I was working with a large Canadian company recently, helping with their enterprise project management processes. As part of my work, I got to watch while a project control officer prepared a report for the Chief Financial Officer.

It was a work of art.

First data was grouped together from multiple projects in the desktop version of a popular project management system. That data was copied and then pasted into a massive Excel spreadsheet as core data for what would become this report.

Now, this person grouped the Excel data and sub-totalled it. Next, a series of macros that were clearly cleverer than I am, created an entirely new Excel workbook with the data now grouped and sub-totalled in a completely different way. The project staffer now reviewed several thousand lines by eye, looking for discrepancies. When they found them, they returned to the first Excel cut-and-paste file and deleted lines, added lines and changed values so that the resulting final spreadsheet would be grouped in the manner they requested. When data really didn’t seem to make sense, it was removed for ‘later analysis’. The über-macro was run several times until finally the results were to this person’s satisfaction and then a second tab in the newly created Excel sheet displayed the data with lovely coloured headings and columns.

I was visibly impressed. But not in a good way.

During a report I made much later, one of the comments I made to the senior PM management was, “This report has a 100% chance of errors each month yet even though everyone knows how it is being produced, it is being interacted with as though it is financial quality data at the same level of quality as your payroll or your financial statements. You are making critical business decisions with this report that you know is flawed.”

The company took steps to improve their reporting process and created checks and balances to make sure the decisions they made were done based on information that they had a higher level of confidence in but the whole experience made me think about a deeper lesson that we can all take home. I wondered if there wasn’t incentive in the organization for this person to become the ‘indispensable project manager’; the person who is absolutely essential because they’re the only ones who can create the organization’s critical project reports.

We all have methods and processes in our project management environments that we’ve created ourselves and that can really only be accomplished by ourselves. If in this company, the person in question had to take a leave of absence, no one else on the planet would have been able to generate the report they did. That’s a risk factor for the PMO and it makes me wonder how many more such risk factors do we all have in our organizations.

The top level of virtually every Project Management Maturity (PMM) Model is to have the process be self-sustaining and self-correcting. Different models use different terms but the idea is the same. The original Capability Maturity Model developed by Carnegie Mellon University used the term “Sustained” for their top level 5 definition. This level of maturity indicates that the project management process can sustain itself and adapt or improve as changes occur. This would include, of course, changes in personnel which is always a risk factor to a process.

If the process was sustainable, then the steps to create a report, a method to test the report for accuracy and a schedule of when and how the report would be created would all be present. Hopefully this would be part of a much more extensive project management process guide that would include not just how to create a report but also the methods by which the data was collected so that we’d know the source information had quality as well. We often make important business decisions based on project data and there is often an assumption that the data is accurate because of how nicely it’s displayed yet it’s common to find project environments where data does not have verification for accuracy and where this is a poorly documented process.

I’ve been a big fan of a phased approach to things for a very long time so it’s a bit of a problem to me to find that the top level of the PMM process is often the last one tackled. I far prefer making an element of the project management process stable and then bringing that element all the way to the sustained level. Document the process, train the staff, repeat the steps required over and over, produce value from this one step and etch a groove for this one part of the process deep enough that it becomes ingrained in the corporate culture. Then build on the same method on the next element.

There’s a plus and minus to my thinking of course. On the plus side, the project elements I work on this way typically last a very long time. On the minus side, organizations rarely get to all the elements they originally envisaged. There comes a point where sufficient value is being produced by the elements of the project process that have been successfully adopted thus far that the incentive for additional investment is reduced.

From my perspective working on organizational project management, the pluses far outweigh the minuses. The bonus from the phased approach is that the process has power rather than an individual personality. There is no hidden, secret knowledge. The whole objective of a publicly known process is that everyone knows how the process works from start to finish. It’s all documented and all on the table.

Virtually anyone can make this kind of difference in their own project organization; small or large. Start by giving knowledge away by documenting how you get things done. If you’re in charge of a PMO, you can encourage team members to share their best practices and make them available to others but you don’t need to be in charge of the PMO in order to do this. It may seem counterintuitive to share your best techniques but don’t worry. Expertise isn’t a depleteable resource. You can generate new expertise tomorrow. Giving your expertise away and working to create your successful project management element as a sustainable part of your organization will have you leave a legacy; some difference that can last long after you’re not longer in that role.

After all, aren’t project managers about having others be more effective? That’s a real indispensable project manager.