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How to make a data project a success

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Despite significant advancements in project management theory over the past 50 years, we continue to see projects that are held back by a number of issues, and data seems to be a core part of this.  

In my current role as Principal Programme Controls Manager for Wales & Western Region at Network Rail, I am fortunate to be surrounded by a fantastic team, and we have been working to address some of these data-specific issues on projects over the past few years.  

Get the data you need – faster 

Our team has modernised its approach to programme controls, reporting and analysis by introducing new techniques and technologies to enable data-informed decision-making. We have developed several solutions, including: 

  • a set of automated reports for the organisation, saving around 12,000 hours per year compared with manual generation via spreadsheets 
  • a database for change request papers, saving around 9,700 hours per year compared with spreadsheets, printed papers and wet signatures 
  • an automated method of commentary collection, saving around 4,800 hours per year compared with using email or spreadsheets 

This means that the project teams no longer have to log in to several disparate systems to download, cleanse and analyse their data; nor do they need to search through emails and file systems to find the latest version of a change paper or project commentary. Instead, the teams now have full transparency of the project position in one place, which means project reviews are spent discussing project issues rather than data issues. 

The road to success 

My key piece of advice for data projects is: don't wing it. Learn it and do it properly. Make sure you hold practical knowledge about what the data entails and what you are looking to achieve with it. In our team, we are all technically skilled in our domain and we focus on doing the right things properly rather than doing things quickly. The road to failure is paved with superficial sticking-plaster solutions! 

The biggest challenge is the perception of technology 

I think the biggest challenge (and opportunity for success) comes from the perception of technology. It's important to remember that technology is an enabler and not a solution in and of itself. Projects are all about people, and so it is more important to develop a project solution together with the project team and work to genuinely tackle their needs than to create a glossy tool that just increases project workload.  

We strongly believe in this approach and have never mandated the use of our systems; instead, we prefer to develop effective systems that draw people in because they make their work easier. 

Learn from other projects and share what you know 

To make our systems and techniques simple and accessible, we take inspiration from a wide variety of sources. This includes colleagues in other departments, of course, but we also go beyond this and take inspiration from websites and mobile applications, as these allow us to develop a better user experience for our project teams. 

As passionate believers in the use of data for the greater good, we have shared our experiences and the lessons we learned within our organisation, as well as with other organisations and professional associations. If you're curious, you can view our ‘Raiders of the Lost Knowledge’ webinar on the APM website or on YouTube. 

The biggest lesson 

Perhaps the main lesson we would wish to share would be: don't count your milestones before they've ‘hatched’. We have often seen data-focused projects that are full of high promise and glossy slides, but ultimately fail to deliver the promised benefits. The approach taken by our team has been one of collaborative development alongside project teams, taking small objectives and delivering work in stages, rather than big, aspirational promises. This has resulted in long-lasting relationships and resilient solutions. 

Look out for the spring 2023 issue of Project journal, which features an in-depth interview with Milla 


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