The Power of the Project Management Approach

Ginger Gregory discusses how adopting IT’s organizational structure can pay dividends for the people function

Ginger Gregory | Dunkin’ Brands | Chief Human Resources Officer | HR Credentials: Gregory joined the QSR giant in March 2012, implementing her HR project-management approach from day one to see unprecedented growth for the function.
Ginger Gregory | Dunkin’ Brands | Chief Human Resources Officer | HR Credentials: Gregory joined the QSR giant in March 2012, implementing her HR project-management approach from day one to see unprecedented growth for the function.

When did you first establish a project-management approach?

Years ago, a former IT colleague kept pestering me about how he could help HR, and I kept thinking, really? The project-management approach is common in IT, but IT is probably a few years ahead of HR with the process. So I had this experience where, rather than just kind of doing things as they came along, we started employing hard-core project-management techniques to the work we were doing in the human resources function.

How does it work? 

We have a project portfolio,  the work we’ve said we will do as a function, and for each project we assign a single project leader who is accountable for defining, planning, managing, and implementing the work. The project leader’s first job is to scope out the work. That’s not just financials, but the number of people and the kind of people needed to achieve results. I have found HR has a tendency to be overly inclusive and include anyone interested in work. We define the skills needed and how many people hours are needed. Not just anyone can be on a project—that’s very inefficient. You have to have the right people giving the right amount of effort.

And using people in the right way also opens up the door for cross-functional development.

Exactly. Sometimes you actually may want someone in training to be on a compensation project, because the training person brings a skill you need on how you teach people about accepting new programs. And meanwhile that training person is getting an interesting developmental experience, which is a direct result of the approach.

Projects bring constraints—you have budgets and a time frame and people resources circling around it. How do you handle this alongside the day-to-day obligations of HR?

We have projects on top of the day-to-day operations. I have found that by having a project-management approach you can help yourself operationally. If you don’t step back and ask how are we going to improve our reporting capabilities, then you get stuck in the grind all the time. By asking what is our biggest problem right now, we may find something that then becomes a project.

What should an HR leader look for when hiring for this type of approach? 

You need a portfolio manager who is very analytical and organized to be the person who is constantly tracking. In terms of staffing other people, we have been teaching our project leaders what it means to be a project leader: evaluating resources and determining how many people and what skills you need on a project. That’s a little bit foreign to the HR function. Ultimately, I want people who are collaborative, accountable, and are realistic in terms of planning—understanding how much work something is going to take.

What challenges does this approach pose for those not used to it? 

It’s very counterintuitive for the function. HR has come up from being a service function, where a client asks for something and you go and do that, to having a portfolio of projects and commitments. So now, when someone asks for something, you have to say, maybe, but let’s look at what we said we’re going to commit to. It’s been a bit of an adjustment.

Do you think that this approach is smart for any organization? 

Absolutely. Dunkin’ is the fourth time I’ve worked like this, and I’m finding that within the HR area you’re able to really move forward faster than if you took little bites. The approach gives weight to the work we’re doing in HR, which wasn’t always easy. If you don’t have the project-management approach, people often don’t understand why you can’t do things overnight. It takes a certain amount of effort to make systematic progress with people and organizational issues.

So it gives you the autonomy to assert what needs to be done.

It’s similar to if you have a really good strategy or road map.  The project-management approach  provides you with direction, and the tools you are using to track it serve as the direction and feedback to the organization to show whether you are on the right road.

Where do projects come from?

Formally, from the HR leadership team; however, there’s a lot of input from the franchisee leaders and leaders within the company.

What is the approach’s greatest strength?

It keeps people focused on achieving bigger undertakings than I’ve seen accomplished otherwise. And it moves the needle faster and farther because of the focus.

And the requisite: what’s your favorite type of donut?

Oh, my favorite type of donut is a Boston Kreme.