CofEe club

The 34th meeting CITI’s centres of excellence club ( CofEe) held on 24th April 2014 was hosted by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham.

The topic for the day was – Centres of Excellence – What’s working, what’s not?

The day began with an introduction from Kevin outlining some of the special considerations we all needed to adhere to as a consequence of working on this special site. (At lunchtime a historian gave some fascinating insights into their important work with demonstrations and exhibits of historic artefacts – including an opportunity to ‘touch’ the Enigma machine!). Simon from GCHQ then delivered our keynote talk. He headlined the important role GCHQ plays in our world today, powerfully making his points by referencing recent press coverage. He described the journey GCHQ has taken in developing project, programme and more recently portfolio competence. The importance of taking a determined, focused approach across time was highlighted and this stimulated all attendees to reflect on the strategies their organisations were adopting.

The second presentation was from Nicky Bloomer and Sue Mulcahy of the Office for National Statistics. They outlined the approach they had taken to develop skills and capability using the principals of: The right project, the right way with the right people. They too described a journey that required focus and determination to deliver demonstrable results. Many interesting points were made including; the importance of aligning projects to strategy, the importance of knowing what you have by creating registers of work and profiling competence of people and the essential endorsement from the ‘great and the good’ to professionalise the ‘practice’ of managing change.

Peter Shirley next described the plans for Legal and General as they look to develop their ‘centre of excellence’ (CoE) for change. Again the concept of a journey was embraced and Peter was able clearly to sign post the intentions for improving competence. He highlighted the importance of taking stock at regular intervals and powerfully illustrated some examples of lessons learnt to date! He also effectively linked to the previous presentations for information that can help him as he looks to develop the CoE.

As a precursor to the workshops, Bernard from CITI reflected on the theme of the day: ‘What’s working and what’s not’, highlighting some key areas for consideration, as for example What does success look like? and the CoE menu of potential services and prerequisites for start up. He concluded his talk by suggesting seven success factors that a CoE could /should reflect on as they develop their contribution and significance to the business.

Prior to lunch the workshop themes were described and the format for the afternoon outlined. Each member was able to select two of the four workshops to participate in.

During lunch, members were invited to participate in three surveys. The results of these surveys together with all presentation slides and workshop out puts are available to all members.
Please note: membership of the club is only gained once you have attended a meeting.
Thank you to our guest speakers, all members and a special thank you to Will, Grace and Maria from GCHQ who helped ensure the day was a great success.

Survey results

Commentary on the CofEe Club surveys – Event 34

CoE Activities

The majority of CoE activities are (correctly) carried out in most organisations. There is a bias towards ‘Project Support’ and particularly towards ‘Managing Intellectual Capital’, with less activity in ‘Managing Project People’ and ‘Portfolio Management’. There remains a clear ambition for a greater focus in these latter two areas.

There was a relatively small (below 20%) but fairly consistent response for activities that are regarded as (correctly) not carried out by the CoE in areas ‘Project Support’ and ‘Portfolio Management’. Given either the value proposition represented by the activities (e.g. Business case funding and approval) or the imperative to perform the activity (e.g. Selection, hiring, promotion, termination), it is likely that some other body carries this out in an effective manner, and so it is not a legitimate area of activity for the CoE. ‘Managing Project People’ and ‘Managing Intellectual Capital’ appear to be areas where the CoE is the only organisational structure that takes action.
Two activities in particular, both in ‘Portfolio Management’, were selected as being not performed but desirable. These were ‘Matching people to projects and key resource utilisation’ and ‘Rescue measures’, with >60% of responses in each case.

There were only three “we-do-this-but-we-shouldn’t” responses: one each for ‘Post-Implementation Reviews’, ‘Rescue measures’ and ‘Implementation planning’. It would be very interesting to gain further insight into the background to these responses.

CoE benefits.

For each of the eight activity areas, a significant minority of four to six respondents (and possibly the same respondents in each case) stated that their organisation has not established the activity.

Similarly, a significant proportion (58% – 82%) of respondents acknowledge that while each activity takes place in their organisation, it is not fully embedded. ‘Measurable improvement in project capability over time’ and ‘Regular innovation in project practice’ had no respondents stating that these are normal practice. It is true that the former is recognised as being difficult to measure (since project outputs are only one of a number of influences on project outcomes), while the latter is often subject to governance arrangements that change to constrain and control activity rather than encourage innovation. But no organisation is doing either these as the normal course of events.

Three of the activities – ‘Standards compliance’, ‘Portfolio level cost control’ and ‘Project and portfolio visibility and oversight’ have similar distinctive patterns, with a clear gap between the non-implementers and the partial implementers, with a reasonable proportion (17% – 22%) of responses indicating embedded processes. The other activity with >15% embedding, ‘Measurably improved business outcomes over time’ is likely to be a result of benefits management activity becoming part of operational activity.

CoE archetypes

Although this was presented as a triangular graphic, there were no responses along the ‘Service’ – ‘Partnership’ axis, indicating that the archetypes are linear in their relationship:

‘Service’ – ‘Control’ – ‘Partnership’

A comfortable majority of responses (64%) were along the ‘Control’ – ‘Partnership’ axis, with – interestingly – no responses selecting ‘pure’ ‘Control’. Two respondents selected ‘pure’ ‘Service’.
In terms of the value that the CoE represents, it is clear that ‘Service’ >> ‘Partnership’ represents an increasing contribution: given that it also represents increasing investment, the value proposition appears to be attractive to those who are committing investment to CoE activity. This may be a persuasive argument for those whose ambition is to migrate further away from ‘Service’ towards ‘Control’.

There is an unstated assumption that ‘Partnership’ CoEs still carry out relevant ‘Control’ and ‘Service’ activities, while ‘Control’ CoEs also carry out relevant ‘Service’ activities.

Workshop sessions

Four themes were set to frame discussions between club members. Groups were self directed and generated flipchart output which was summarised in plenary session. The themes and outputs generated are summarised below.

Theme A: the project community’s perspective

What are the essential behaviours that we need to see from the project community in order to support the Centre of Excellence?

The project community must have / be … (Significant behaviours marked with ‘#’)

  • Respectful #
  • Professional #
  • Teachable
  • Ready to share #
  • Supportive #
  • Empathetic #
  • Collaborative #
  • Honest #
  • Anti bullying #
  • Outcome focused
  • Pragmatic and flexible
  • Willing to ‘give back’
  • Wanting to leave a legacy
  • Wanting to be there
  • Consistent #
  • Resilient #
  • Credible #
  • Comfortable living with uncertainty #
  • A belief that the community are professionals #

How are the behaviours to be embedded?

  • Reward and recognition
  • Role models established
  • People ‘walk the walk’
  • Active coaching – coach and be coached
  • Ownership of the community
  • CPD (with qualifications?)
  • Hold regular forums
  • Tailor approaches for projects – not one size fits all

A clear message from these work groups was the need for collective ownership. i.e. everyone needs to play their part!

Theme B: Engaging the business

What are the practical ways the business can engage with the project community and the CoE in order to make it succeed?

  • Widespread engagement
  • Bottom up and top down support
  • Variety of communication channels used
  • Encouragement from all
  • Support tailored approaches
  • Give the CoE time to develop
  • Address scepticism
  • Manage expectations
  • Be realistic
  • Multiple senior stakeholders/champions from across the business
  • A ‘no blame culture’ with implicit trust
  • Be demanding of the CoE
  • Recognise and trust the ‘professionals’
  • Understand that the business has to contribute to project success
  • Make time for projects
  • Be flexible with resources
  • Release people for training
  • Allow the CoE to lead the way

Both teams stressed the need to ensure there is true engagement and that project working is not seen as an ‘add on’ to business working.

Theme C: lessons learned

What positive experiences can we share from experience with CoEs?

  • Use the term ‘CoE’ with caution – become excellent by reputation not title!
  • Invest in people (First)
  • Address capability gaps
  • Get senior stakeholder buy-in and advocacy
  • Keep advertising the benefits and improvements seen
  • Instil professionalism and pride
  • Become a community people want to belong to
  • Be as independent as possible
  • Create agreed standards and define competence sets
  • Start skills development early
  • Focus on what matters
  • Have achievable targets
  • Reporting lines matter i.e. sufficient voice and organisational power
  • Senior roles are important and the behaviours of seniors matter

This was the least populated of the themes. Did fewest attendees suggest not many positive lessons learnt in the implication of CoEs?

Theme D: The characteristics of your CoE

The CITI presentation introduced a model to describe different types of CoEs. What are the distinguishing characteristics of each archetype?

The model introduced in the presentation (See Bernard’s slides) and made available for the work groups was seen as a useful organiser and suggested characteristics were accepted/agreed. Additional comments made included:

  • Archetype depends on maturity of the organisation
  • CoE should under promise and over deliver
  • Project management seen as a profession is important
  • It was suggested that public and private companies are very different cultures that have an effect on the development of the CoE
  • Innovation (social media) is facilitating the creation of virtual teams.


There was a great deal of energy in all work groups with individuals freely exchanging views and opinions.

Two ‘very interesting questions’ emerged through the deliberations of the afternoon which can be summarised as:

  1. Should we be referring to a ‘community’ of excellence NOT a ‘centre’ of excellence? (it is not a singularity!)
  2. Should we not use the term ‘a centre of excellence’ until the title is deserved?

A member post the event recorded the following comments:-
The workshop topics were spot on and the facilitation, while light touch, did help frame the conversations in a positive way. The quality of engagement and discussion was excellent and personally, it allowed me to think through some slightly off the wall ideas with highly engaged and experienced fellow professionals.

Author: PAshton

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