Businesses of all sizes embark on thousands of projects for new products and services every year. Unfortunately, most projects are doomed to fail outright, or at launch, because the original success criteria were not met. Some project failures lead to delays in product launches, such as the AirBus A380; others, like Boston's Big Dig, incur huge cost overruns. These examples, as well as the results from survey after survey, show that American businesses have not been able to figure out how to consistently get products and services delivered on time, on budget and with the highest quality.
Why is that?
Businesses invest a great deal each year in people, consultants, processes and technology to improve project success rates, but to no avail. Don't get me wrong, there are individual examples of excellence, and success rates have improved over the years, but there has not been the kind of dramatic increase that one would expect given the size of the investments businesses have made.
The bottom line is, businesses can talk a good game, but the majority are not ready or willing to make the "true" investments needed to achieve meaningful change—the type of change that will deliver on time, on budget, and with high quality near 100 percent of the time. There are eight steps that, if followed as a single unit and truly embraced by the entire organization, provide the roadmap to project management perfection.
It is critical to start with a solid foundation. The foundation must be built at the organizational level and not with individuals. It is imperative that, from the CEO down, there is understanding and buy-in when it comes to defining or redefining the following items:
- Roles and Responsibilities: This can be painstaking, but the effort will pay off when it's time to execute. The exercise may outline the need to develop new organizational structures to better support efficiency and communication within the delivery teams.
- Standards: The creation of a project management methodology will allow for consistency in delivery and terminology. An added benefit can be bringing new employees on board who rapidly move up the learning curve and thereby provide immediate value.
- Policies: Having a set standard and a consistent methodology provides the platform to document and enforce policies. It's difficult to document when things are moving quickly and always changing, but taking the time to do so will provide benefits such as improved control measures. Performing audits allows you to proactively identify risks and gives you the ability to mitigate them before they turn into a true problem.
It's important to know where and when to make investments to achieve the goals of the business. Unfortunately, there are always more ideas than there are resources to execute them. Therefore, organizations need to formalize a process for evaluating which new projects should be approved. The process must define the decision-making criteria that will be used during the evaluation, and also take into consideration the firm's capacity and capabilities to successfully deliver the projects.
Without people—or more importantly, the right people—the ability to succeed as a business is near impossible. Your resources were hired for specific reasons, such as unique skill sets or deep industry experience. Creating an environment for success is crucial to your business and to their careers. Taking the time to match the staffing needs for a new project with the skills you already have is critical.
4. Goals and Objectives
It happens way too often that team members don't understand why they are doing what they are doing. They don't know how important their project or task is to the success of the business. It is critical that goals are clearly defined for every project, from corporate initiatives down to one-off departmental projects. It is also important that they all tie together. Even the smallest project should support corporate goals in some way.
One of the true single points of failure to the success of any project is the lack of control, specifically around scope and budget. Most people realize that for every action there is a reaction, but for some reason that logic goes out the window when it comes to a project. How many times have you heard, "My request is easy" or "This is just a small change." Project stakeholders say these things without realizing the impact of their "small change" on the project plan or budget. In order to succeed, project stakeholders must understand that a change to the scope, timeline or budget for a project will produce a failed project if those variables aren't subsequently adjusted to accommodate the change. As well, project managers need to define a strong change control process that is embraced from the highest levels down. This is not easy, but if accomplished, it will allow you to deliver your product and services on time and on budget.
"Joe, how's the project coming along? Well Frank, let me check the Magic Eight Ball." I say that in jest, but it's true that many businesses do not formally and concisely track the status of projects. It is critical that you and your team fully know and document a project's progress, stakeholders' commitments, results achieved, and the leading indicators of success as well as potential failure. The knowledge from the information gathered from your monitoring will determine the decisions that are made; the course of corrections that may be needed; and the comfort that your projects are being tracked. There needs to be transparency into and accountability to the plan, goals, budget and scope in order to achieve confidence that the information is accurate and actionable.
Goals have been set, plans have been created, and commitments have been made. After all that work, it would be a shame to not know if project objectives were quantifiably met. Being able to define, capture and track the metrics surrounding each project and the entire portfolio of projects is a must have for any executive and management team. There are many methodologies, such as Six Sigma, that place a great deal of importance in the ability to capture and quantify success or failure. There is a lot of power in black and white data. You set the bar and there is only one answer—yes or no—at the end when asked if it was a success. The data and the history that is captured will pay benefits when making initial decisions during the evaluation step. You can baseline the proposed project against those in the past and determine what changes may be needed in order to give a new proposal the best chance to succeed and not repeat past problems. You can only learn from your past if the past has been documented for reference.
Even in the most successful projects there is always something that could have been done better. Being able to capture those lessons will enable an organization improve its project delivery capability and deliver more complex and challenging projects in less time, for less cost. I highlight the following three areas for improvement:
- Invest in people: Improve the skill sets of your people with training and by giving them challenging project assignments.
- Continual improvement: Formalize a process to capture the lessons learned for each project. That process should also outline how recommendations for change are prioritized, approved and implemented. As with other items, measure the progress of each step and each approved recommendation to determine if its goals were met.
- Project technology: Be on the lookout for how technology can help increase the efficiency and quality of your project delivery.
These eight steps, if individually implemented, can improve your ability to get your products and services to market on time and on budget. But if you implement these eight steps collectively as a single unit, your business will gain a greater competitive edge, increase quality, enhance its agility, and most importantly, improve client satisfaction. Your clients will sing your praises if they are able to get their products and services delivered when promised and on budget. So don't wait! Take action now and implement your eight step program today.
Ron Ponce is president of Fog City Consulting, a San Francisco-based program and project management consulting firm, which specializes in determining and implementing unique solutions for small businesses that enable them to scale their capacity, efficiency and delivery, thus allowing them to take control of their business project initiatives. He can be reached here.