A magic formula for project success?

In March 2015, MPs raised concerns about the future of the government’s £11bn programme to install energy-saving smart meters in the UK by 2020. They warned of “technical, logistical and public communication issues” that were causing implementation delays.

It is possible that the programme could join a litany of similarly expensive doomed public- and private-sector projects. Telecoms group TalkTalk recently abandoned its new internet-based customer service software. Meanwhile, the BBC cancelled its £100m Digital Media Initiative in 2013 and, back in 2011,the NHS famously scrapped its £12bn computer upgrade scheme.

So how can organisations and project managers best create the conditions for success and prevent embarrassment and expense?

Last year, APM conducted in-depth research entitled Conditions for Project Success. The research was based on a review of relevant literature along with interviews conducted with senior project professionals and educators.

The ‘success factors’ that were identified included eective governance with clear and regular communications between all parties, and clearly specified and recognised goals and objectives. They all encompassed named and active sponsors, a secure funding base with tight budget controls, thorough pre-project planning, regular monitoring, realistic time schedules and all suppliers being aware of a project’s needs.

So, if these factors are critical, why are they often not put in place?

Organised chaos
Projectplace, an online collaboration technology pioneer, offers some insight here. In its own research report, The Chaos Theory, it says: “Managing projects has never been so tough. Project managers are working longer hours as their bosses and stakeholders maximise productivity.” It found that projects were becoming more complex, with project professionals having to cope with smaller budgets and tighter timelines. Common challenges included managing geographically dispersed teams as well as maintaining data security and version control.

Keeping all team members motivated, engaged and working towards a common goal was another difficulty – and often exacerbated by poor communication. Indeed, the survey found that 37 per cent of project managers cited lack of communication between a team as the biggest collaboration challenge.

Survival strategies
Anthony Lewis, a project manager working on the UK smart meter roll-out for the Data Communications Company, believes that having small goals at the beginning of a project is key.

“You can say ‘we are going to implement ID cards by 2017,’ so you have a hard end date,” he says, “but everyone ends up careering towards that big goal and they don’t think about the small goals needed to get there. You have to start small because it is a new project and you don’t know if it is going to work. You have to have the flexibility to test and iterate.”

Lewis says that project managers should try to counsel sponsors from making big, sweeping statements about a project’s end goal. “That’s diffcult to do,” he admits. “But projects run late because they are too ambitious, too early. It’s fine to commit to a big goal such as president John F Kennedy saying that we will have a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, but that was a mission statement. It had to be iterated 11 times – so 11 missions – before it succeeded.”

Effective governance is essential to keep projects on track, according to Lewis. He advocates monthly project boards and weekly project calls. “You need good communication and a structure in place to ensure that you stick to the original business case.”

Project professionals also have to be conscious of senior sponsors losing their appetite for the project. “Perhaps it’s because the original sponsor has moved on, but you see a reduction in the availability of the senior team,” Lewis states. “If they lose interest, they never call you. But you can rekindle their interest by re-stating the project’s goals in a public forum, such as a project board.”

Intriguingly, Lewis raises the prospect of project professionals being brave enough to ‘can’ projects if they are not working. “More should be canned but project managers want them to go on,” Lewis says.

“Project boards also need to be braver. They need to look at the reality of a situation and say: ‘Are we going to achieve anything by continuing?’.”

Governance matters
Alan Shefveland, from project portfolio management solution provider Changepoint, agrees that project managers need to know that the support of senior sponsors will be maintained.

“Not just sponsors. The whole business must take positive ownership of the outcome,” he says. “Too often the top executives don’t participate. There is not enough understanding about how the project will impact on an organisation.”

He says project managers should ask: ‘Does the organisation have the overall capacity to take the changes?’.

“There is too much focus on completing the project without really understanding the goal and what company benefi ts it will bring,” he continues. “Good governance will ensure that, after the life cycle of the project, the changes will be absorbed into the company.”

Project professionals can play a role here, he suggests, by convincing the ‘C-suite’ in an organisation that their ownership and direct involvement in a project is “directly linked to how they are compensated”.

Casper Ryborg, head of PA Consulting Group’s project management practice, argues that the character of the project manager is also important. “At a start of a project, people are happy and selfconfi dent. But the project manager who starts off enthusiastically selling the project may not be the best person to drive it,” he says.

“They just don’t have the right capabilities when the scope of a project changes or things go wrong. They are not a good change leader. They see running a project on a day-to-day basis, dealing with governance, reporting, and prioritising resources as a bit boring. The skill sets are different.”

The scope of a project, he adds, can change if the people involved come up with new ideas to progress it or think that it could also solve other issues within an organisation that were not initially identified. “They move away from the project’s core idea. The scope changes dramatically,” Ryborg says. “It is easy, then, for a project manager to say, ‘I want more budget or more scope’ when really the right decision is to postpone or close a project. Is the discipline and governance of the project strong enough?”

He says that a “robust alignment” and strong governance are needed to deal with the inevitable scope change. “You have to discuss whether the scope change is really something you want to do and if it can be controlled for the good of the organisation. You must find the absolute minimum to deliver it with. That’s hard for project managers because they naturally like to do more,” he states. “They also like to be a big star, boasting that an initial £50m project has turned into a £100m one. They want to be the heroes.”

It is why the relationship between the project manager and the steering committee has to be “constructive, supportive, honest and proactive”.

Ryborg believes that project managers need to “supplement themselves” with someone who is happy and competent enough at doing those everyday, and sometimes grey, tasks.

“At PA, we use a profiling tool that matches the skills of a project manage with where a project’s life cycle is sitting,” he explains. “That leads you to either keeping the project manager, replacing them, or finding a supplementary person. It is a pity to lose the person who had all that momentum at the beginning.”

A project manager can recognise their own failings but only if they have the necessary experience. “When you have a mature project manager, they will recognise their strengths and weaknesses and ask themself: ‘Am I the right person for this project?’,” Ryborg says. “But it is still a taboo to say that you are not the person to take this project further. Most will stay with the challenge.”

Shefveland says that project managers also take on too many projects at one time, leading to stress. “If you have too many projects in play, you can have chaos,” he states.

Myths and misconceptions
Are there any myths or misconceptions about what signifi es a project’s success?

“The classic measures of success are ‘on time’, ‘on budget’ and ‘delivered the benefits case’,” Lewis says. “You don’t always get three out of three, or even one out of three. A lot of projects are on budget but don’t deliver benefi ts. Then there should be some soul-searching, asking did we do the best we could, could we have done anything better? Many project managers just go down the pub, say ‘Thank God’ and move on to the next one.”

He urges project managers to instead mix the beers with a discussion on the processes and systems undertaken so that “they can become more competent and ensure they make fewer mistakes”.

Shefveland says: “By the time some of my projects were done, the original owners had gone. They were no longer there, so the value of the project was no longer there. We were on time and on budget but one of the challenges of being a project manager is realising that you can be successful but not be successful.”

Adrian Dooley, of Praxis Framework, says it can take many years to truly measure success. “Success is not as easy to pin down as we like to think. The Millennium Dome and the Millennium Wheel are classic examples of projects that were once considered failures,” he says. “You can achieve your goals and objectives, but perceptions of success change over time.”

He believes it is too simplistic to list a series of checklists that project managers have to follow to ensure success.

“Every project is unique,” he says. “It is difficult to say: ‘Here are the top 10 reasons for failure.’ You can’t mechanise the process and turn it into a production line. It’s why we need project managers to be more holistic, more flexible and more sophisticated. They need to be intelligent – with the basic skills, but able to assess an environment and manage accordingly.”

Dooley argues that project managers and sponsors also need to take a realistic and mature view about the course that a project takes. “Everyone has to buy into it. You can’t keep all your stakeholders happy all of the time and you can’t be precise about every aspect,” he says. “At every junction you should make a sensible decision, keep in close contact with your team, and accept that the destination may not be the one that everyone initially thought we would reach. But the one we get to is one we are all still happy with.”

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