Why BAU staff struggle in program and project roles

When resourcing a program or project, especially major works, your success is inextricably linked to the capability and capacity of the program and project teams.

Program and project teams require specialist skills – Project Management, Scheduling, Dependency Management, Project Financial Management, Risk Management, Stakeholder Management – to name but a few.

These roles are best filled by experienced practitioners who are well versed in working on tasks with discrete start and end dates, capable in communicating both verbally and in written form to senior management, empathetic enough to manage stakeholders, capable of extracting value from vendors, and resilient enough to cope under sometimes extreme time pressure.

The time-based attribute alone belies the natural behaviour of Business as Usual (BAU) staff and the other attributes are usually lacking. By BAU staff, I am referring to permanent staff that operationally work in (or run) an environment day-to-day, after a project is completed.

Permanent staff rarely engage at senior levels within their organisation, require minimal stakeholder management skills (their only stakeholder often being a customer or manager whose input they need to respond to) and unless they hold a senior role, are unconcerned with budget management and reporting for executive stakeholders.

There are fundamental attribute differences between BAU staff and project specialists, and organisations that understand this will gain more value from their programs faster.

BAU staff develop a different set of attributes and skills to succeed. They typically have a strong propensity to maintain a steady flow of output for the input received, which is reflected in the ways they are measured and managed. These are different to the measures used for specialist project practitioners who are managed and measured by tight milestones and budgets.

Unless a BAU staff have prior experience in working under discrete, project time, cost and delivery pressure whilst managing senior stakeholders; they will likely lack the capability, empathy and resilience to work in a project environment. Consequently, re-deploying BAU staff into project roles is akin to setting them up to fail.

The reverse also applies; moving project practitioners (who excel in working under time, cost and delivery pressure, and dealing with senior management) to BAU functions will usually prove unsuccessful as they find the repetitive day-to-day operational “run” environment unexciting, unchallenging and unsatisfying.

So, why do organisations keep moving BAU staff into project roles when the chances of success are low? In our experience – cost.

Most organisations have limited dedicated project capability and capacity. Urgent project requirements, or a surge in project requirements, necessitates augmenting existing teams externally; be it transactional disparate contractors, large consultancy firms or specialist consultancies. Each of these presents additional operational costs that typically have not been budgeted for.

Why re-purposing staff into specialist project roles doesn't work

In an era where large organisations are transitioning to “new ways of working” by applying Agile principles across their business, there is an increase in the number of workplace redundancies, surplus staff and redundancy costs. In hope of mitigating these (and the need to invest in external specialist project capability), organisations are re-purposing surplus staff into specialist project roles with little or no re-skilling, and expecting them to be successful.

To save costs, organisations are re-purposing permanent staff into specialist program and project roles… and expecting them to yield the same results.

The net result is repurposed staff (typically the BAU staff replaced by technology and/or outsourcing) in project roles for which they are ill-suited and unskilled for. This leads to poor efficiencies, milestones being missed, projects derailing and costs rising. Costs rise again when organisations then finally decide to source the right skills for role, and again when the delays to value realisation are factored in (organisations often overlook the real cost incurred through project delays and delays to value realisation).

The very thing that the organisation was trying to contain – cost – by repurposing BAU staff into specialist project roles ironically becomes uncontained by this very action.

Organisations transforming to “new ways of working” by adopting Agile methodologies should be focusing on rapid iterative changes across the organisation to realise value faster than before. Instead, the focus seems to be cost containment and cost reduction. This contradicts the reasons for changing – rather than realise value quicker, they are incurring significant program and project delays and incurring additional costs.

From what we have seen in the field (typically when called in to assess and fix a failing project), approaching programs and projects from a position of containing cost by re-deploying BAU staff into specialist roles neither contains cost nor delivers business value sooner.

To quickly realise business value from change programs and projects (and reduce cost and risk profiles), organisations need to source the appropriate specialist teams, not re-purpose staff with the wrong personal and professional attributes.


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