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How to deliver social projects to be proud of now — and in the future

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It’s lovely and warm on your summer holiday, the sun upon your face. The sound of the waves is soothing. How did you get here? The inception was the ‘need for a break’. Project ideas were supplied by friends. Then you did the research on project inputs: the costs, the clothes.  

The project execution was tough. You had to take leave and your absence had an impact on your colleagues; there were problems at the airport. But the output was that you arrived safely at your hotel. And now you recline on a lounger enjoying the benefits. 

Project professionals will tell you that benefits management — identifying, defining, planning and tracking — has led to you living the dream of benefits realisation as you derive the benefits of your outputs and outcomes. But is that correct?  

Now, as your holiday ends, you still feel exhausted. Why? Because getting to the holiday was far more hassle and effort than the relaxing release it provided. 

Earned value management 

In the 1960s, when projects were largely judged on financial terms, the US government, concerned that many projects were spending money faster than the results generated, drove the adoption of earned value management (EVM) to track spending alongside task accomplishment.  

According to EVM, HS2 may be on track: spending versus completed tasks. Hurrah! It may deliver outputs to cost and on time. But the project will be incomplete unless passenger train travel is central to our future digital world. Output alone is pointless without the outcome of ongoing benefit. 

For a project to be legitimate it must be complete. Project lead, sponsor and stakeholders must include in the original scope all that will be needed, including setting up the processes that follow project completion.  

As your holiday ends, you compare the tangible (travel) and intangible (hassle) costs with the benefits of sleep, sun and cheap booze to decide the overall value, which is negative. You judge value not benefits! 

Value = (tangible and intangible) benefits — effort 

In a valuable, legitimate project, benefits outweigh costs.  

These days, we’ve extended project execution from financial returns to social returns. Social projects aim to address long-standing, intractable problems that are often ill-defined or have been beneficial to one group at the expense of another. They have multiple causes and interdependencies. Unravelling them often leads to unexpected consequences. There is active pushback from the people who lose out. And worse, progress can be invisible and hard to measure as the metrics of success can be vague and varying. 

Unable to use money as the metric, benefits realisation is pushed to the front. As a project professional, you should be proud of contributing to such a project, but what additional skills will you need to ensure you do more good than damage?  

Value = (current and future, tangible and intangible) benefits — effort 

So how do we deliver social projects we will be proud of both now and in future? 

  1. Wherever the inception idea arises, before it takes shape, begin with the current stakeholders. They must define both benefit and cost, tangible and intangible. There will be many communities of stakeholders. You need to typify and group them as in a marketing campaign. When a benefit/effort is identified, work with them to make it concrete. “We will have electric vehicles, which means that we will have to make places for charging points, which means that you will have to plan your journeys in advance”. Make the definition and scope clear to everyone. 
  2. Pay attention to silent stakeholders. Use a method like a SlizedBred roleplay to guess what silent stakeholders would want. 
  3. Consider future stakeholders. Roll into the future. Pick out things that are inevitable, like the population ageing or new people moving in, as well as things that are likely. 
  4. Don’t cheat. Recently I heard a UK politician say: “Doing the right thing won’t get you re-elected.” I choked on my cup of tea. But what they meant by ‘right thing’ was not what their constituents wanted but what they wanted. Because they knew better. These days, with the advent of persuasion science, it is so easy to cheat. Easy to persuade the stakeholders to agree to something that will damage them. Don’t. 
  5. Chunk up effort to accelerate benefits. EVM was ineffective because in the 1960s projects were conceived as a long period of effort leading to an output. In our new world, big projects are broken into modules, chunked-up. Workstreams are groups of similar activities/people. Chunks are not workstreams.  


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