Transcript: Leading Projects in the Government of Canada, Episode 3: Keys to Complex Project Delivery, with Bill Matthews
00:05 John Medcof: Hello and welcome to Leading Projects in the Government of Canada.
My name is John Medcof and I work at the Canada School of Public Service. I am delighted to welcome our guest today, Bill Matthews.
Bill is the Deputy Minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada, as well as being the Deputy Receiver General for Canada.
Bill provides project leadership both through his department's role in supporting procurement for other government organizations as well as being the custodian of a large real estate portfolio that includes infrastructure like bridges and dams and highways. So Bill has really seen project management from a number of different vantage points in government.
Welcome to the podcast, Bill.
00:46 Bill Matthews: Thank you, John. Really great to hear your voice. I know we are not seeing each other in person today but, full disclosure for everyone, John and I used to work together at Treasury Board Secretariat, and he's still a valued colleague.
00:55 John Medcof: Great. Well, based on your experience in a variety of senior management roles in the public and private sectors, what would you say are some of the key challenges we face in delivering projects in the Government of Canada?
1:07 Bill Matthews: There's a number [of challenges]. One of the great things about the subject we are covering today is it's not a challenge unique to the public sector. The private sector faces the same challenges, but there are, I think, some unique aspects in the public sector and that's probably worth starting on.
Number one, I'd say, [is] the complexity and diversity of stakeholders. You‘re dealing with a group of stakeholders that are probably a little broader than the private sector is used to. That adds complexity and it can also result in very complex governance.
A lot of our projects are long-term in nature. Government's always worried about fiscal budgets and making sure you stay on track. People underestimate budgets going in and they are overly optimistic on schedule, so you have that dynamic. Plus, because of the various approval processes in government, which take a long time, projects often start out of the gate behind schedule. And so what do you do in that case?
The final point I'll add is that very often you'll see people delivering really important projects, but it's not the only thing they are doing. They've been asked to implement either government priorities, such as you know, greening or accessibility, that are influencing not only the project but also their day job.
02:12 John Medcof: Okay thanks. No, I think that's something—You know, all of the challenges you've mentioned certainly resonate with me, from what I've seen in my time in the Government of Canada. That last one, I think, is something that we maybe don't talk about enough.
I wanted to start by asking a second question. Bill, what are some of the key steps we can take to improve the delivery of projects in the public sector?
02:37 Bill Matthews: To respond to this question, I would like to put the emphasis on culture, governance and the way in which we provide our governance committees with information about the project.
First, the governance. Governance is really important. Too often, project managers are afraid of their governance committees; this is something that we need to change. Governance is a good thing, [it is] a place where we can discuss challenges and resolve problems. But I think that not everyone agrees with what I've just said.
The second things is that it is okay to say that we have a problem with the budget, the timeline or the expectations. We have to become more comfortable talking about problems.
Finally, to do all this, I would say that we need to improve the way in which we provide information to our committees and the quality of this information. The format should be pretty straightforward and clear, but should also cover the risks that managers must face in order to deliver the project. Very often, the reports are insufficient to answer questions.
03:51 John Medcof: Thanks, Bill, for those really interesting insights, particularly around some of the challenges about raising the flag or maybe letting senior management know when we are experiencing challenges on a project.
04:01 Bill Matthews: Can I jump in on that one, John?
04:02 John Medcof: Of course, yes, please.
04:03 Bill Matthews: What I find when people go to governance committees, and I'm generalizing here, their goal is to go in and come away with no homework. And basically they think they've done a good job if they don't have a real discussion; I say that's a fail.
If you leave a governance committee without talking about potentially, you know, reducing scope, challenging the schedules, really pushing on "Are we on budget?" [then] that's a lost opportunity. But I think it goes both ways.
You need a governance table that's comfortable asking those hard questions. But you have to put the information on the table that allows them to engage in a meaningful way without burying them in 300 pages of reports.
One of my favourite things to do when I'm at our departmental audit committees when we're talking about a project is to watch the body language of our project managers when they're asking these questions. Do they resent the questions or do they welcome them and look forward to the discussion? You need project managers who welcome those discussions.
04:56 John Medcof: Just maybe to ask you to build on that a little bit. What is the best way to frame the presentation of any challenges?
05:05 Bill Matthews: I prefer a model where you come in and you give the broad status and it's always three things, right? It's schedule, it's budget, and it's scope. And then you drift very quickly into a discussion of risks. I categorize the risks in two kinds of buckets: Risks we were worried about. "Hey, folks, we were here before and we warned you about this. And in fact, our risk has materialized. And here was the mitigation strategy, and it's working or it's not."
The other bucket of risks is things that we didn't foresee. And they're the ones that get my attention and "Can you do something about it?"
05:33 John Medcof: Your department is either leading or involved in many of the largest projects in the Government of Canada, including key defence procurements and the Parliamentary Precinct Rehabilitation, the E-Procurement [Electronic Procurement] Solution and development of the Next Generation Human Resources and Pay system. Really some of the largest and most complex projects the public service has probably ever undertaken. What would you say are some of the key challenges your organization faces in delivering these projects that they might be bringing forward to those committees?
06:03 Bill Matthews: You touched on the range, which makes this job at PSPC very interesting. I think the challenge is that in most cases we are dealing with replacing an incredibly old "something." So whether it's a bridge, a building, an IT system or a plane, there is a certain sense of urgency, typically, to dealing with this and yet it's a very complex procurement or project.
Just to pick up on the Parliamentary Precinct [Rehabilitation]: when we talk to people about how old this building is—we're not sure what we're going to find. Everyone gets that. They totally accept the contingency. When you're talking about, you know, an IT project, an upgrade or maybe a defence procurement, [there is] probably a little more reluctance to accept the fact that you need a lot of contingency in there because you're going to bump into some unknowns.
06:49 John Medcof: [Are there] any sort of best practices that your department has put in place to address these challenges that maybe others could learn from?
06:57 Bill Matthews: Nothing that is going to wow you. We changed our reporting inside the department for big projects to go to a more standardized dashboard that is less and less manual. We want the system generating the status. We want less discussion about the project manager not agreeing with that and a real discussion about the projects. And we thought a more standardized approach to reporting would create a more regular kind of dialogue.
We have put in some standard guidance for project managers and a curriculum to support them in building their professional resume.
But the biggest one for me was the standard reporting. The reports go to a committee, a governance committee we have at PSPC. Historically, that committee was more of a show-and-tell: Let's bring your success stories forward and talk about those. [This] is important to do from a cultural perspective and to reward great work, but people were not comfortable talking about the problems they had in engaging that table for help: "I've got a contract that's going south here. I'm worried about it. What are our options?"
That's exactly the kind of conversation you should be having at the senior management table. And I think with the new reporting, we've made huge strides on driving that conversation as a norm for all to see. I think it makes it more comfortable for people to have those conversations when they know their colleagues are going to be doing the same thing.
08:10 John Medcof: Thanks a lot, Bill. We all know that oversight is one of senior executives' key roles in project delivery. Based on your experience, what information do you need to lead a major project in order to track its progress, assess risks and ensure that the project remains on track?
08:33 Bill Matthews: There are community requirements that must be met to be successful. There are other things that are good to have as well, although they are really an option. This includes having a good understanding of the project needs.
Second, I prefer to ask questions about the next step, the next deliverable, to encourage a real conversation regarding whether we are going to respect that milestone or not: "So what is the next key milestone?"
09:03 Bill Matthews: I would say, very often in government the message [is], and I've seen this so many times, "Oh, we're behind on this one, but we're going to make it up on the next one." My experience is [if] you're behind on that first one, the odds of your making it up later diminish.
09:16 John Medcof: Okay great. Thank you. You had mentioned the importance earlier of having good reporting to feed information into those committees and the use of things like dashboards. Are there particular things that you are looking for in a project dashboard? What are some of the key questions that you ask the project managers or project leaders who are before you?
09:37 Bill Matthews: Level of detail is a tough one because the second you hit problems people want more detail. But I'm looking for something that is probably a handful of pages and I'm looking for some colours other than green; I don't trust it, frankly. I will pick on things that are green. If I see yellow or red, I go, "How can I help?" The magic of the dashboard is not the dashboard; the magic is the dialogue and what comes out of it.
So you're just looking for something that will drive a conversation. I am looking to use that dashboard to see if I'm getting a sense that my project manager feels empowered. I'm also looking to get a sense of, "Does the team feel like they are together?" That's more gut than anything. But you've got to watch people's reactions when you're talking about a risk.
Look around the team and see if they all feel that way. If you get a sense that there's division amongst the team, you've got to pick up on that and help raise that to the forefront. Those discussions are important—and there is absolutely going to be division amongst the team.
It's very natural on a tough, complicated project. I think the job at that table is to help bring some of those issues to the forefront to make sure they get discussed.
10:38 John Medcof: I know earlier you mentioned the risks that we knew about or we knew might come to fruition and then the risks that we weren't expecting. Do we tend to see a lot of risks that we knew were a possibility or is there still a lot that fits into that category of things that we weren't able to anticipate? Are we getting better at understanding risks in government?
11:00 Bill Matthews: I think I would distinguish here between the real property infrastructure-type projects where you might find asbestos or you might find footings that aren't as solid as you'd hope. Those ones we are better at and there's more tools out there now to help forecast that stuff.
I think where we still bump into unforeseen IT risk—you will hit things around security. You will hit things around how systems talk to each other and pass information back and forth. But you have to wonder, "How could we not know that further in advance?" Because the difference between an IT project and an infrastructure project is a lot of your infrastructure stuff is often hidden beneath the ground or behind a wall or something. When you start day one on an IT project, everyone always assures you these two systems can talk to each other: "Don't worry about it." And then as time marches on, you find out, "Not so fast!"
There is not a risk mitigation strategy that I have seen that does not include a robust change management strategy as part of the mitigation. I will tell you bluntly, I have probably seen two or three change management strategies that I would call "robust" in my life. And yet it's always front and centre.
And then, show it to me; ask for that change-management strategy. It's critical, especially in IT. We talk about it at the start of a project and I think we let ourselves down with what we actually developed from a change management perspective.
12:13 John Medcof: We've got just a few minutes left, but I'm wondering if we can go a little bit deeper on that. You know, you talked about us being good at identifying maybe what we want to do up front.
But what are some of the best practices that you've seen work or that your department is using to ensure that these changes are managed effectively once we're in that operational delivery phase?
12:34 Bill Matthews: One is the more you can understand about the way your current climate works. That's got to inform your change management strategy: understanding how they do their job right now. What is their life like today and what's it going to be like with this new system? You can't just say. "Here is some training on the new system." To me, it's got to be grounded in, "We understand here's how you used to do it. Here's how you're going to do it going forward."
The other one, and this is very obvious but we're doing it on the E-Procurement Solution that went live with a soft launch a month or two ago. System launch day is not when your change management strategy ends. Too often we think of system launch as the end of our project. Absolutely a critical milestone. From the user's perspective, that's day one. And we really need to think of how we support them through the first year. Maybe it's eight months. Maybe it's twelve.
13:22 John Medcof: I think that's a great insight to end on. Bill, thank you very much for taking the time to come by and chat virtually today. Appreciate your frankness and your sharing your thoughts and insights as a public service project leader. And again, appreciate your time.
13:38 Bill Matthews: Thank you, John. I have to close by saying I think we actually have the tools we need to be good project managers and our people know what they're doing. I think making sure you have project managers who feel empowered and you have truly integrated teams is kind of the key to navigating through some of these complex issues.
13:52 John Medcof: Great. Well, I think that's a really powerful way to wrap this up. So thank you. And with that, thanks to you, our listeners, for tuning in to Leading Projects in the Government of Canada.
14:02 John Medcof: We thank you all for your interest and welcome you to send us your questions and ideas for future podcast episodes.
14:09 John Medcof: Thanks, everyone.
14:10 Bill Matthews: Thanks, John.