for projects that need one. The leader of this team is mainly involved in resource management and worries about staff utilization. At the other end, the team takes full responsibility for the delivery of major initiatives. The leader of this team is involved in all those activities required to ensure successful delivery of projects.

There is a big difference between these two extremes. Underlying this is a set of more detailed, but still important, questions to answers. Does the project management team own project management methods for the organization? Is the project management team responsible for raising delivery standards and success rates? Should the project management team be the beacon of excellence for project management in the organization? Are the project management team simply “doers” or are they intended to be “trusted advisors”, not just running projects but advising the rest of the organization on project related issues?

The answers to these sorts of questions are fundamental to defining the skills and competency levels required by the team as well as the size and shape of the team. The answers determine whether the team consists purely of project managers or if it also has functions like portfolio management and a PMO.

The second main question is which projects does the project management team work on? There are always more projects that could be done than there are resources to do. A central project management team could be set up to work on any project, subject to prioritisation. Normally, some projects are more efficiently performed by distributed project managers – dealing with local issues or specialised contexts. This leads to the project management team focussing on a specific remit. It’s important to be clear what projects require a project manager from the central team and which do not.

The third question is really a pair of closely related questions: who should be in the central project management team and where do resources come from? In practice, most central project management teams start by bringing together the existing project managers from across the organization. This is not always the best way to staff the team. Depending on the team’s role and remit, the specific skills and capabilities needed vary. If possible, it’s better to define the skills and competency levels required first and then select and recruit as needed.

The answer to the third question also links to how to scale the team for the inevitable variations in workload. In the situation of a variable workload, there are essentially three possible ways to respond:

  • Resource below peak workload and act as the bottleneck to overall project capacity. This may appear to be the worst possible answer, but it can work. There is always a resource constraint somewhere in the organization. In some situations it is helpful to have a very clear controlled bottleneck. However, this is usually a very uncomfortable place for the team to be in!
  • Resource to peak workload and always be able to respond flexibly to any demand and be able to quickly start projects. This is a nice idea, but in reality demand will continue to expand if no constraint is put on in, and practical headcount and budget limitations normally prohibit this approach.
  • Resource to an agreed level and then use contractors and consultants to staff up to peaks when required. This gives flexibility and is the model most teams choose. Care is needed in choosing which projects are done by permanent staff and which by contractors if knowledge and skills are to be developed in house.

The fourth key question is how is the team is to be paid for? Is the team an overhead cost or are costs for the project managers re-charged to projects? I prefer the latter approach as it means project managers can focus where they are most valued, but it is not without challenges of its own.


Setting up the team

Project managers deal with projects and change. Helpfully, these are the right skills for setting up a project management team as it is a project in its own right.

Start by having a clear vision of the role the project management team will perform and how it will add value to the organization. Review what human resources you have available to make up this team, and determine how the skills and scale of those resources match your vision. It’s also important to understand what expectations exist as regarding the team, and whether these expectations align with your vision.

Now we get to the project management part: develop a plan for how you will get from the state you are in to the vision you have for the project management team. Executing the plan fully is likely to take some months or even years.

Factors to consider in your plan is how you will build the reputation of the team – best by excelling in the delivery of important projects; how you will develop the scale, skills, knowledge and capabilities of the team; and how you will influence the wider environment in the organization.

The last point is important. Success in project delivery will be helped by a strong project management team, but it is not just project managers who deliver projects. The central team is well placed to influence the development of a great delivery culture across the organization.


This Article was first published in Project Magazine, the official magazine of the Association of Project Managers, in March 2015. 

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