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6 simple changes project managers need to make now

The statistics of project success haven’t really moved for decades. As a rule of thumb, about a quarter of them work, a quarter of them get killed and fail, and half of them hang around draining money.

I call the latter vamprojects (they suck the life out of you) or projectgeists (they hang around, just outside of vision, creating fear and never going away until they run out of money). If the profession is to move forward, it needs to exorcise these kinds of projects.

So what needs to be done?

1. We’ve cracked the process – we need to master the human side

The profession has learned a lot about managing projects – it has become more professional over the years. However, the world is changing, and things have become much more complex. A lot of different disciplines are required to keep projects on track, and projects must be delivered faster, due to the pace of change.

We’ve got better at the ‘hard’ bits – processes, the documents, that sort of thing. We’ve come up with methodologies that morphed into things like agile, which have allowed us to work in more flexible ways. The bits we haven’t really managed to get right are potentially fatal to your projects – engaging the stakeholders, working closely with the team and motivating them, communicating in a coordinated way.

2. Remove the ‘fear’ factor

Because we haven’t mastered the human side of projects, fear can be one of the side effects. If everything is communicated in processes and deadlines, all that people get is a ticking clock and a workload to complete. As a result, people worry about the consequences. People on your team hide things that go wrong to avoid conflict or to keep striving for that deadline. The risk level increases as a result.

3. Don’t lose sight of the objectives

In larger, more cash-rich organisations, it’s harder to define objectives – money is out of the equation, so the benefits are harder to quantify and keep track of. This is a problem all projects face in that environment.

Within the health service, for example, they know they’re trying to improve health, but it’s so hard to define compared to a project that is about making money. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a bias to action because people can’t tell if the work they’re doing is moving in the right direction or not.

HS2, another example, doesn’t have a business case. It would not fly in a normal organisation, but it can go forward as a ‘strategic infrastructure project’.

4. When defining benefits, ask the right people the right questions

So to ensure that people are engaged and the objectives are correct, we need to start our projects by talking to stakeholders and customers, and compiling their thoughts. But there’s a risk there too – you need to speak to the right people, and it’s wrong to assume that they’ll give you all of the right answers. Not all focus groups are the same. There’s a Henry Ford quote on this topic: “If we’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have told us they wanted faster horses.”

You have to really think about what you’re trying to achieve and make sure you’re speaking to the right people. You have ‘normal’ people – they’re somewhat satisfied with the status quo, and haven’t really given what you’re providing them much thought. They can’t break out of their thinking; they just want the same, but faster. That’s 70-80 per cent of people.

The other groups can be of more use. The first are the people who seem overly happy with how things work at the moment. While they might not initially seem useful, they can reveal positives that you may not have been aware of.

The final group are more difficult; I call them them ‘obnoxious customers’. I don’t mean that they are actually obnoxious, but they are going to complain. They literally spell out the scope of your project for you. They are spelling out what everyone will want in six months’ time.

However, people often don’t want to talk to them. They speak to the first two groups only and end up with a scope that won’t actually deliver the benefits necessary to make a difference.

5. Coordinate all agendas

Most modern projects involve disparate groups of people in different locations. That goes for the project team, the stakeholders and the organisations involved. Not enough projects are doing the work necessary to connect the dots. If you don’t have the soft skills to be able to coordinate all these people with their difficult political agendas, you are doomed.

The key to this is to speak to all of these people regularly. If people are spread out it might be difficult, so make sure people are using collaboration tools such as Slack, Zoom and cloud-based project systems to keep in contact. The alternative is a complex governance structure that is too rigid to meet the demands of modern projects – particularly when those projects are customer-driven. They’re rarely painting-by-numbers.

6. Deliver benefits throughout the life of the project

The old way of delivering projects was to hand over all the benefits in one go, upon project completion. More project managers have moved away from that model in recent years, so more progress has been made in this area.

These days, most people will try to get some benefits before the end, whether that’s trying to do these agile sprints or even something as simple as how they open up shopping centres before all the areas are open. They chunk them up, so you get effort-benefit-effort-benefit.


This story originally appeared in the Spring issue of Project journalDownload the latest digital issue now.

Brought to you by Project journal, exclusive for APM members.

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