Uncertainty is higher than ever – yet it is essential that business executives and sponsors lead and move forward, taking on the more challenging decision making process, and accepting there is less certainty about the future. This means finding answers to questions such as:
- How do we deliver results at pace so we can respond fast enough?
- How do we ensure we can deliver the transformation and results we require?
- We have more pressure on our teams than ever – how do we manage that?
A more traditional response may see the often already scarce programme team resources spread even more thinly and allocated to support a number of workstreams or projects. This may be because the number of programmes and projects now required needs to increase. Or perhaps the portfolio of change remains at the same level of commitment but there are fewer people to deliver it.
Project and programme staff are naturally positive and eager to solve problems so will almost always take on these challenges with the resources available and the agreed deadlines. But delivery on time, to cost and expected quality (and therefore the achievement of outcomes and benefits) is at greater risk than before, as is the health and wellbeing of the team.
There are alternatives…prioritisation
Instead of focusing on ‘how do we spread our scarce set of resources across everything we need to deliver?’ let's consider ‘how can we get the best out of our people, at the same time as delivering at pace, and optimising the business benefits?’.
Let’s look at an example: We have three projects to deliver in six months. Instead of asking the project team to manage all three across the six months, imagine instead that Project One becomes the team’s first and only priority. Crucially, we allocate all of the resource to delivering this project at pace. Once the project is complete we move onto the next project, again being 100 per cent focused on its successful completion. When this is complete, we then move onto the third. The scope of work, and resource assigned remains constant, so in theory it still all gets completed in six months – we've just organised ourselves differently.
For a team there are clear benefits; they have clarity of purpose and no distractions, and they can focus and be more productive working together rather than competing for management time. Sounds good. Another benefit is that we have also just improved our business case at the same time.
The resources required through the life of the programme have remained the same. In our example we need the same people to deliver the three projects over the six months. So we are cost neutral. Yet we are also able to realise some benefits earlier than before. Project One starts delivering benefits four months earlier and Project Two, two months earlier. So if we’re looking at cashable cost reductions, where time is literally money, our year one impact has just increased.
Simple enough as a concept? Of course, but who decides who goes first and why? There are stakeholder needs, dependencies and even egos to manage through this prioritisation approach and the big picture must remain front and centre.
The final advantage of this approach is learning and identifying opportunities for improvement through leveraging the delivery experience. In delivering Project One we understand more about the programme environment, the customers and beneficiaries, and what will work here. We also learn more about what will not work, we can fail fast, and include this learning in how we develop subsequent projects.
This brings us to a different approach.
Prioritisation plus agility
Our approach, project prioritisation, works well in iterative and linear life cycles, but can a more agile approach produce even better results? We think it can. If we take the basic premise of our prioritisation approach – that project delivery teams are allocated full time to projects or products in priority order – and apply an agile approach, we believe better outputs, outcomes and benefits can be realised.
As indicated in the diagram here, after the first set of sprints and completion of Project One there is a period of analysis/retrospectives to inform the next project – and all of the remaining projects. This analysis is repeated when Project Two is completed. By doing so the products and outputs will be enhanced as we learn the lessons from the earlier projects and respond to changes in the external environment, enabling us to adapt future delivery of sprints and increments.
This time the cost position may be improved/better than cost neutral, and the benefits gained even higher. Through the application of the analysis and retrospectives the requirements are enhanced to the point that they are much clearer when we reach Project Three. You might find benefits have already been delivered so you can reduce the scope and team required to deliver later projects. Or you might find that changes based on real feedback and experience can drive higher benefits.
The way forward?
A new way of thinking about resource allocation to tackle the inevitable pressures to deliver at increasing pace requires bravery to say ‘Let’s stop everything except this one thing’. Even so, there are various advantages to understand, including that the projects ‘on pause’ can still be delivered either on or ahead of the original schedule.
Of course, there is more to it than this, but by highlighting some basic principles we hope to convey how a prioritisation and agile approach might benefit you, your projects and your teams. As we face the continued challenges of 2021, we may all benefit from increased focus and clarity of direction, as well as the satisfaction of seeing early results from our efforts.
Image: Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock.com, and author's own.
You may also be interested in:
- What is agile project management?
- The APM Podcast episode: VUCA, hybrid and adaptability
- Choosing the right life cycle approach (APM Learning 🔒)
This blog was co-written by Richard McDermott and Gill Hunter
Gill Hunter is an Associate Director at RPMC.