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Back to bite you

Do today’s problems come from yesterday’s perfectly executed solutions? If so, how should we be managing benefits?

I’ve been asked to deliver a keynote talk at a benefits management conference and it’s given me an ethical dilemma. I’ll explain with an example. The city of Scottsdale, Arizona, in the US, has been expanding. As a result, the rattlesnake population has been pushed further up into the mountains, making the mountains more dangerous for people to go hiking or camping, etc. There was a clear need and business case. Something had to be done.

To address this challenge, the input from the city leaders was to organise a bounty on rattlesnakes. People started running mini-weekend projects to ‘go get some snakes’. The snakes were easy to find. You spread out in a line and listen for their loud rattle. People started bringing in lots of rattlesnakes so, by all measures, the objectives were being met.

But the outcome was not achieved. The mountains are now even more dangerous because they are inhabited by a growing population of very quiet rattlesnakes. The big picture is Need – Inputs – Project – Objectives/Outputs – Outcomes (Benefits).

In my book, All Change!, I describe the difference between ‘legitimate’ projects, which delivered the outcomes, and ‘non–legitimate’ projects, which were often brilliantly executed but didn’t deliver the outcomes. Our ‘old world’ definition of projects is obsolete. In modern complexity, the project leader needs more than a frail grasp of the big picture. Projects must be legitimate. The project leader’s accountability needs to span the chasm from Need to Outcome.

Benefits management is a crucial area of project management, often defined as ‘increasing the successful delivery of quantifiable and meaningful business benefits to an organisation’.

But businesses do not have a great track record in understanding their needs and establishing the right outcomes. Ever been reorganised? Did it pay back? Did the people who had left get hired back at higher rates the following month? Mankind does not have a great track record in understanding its needs and establishing the right outcomes. What are our big challenges? We sparked climate change because we needed to transport food to market before it rots. We created benefits dependency traps because we needed to alleviate poverty. Counter-intuitive and unexpected, these are challenges, not benefits. They are today’s problems caused by yesterday’s solutions.

So, finally, back to my dilemma. I would like the participants to enjoy a great keynote. So, on the one hand, I have to give them ideas, tools and hope on how to deliver benefits. This means I have to encourage them to develop legitimate projects, track through all the stakeholders from need to outcome, find root causes of the need, and check by mapping the future (possibly with scenarios) to ensure that only good things occur as a result of the project.

On the other hand, for the keynote to be successful, I have to get them to stop their illegitimate projects. This means I have to explain how they have been wasting their lives. It means I have to point out how their efforts are, at best, wasted or, at worst, counterproductive since they are delivering outcomes that will come back – without a warning rattle – to bite their businesses in the future.


Eddie Obeng is author of All Change! The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook, published by the Financial Times, as well as nine other books on change. He holds the Sir Monty Finniston award for his pioneering work in the human side of project management and in the frameworks and tools for different types of projects. Follow him on Twitter @EddieObeng or read his blog at http:// ImagineAFish.com

This article first appeared in Project magazine.

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  1. Ross Bampton-Aiken
    Ross Bampton-Aiken 03 July 2015, 10:59 AM

    The points Eddie has made are spot on, but to be a little provocative in my experience benefits to the business can be subjective.  At best the benefits can have a clear link to a strategic vision, which is great…  until that strategy is changed (which happens every 5 years in my organisation).  At worst they are aligned to a senior person’s vision which has not been challenged enough (or at all) and the real value to the business of the benefits is dubious. The projects I work on tend to have a legacy of 7+ years so even when we are able to spot the silent snakes issue and mitigate it we end up delivering a benefit which is out of date before the solution is reviewed with systems that cannot align to the new world.Over the years I have come to the opinion that every project should have a strong focus on being future friendly.  This means that although we have medium term benefits we want to achieve (and will) with a project, we need to design our solutions such that we can respond to a change in direction rapidly.  This often means standardising and putting more effort in than traditionally required but a project that achieves this regardless of any other benefit will stand out and adapt to the changing world it finds itself in and will not bite the business (quite so hard) in the future.

  2. Edward Wallington
    Edward Wallington 25 June 2015, 08:51 AM

    Totally agree Eddie.My concern is how often do these types of projects get undertaken without an approved business case (and hence consideration of requirements, benefits, etc).  And how often are people 'brave' enough to close down these projects early - or are they scared of being bitten?

  3. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 21 June 2015, 06:49 PM

    EddieI think you should say it like it is on Thursday - and I am sure you will.Deep down I believe that everyone wants to do a good job … which in most cases happens to be the right job! Sometimes initiatives will have unintended and unforeseen consequences or for that matter unexpected benefits. So what? Surely what really matters is that we learn from the experience of failure – simply collecting up rattle snakes with the loudest rattle - and change tactics!A colleague of mine, who like you, will also be speaking at #apmbmsummit, uses the quote “A project done well which should never have been done at all is the ultimate waste of resources …”The trick is for those that initiate projects to recognise this and not to start the project in the first place! If the project or programme is inflight then they should take a long hard view of the business case.Is the business case still compelling and viable and do the expected benefits outweigh the associated costs and risks? If the answer is no kill it!Back to the rattle snakes story.Merv