Podcast: PPQ Introduction

Paul Naybour


My name’s Paul Naybour, and welcome to another Parallel Project Training podcast. Today, we’re doing a PPQ Introduction, and I’m really delighted that Tom has decided to join us for this podcast. Tom O’Shea will be leading our PPQ programs from now on, and I’ve known Tom for many, many years. So. introduce yourself. Tom, tell people what you know about the PPQ and your involvement as a PPQ assessor.

Yeah, certainly. So I’ve been involved in PPQ from the outset. I was actually involved in the previous version at this level, which was something called the PQ, and that was a two-day assessment centre. So fortunately, the PPQ is a bit easier than that in that it’s now just a half-day assessment in effect. However, I’ve been involved in the pilot setting up the process, confirming or evaluating the assessment structure, and have been undertaking assessments ever since. In addition, I also guide and coach people through the process, how to present evidence of the things expected of a PPQ care assessment, and the best way to prepare.

Tom O'Shea - introduction to PPQ

What is APM PPQ?

So you you’ve seen how candidates do well and not so well and the hints and tips they can do. So that’s what we wanted to capture in this series of podcasts. I suppose we should better explain what the APM PPQ really is?

I see it as a bridge between the knowledge and understanding you get in the project management qualification and that sort of advanced technical knowledge that you need to get your chartered status. So, it provides a route to Chartered Project Professional. So I think that’s why most people come on this program that they’re looking to work towards chartered status, I think.

Yes, indeed. Although the APM PPQ is, you know, recognised itself and is something worth having, just as it almost is a standalone, if you like to, to show that you have developed an advanced level of competence and capability in delivering projects. And I think that’s the key thing differentiating it from the PMQ you mentioned. The PMQ is very much about knowledge. It’s about learning some stuff, some theories and techniques and tools and processes, and then being able to write theoretical answers to exam questions. PPQ is very much about application. So, within the PPQ, you are expected to demonstrate to the assessors that you can actually run a project by applying your knowledge to the case study. So you must approach this as a project manager, not a student candidate in an exam. You have to approach this as if you are actually about to go into this organization or have just gone into this organization to deliver a project. Yes.

The role of the assessment case study

So the assessment is based on a case study, isn’t it? Yes. So you get a case study four weeks before your assessment, and you have to put yourself into the feet of the project manager coming in to run the case study. Most of them seem to be turnaround situations where the project is not managed effectively. And you have to think about what steps and measures you would implement to bring that project back into control. Yeah. It will always be a situation where a project or project is not running well. There’s no point in putting somebody into a situation where everything’s perfect because all you do is pick up the reins and carry on. This assessment is looking for you to use your knowledge and experience to say, well, I can see what’s gone wrong here and what I need to do moving forward. So it is very much about the application.

Yeah, it was quite interesting when I did my assessment. I read the case study. First of all, they did a reasonably good job. You know, they had some meetings, and they had some plans and actions and stuff like that. And then I did an analysis against each of the assessment criteria, and said, what are they doing about change, control, what they’re doing about planning what they’re doing, about risk management? And they scored zero on every single one of the assessment criteria. So it was really interesting. Superficially, it looked like your typical project, you know.


But when you looked into each of the assessment criteria, there was almost nothing. There was no project management in it.


And with no formal project management in the case study at all. Lots of meetings, lots of workshops, but no actual risk registers. Change logs. Yeah. So there is stuff happening. Yeah, but it’s not happening in a controlled, disciplined way. Yeah. Yeah. So it’s quite interesting. So, although it’s a case study, you put yourself into the position of the project manager taking over that case study. Now that you’ve got many choices about how you would manage that project, you know, because the project management is quite Broadchurch, isn’t it? So this, this qualifications about understanding that Broadchurch and taking the decisions about what you would do first. You know, we were all very busy as a team, very busy. Which elements would we do first against each of the assessment criteria.


How is the APM PPQ assessed?

So it’s assessed in a couple of ways, isn’t it? There’s a scenario, an oral on a written report. So let’s talk about each of those. So what’s the scenario like? What does that entail?

The scenario is where you, as the new PM in this organisation, will sit down with the sponsor. So you have a meeting?


So you will be asked to consider a specific situation, which is the task you’re given. You will be asked to think for 10 minutes about how you will approach this meeting with the sponsor, and then you will go into that meeting. So one of the assessors will be the sponsor, and you will be you.


So it’s sometimes referred to as role play, but there is another term that’s probably more appropriate: real play, in that you are really yourself; you’re not pretending to be someone else. Yeah. So you’ve got two sets out to the sponsor how you will address the specific task set out in that brief. And it’s generally around stakeholders or senior managers. We’ll discuss the syllabus and the learning outcomes in more detail shortly. But essentially, four particular learning outcomes could be addressed in the scenario. One of them is always covered, which is communication because that is a key skill that a project manager needs to be able to demonstrate. But then the other three will be around, possibly having a negotiation. But it could also be about solving a problem. Or it could be about establishing reporting in hierarchies and making decisions in particular.


So they could be about a change, they could be about another situation that is in the scenario. But one way or another, it’s designed to get you to think about the specifics of something already existing in the case study. So to clarify, this is not throwing you into a completely new situation you know nothing about in the case study. It’s building on or extending from something that you already know about. And you are expected to set out how you will address this particular element. And as part of that, discuss how you will manage the communication of your resolution or the way forward that you propose.

We got some feedback from the APM on this one, and they said that you should also think about what other resources the organisation can give you for any expert advice or if any additional people within the organisation could advise you on how to overcome the problem. So who else would you need to consult? So it’s not just a matter of solving it there on the spot, you might need to say, Well, I need to consult procurement or I need to go and talk to a HR specialist or I need to go and talk to a health and safety expert to bring in their views in this situation. You know, so not sort of expected to be the expert on everything Absolutely. You’ve only been in the organization a matter of days or possibly weeks. So you will be starting to get to grips with who’s who in the organization and where the different skills and expertize lie. But you don’t or probably won’t have the answers. And if you think about it from a senior managers perspective, if you had somebody sat in front of you that suddenly told you all of the things, you must do this and you must do that, you’re probably not going to receive it very well.


So what you’re doing is actually making a case for doing something and that’s important to bear in mind through all of these moving forward is that you don’t just come in and say you do it this way because it’s best. Practice Set out the reasoning why the sponsor or in the later parts the assessor would need to think about doing things in a certain way and why it’s relevant for this organization in this project to do it this way. So, so this you just treat like a meeting with your with your boss. Absolutely.

Yeah. Yeah.

Just you’re going in for a meeting with your boss. Your boss has said, well, you’ve got a new project, here’s the project, you know, and you’ve got to go and treat it, you know, as seriously as you would a meeting with your boss. Ready?


The difference is that this is a new boss you don’t know.


Whereas, you know, if you go into your, your current boss, you’re going to know what they need to know or what they want to hear from you with. This one is starting from scratch, so you have to assume that they don’t know a huge amount about the tools and techniques you will be talking about and why they should do things that way. So you’re there to convince them? And you have to take into account with them in charge of the project.


It’s working in, in the case study

Yeah. Yeah.

So you would be doing most of the talking in this part, but it is very much a meeting. So the assessor is going to be asking you questions. They will give you bits of information to engage in conversation. Maybe if there’s something you’re suggesting, we could do this or could do that; they may have a preference or a priority. Yeah, but it’s all designed to be like a real meeting;

I think I was asked how I would improve, getting the project delivered on costs, which I’ve been asked many times and slightly more aggressive ways that they assess that they’ve actually thought about it.

Probably they’re not going to be aggressive with you in this, so they’re not going to suddenly start thumping the table being Mr. or Mrs. Angry.


They’re just going to be, you know, an assessor in a regular meeting. And of course, the answer that they want is fairly common project management. Anyway, let’s move on


So that moves on to the Oral assessment. So this is different. This is where the introduces critical analysis and critical evaluation. So they are looking at different options, is that right?

That’s right, yes.

So the oral exam is four formal questions, each of which has three parts and it lasts around 50. It won’t last 50 minutes.


Now, whereas the scenario is a meeting with the sponsor, this is a bit more like having some external consultants or auditors or something coming in and asking you questions more formally about the project, but the approach is still the same in that you’ve got to think about the situation as it currently stands and apply your answers. So what has happened in the case study?


So again, this says don’t want to hear theory. If they’re asking you about risk or change, they don’t want to know the five steps in a risk management process. According to the PRAM Guide. They want to know what you’re going to do. So how are you going to apply this? What are the ways you could do it? What are the ways to some of the questions that you will ask? So, as you say, some of the questions will be critically evaluated, and some will be critically analyzed. But we’ll talk about the difference between those in a moment.


So the difference between that and the written report, apart from it being written, is that you get three questions on it all on the same topic.

Yes, they are.

So in your oral exam you have the four questions I mentioned. Each has three parts. Once you’ve finished those? You leave that part of the assessment and go into a different platform where you don’t engage with anyone. It’s it’s all controlled by the system. Anyone who’s done PMQs recently will know all about how that works. But essentially, you are shown a brief in the written reports, and you have one three-part question. So it’ll be the same kind of structure as the exam, but around one question only. And then it sort of also borrows from the scenario approach in that you get given the brief and a bit more information about the situation and then asked to write your answer to the three parts of the question. So you get 15 minutes to read and make some notes, etc., and then an hour to write your report.

So the question might be about change, control, or governance or benefits management.

In fact, if they look at the syllabus, it indicates which topics will be potentially written assessments, doesn’t it?


So some topics could be an oral question or report. So, for example, change control could be in the oral part, or it could be in the written report, whereas some other topics would be oral only or written only, like you mentioned benefits there. That’s a written question, but you will never get an oral question on that. And the key thing in the written report is you will get three parts to that question. So it’ll be about benefits management. It’ll be three separate parts, all about benefits management.


Each of which will be based on an assessment criterion in the syllabus.

Yeah. You don’t get choice, do you? You just get like a question. Now it’s. That’s the question. So there’s no choice.

It is hard because it’s not like the PMQ where you can go well out the six topics and I’ll ignore discounted cash flow because it’s too hard. You have no you can’t say ‘actually I’m not gonna answer that question on benefits management, I’m going to do another one’.

No, but that’s why you don’t have an option like that. But if you got brought into an organization to run a project, you don’t get to pick and choose which parts of the project you run and which ones you don’t.

That’s a very good point. Yes.

You have to do it all you do.

You do. Right. Good.

Critical Analyse and Criticaly Evaluate

Let’s talk about what critical analysis and critical evaluation. So yeah, um, because these are quite as in the APM generally, these are quite specific definitions. Yes.

So critically analyze, critically evaluate and demonstrate. Let’s go for an analysis first, a critical analysis.


So, in terms of the command verbs, they critically analyse and evaluate all relevant to the oral and the written parts. So the difference between them is that in analysis, you have to think about two different approaches. So those techniques are two different ways of undertaking or dealing with a situation and give the pros and cons of each of those approaches’ benefits and drawbacks, advantages, and disadvantages.


With evaluation, you must recommend what you will do to move forward. Now, most evaluation questions will require you to provide two options and then make a recommendation on which one. Yeah, some evaluations only require one way, but you also don’t have to do something additional, like explaining the importance of doing something as well.

Yeah. Okay.

But no specific recommendation is required. They also use the term in the explanatory notes that you can come to a finding.

Yeah. Okay.

So you’re finding might be that it’s important to do this in this particular case because.

Yeah, okay.

But the key thing with evaluation is that similarly to analysis, you have to think about how you could manage something. And then if it’s a minimum to make a recommendation on which one you would prioritize will take forward. I think a lot of people find it quite challenging.


They come from a background where they might work in a large corporation and there’s a prescribed method to do something.


And so when you say can you consider two ways of doing something, they struggle to identify those options.


So if you take something like change control, many people coming into the PPQ come from a mature, well-established project environment and defined change control processes.


So you have something there in place. You know what the process is. You know how it’s going to work. What you have to think about when you go into the Case Study Project is you’re going into a very different environment. You’re going into one that doesn’t have anything defined in terms of a process, templates, or even any structured approach to things. They certainly don’t have a PMO that you can turn to for advice and guidance.

Now, what you have to think about is, well, how am I going to, for example, introduce change control? Now, you might think, well, I’ll just do it the way I’ve always done it. I’ll take the best elements of the change control process of years before. But if it’s asking you for two approaches, then that’s where people sometimes get stumped. What you also have to think about is what’s the context here? What’s the situation I’m coming into? You know what would be appropriate given the challenges that already exist in this project? Is it something that requires a very quick and simple solution that I can adopt and run with immediately? Or is it something that actually requires a far more disciplined, controlled approach? What’s happened so far has been really poor, and they’ve really got to get this sorted properly moving forward.

Yeah, I think when you think about different approaches, you can think about the process, the tools and the techniques that you’re going to use because, quite often, people say, I would set up an Excel register. Yeah, but that’s a tool. That’s not a technique or a process, you know. So I think what you have to think about, I would establish a risk register or a change log and I could do that in Excel or on a database. But the technique is establishing a change log.


So I say to people, don’t ban the word Excel. Because I set up an Excel spreadsheet is not a project management technique.

No, no, no.

Is a risk register or, you know, initiative log or whatever. And, you know, just as it is in the project plan. Yeah.

So, yeah.

So two tools, techniques and theory. So, so it’s not just about the tool. And I think that’s what catches people out a lot of time. They talk a lot about the tools, but they don’t talk much about the techniques or the theory behind it, you know?

Yeah. Yeah.

So it might be that, you know, a simple spreadsheet is the answer to to a particular tool that would manage a part of the process. But it might be that you need something much more sophisticated. But simply having a changed register or a risk register doesn’t give you better change, control or risk management.


So I’d establish a change management process. I’d probably document that in a one-page change procedure.


And support that with a change log, which I could run in either Excel or I could set up a SharePoint site or whatever.

But yeah, I think the other thing I found useful is one of my clients has something called Level of Control. So they talk about highly complex, medium complex, low complexity projects and they have more formal. Project management processes for the more complex and larger projects. For example, a high level of control project would have fallen value on a program maintained by PMO and that sort of stuff where the small, simple project might be controlled with milestones on a simple milestone tracker and wouldn’t have a of fully developed project management plan to devise a lighter, simpler project management plan. So I think it’s useful to think about. Where does this project fit on that spectrum?


Is it a small, simple, two-person project or a medium complexity project where you have, you know, a mixture of something, or is it a high infrastructure, complicated multi-organisational project? And there’s no point suggesting that you have the whole, Battlestar Galactica.

Yeah. Yeah.

But equally, you have to think about the project’s context or situation right now. Is it running smoothly in every and everyone knows what they’re doing or is it late and over budget and you’ve got an inexperienced team that’s also also going to shape the recommendations that you make.


Demonstrate command verb

The other command verb is then demonstrated. Yeah, but the demonstrate command verb is only relevant to the scenario meeting with the sponsor. So, there are only four learning outcomes that are covered in that meeting and demonstrated by practical means. So the mere fact that you are discussing with the sponsor how you will approach the situation is you demonstrating by practical means.


So you’re not required to do critical evaluate. No, not that scenario.

Does anyone ever do that?

During that scenario, they sometimes do fall into it that the syllabus is a little bit misleading in that in one of the learning outcomes, a couple of the criteria have been evaluated rather than demonstrated. But actually, it’s the overall expectation that you are demonstrating only.

Yeah, good. Okay.

So approach that you can almost ignore the demonstrate command verb. Verbal together as long as you understand, critically evaluate, and analyse, and you’ll be able to effectively deal with the oral and written parts. And demonstrate, you’ll do as I said by meeting with the sponsor and talking through and presenting your thoughts, ideas, and observations on what’s happened and how to proceed. So you’ve seen quite a lot of candidates go through what would be the top tip. You give them all the key tips you think you would give them, I think, two things. One is to be the project manager. Don’t approach this as, you know, as some kind of external perspective on what’s going on. Just immerse yourself in it; be the PM and think about what you would have done or how you would take this forward.

So, you know, it’s you can read that you said earlier that you looked at the case study and you thought. It seems to be going okay, but when you apply your knowledge and experience to it, you think, actually, no, they’ve missed a bit here, and they’ve done something wrong there, or that could be far better.

That’s what you’ve got to be thinking about, is what if I was running it? This is what I’ll do. Yeah. And the second part is. Always keep your recommendations and your observations tied back into the case study. Theory is not going to get you anything. Well, I’ll get you a few marks. It might help you to give a structure to your answer. But just giving a theory is not going to be sufficient. So, as I said before, you’re sitting in front of somebody that you need to convince them why, in their organization that you’ve joined, they should be adopting stuff that you’re bringing with you. And it’s not just because it’s best practice to do it. I want to know practical, sound reasoning for doing what you’re recommending. Yeah. So focus on practical solutions to the problems drawn from the case study. Drawn from that case study? Yeah, the key thing is it’s always tied back into things that have happened or perhaps not happened in the case study and the consequences of that. And build on that.

Yeah. Brilliant.

Any other tips? Comments?

I think we’ll cover more tips and hints as we go through the remaining topic areas in the podcast.

Thank you, Tom. Really good overview.

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