Seven truths behind successful projects

SUITS THE C-SUITE By Robert D. Cojuangco

Business World (08/31/2015 – p.S1/4)

(First of two parts)

As professionals, we organize “projects” to solve the problems of our working world. The structured grouping of similar initiatives to deliver on a goal, commonly referred to as “project,” has long been an efficiency tool in the management tool chest, and yet do we really know what a successful project looks like?

Analyzing a portfolio of projects, we have identified a number of key characteristics that have stood out from those undertakings that we can describe as “successful,” “failed” or “contested” (The Chaos Manifesto, 2013). These seven “truths” seek to stimulate thought on how to approach the structuring and implementation of projects in order to maximize the chances of delivering on the goal.

DEFINE WHAT IS IMPORTANT, SET YOUR GOAL

If all an organization does is clearly state the reason for change and identify how it seeks to deliver that change, it is already halfway to success. In order to do this, the organization needs to ask tough questions: what are the drivers, the internal and external factors that make the organization want to change the way things are currently being done? This situational analysis will then lead to the formulation of a “to-be” scenario where it can identify all the internal and external issues that are currently affecting it. A hypothesis would then be created about what needs to be done to get to the ideal “to-be” condition. It is here where things can turn sour quickly.

When stating how the project’s initiator wants to go from the current “as-is” to the ideal “to-be” conditions, it is easy to fall prey to motherhood statements that are high on vision but low on deliverability, or cutting and pasting another strategy that may not fit these particular circumstances. How can one tell the difference?

A popular project management tool is the SMART framework, which requires goals to be: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable and Time Bound. This first level check is then assessed against the internal and external drivers that have been identified to test the appropriateness of the goal to the particular situation. With the goal identified and its appropriateness determined, the project initiator can then progress to the details of the solution.

SET THE SCOPE, DELIVERABLES AND RESOURCES TO MATCH THE GOAL

A formal operating structure that defines the parameters of success for the project has to be in place before the project commences. The structure should cover the extent of what needs to be completed to meet the project goal. The outcomes required to complete the goal are then identified and grouped into manageable work ‘bites’ containing main tasks and sub- tasks, with increasing levels of detail which can then be used to link the end goal to the individual steps required to deliver the goal. Once completed, analysis of the structure is usually undertaken in order to consider the resources required to deliver the desired outcomes. This first pass analysis would ideally be a best case scenario where we are able to utilize a ‘wish list’ of resources. A second pass analysis would then be done to take into consideration possible constraints (budget, time, resources). This will form a road map for how the project is expected to unfold and will serve as a reference for all future actions.

MONITOR THE PROJECT APPROPRIATELY

Having a system that accurately tracks the project’s progress allows for 360 degree feedback, and provides risk identification and quantification protocols that feed a structured decision making process. This will in turn increase the project’s probability of successful delivery. In designing the system, it is important to strike a balance between capturing relevant data and filtering out clutter. The system should have the ability to track the progress of deliverables, monitor the status of the constraint items (budget, people and time), and contain enough operational data to make an inference on the drivers of progress.

Also, a risk assessment framework and the associated escalation matrix should be placed alongside the monitoring system to track potential deal breakers. The operational and risk data can provide the project management team with a means to find out the unintended consequences of the actions being undertaken, and how separate deliverable streams are affecting each other along with the general status of the project.

Last, a balance between the level of monitoring to the type and size of project has to be found. There are times when less is more, particularly for projects where micromanaging its different aspects can negatively impact productivity and team morale.

BE FLEXIBLE BUT KEEP THE GOAL IN MIND

Setting up a formal plan does not mean that the team can no longer deviate from the plan. In fact, a detailed plan will allow the project management team to understand how far they can deviate from each deliverable and still be able to attain the goal. Like a bamboo swaying in the wind with roots firmly planted in the ground, a successful project should have the built-in flexibility to change and address unexpected challenges as long as it stays true to the goal. It is here where experienced project managers make their mark in their ability to translate the data the monitoring system captures and to direct the action relative to the defined goals. It is under these conditions that project stakeholders and members should remember that the planned structure is only the best case scenario and requires effective project managers who understand how the project is progressing and who can make needed decisions.

In next week’s column, we will look at the other characteristics of successful projects, including communications and knowledge-sharing, executive leadership, and managing people resources.

Robert D. Cojuangco is a Senior Director for Advisory Services of SGV & Co.