Three Keys to Getting Your Projects Under Control, Part 2

Idea clarity is key: Know exactly what you are trying to accomplish. You know you "have an idea" when you can answer the questions Where are you going? How are you going to get there? What will it cost? What is the payoff?

As organizations struggle to extract the expected value from projects they fund, managers are charmed by a wide array of fads, techniques, marketing hype and buzzwords. Every proposed solution trumpets its track record in some particular situation. But, once the "latest and greatest, new and improved" tool is actually deployed, more often than not, reality seems to walk productivity off the cliff. And the sponsor is left with late, deficient and over-budget deliverables.

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There are projects that deliver on time and within budget, but they are the exception rather than the rule. And frequently, these "successes" would not glow very brightly if management peeled back a reporting layer or two or rigorously compared what was delivered versus what was originally planned. Simply put—and the available statistics back up this statement—most projects are out of control.

According to the Standish Group, 70 percent of projects are over budget or behind schedule. The published research indicates that 52 percent of all projects finish at 89 percent of their initial budget. Parenthetically, there is no indication anywhere that 48 percent of all projects finish at 11 percent of their initial budget. If there were, the good would balance out the bad. But unfortunately, that's not the case. Most projects are out of control.

In the first article in this series, we explored the challenges created by segmenting projects into discrete chunks, one of the latest solutions sweeping the industry. First of all, the time required to maintain that approach frequently results in a significant loss of productivity; i.e., we don't get done any faster, but we know a lot more about where we are at any given point in time. And secondly, as organizational seasons change, the shifting winds and currents dilute the overall effort, frequently resulting in an overarching project being dropped midcourse. So, the legacy of the small and quick approach remains consistent with history.

Two decades of successful project management in IT, capital construction, engineering and aerospace have revealed three keys to getting projects under control: plug leaks, have an idea and go granular.

In the first article we explored the first key to getting projects under control: "Plug Leaks." You plug leaks by clearly defining and enforcing the acceptable range of diversion. In this article, we will explore the second key to getting your projects under control: "Have an Idea."

Have an Idea

There is one simple way to clarify the murk of multiple projects. Instead of vague targets like "improve" productivity or throughput or client experience, think in very concrete terms: "Have an idea." In other words, know exactly what you are trying to accomplish. You know you "have an idea" when you can answer these questions. Where are you going? How are you going to get there? What will it cost? What is the payoff?

Management sponsors projects to solve problems, but all too often, it is unclear what the relationship is between the cost of the problem, the ultimate savings associated with solving it and the investment required to solve it. And, every once in a while, managers need to climb on top of their desks to see the "big picture" and then communicate what they see. Lower-level people can't take the big picture into account if no one tells them what it is. At every decision point, every stakeholder needs to know more than just "turn left" or "turn right." They need to know whether the destination is Boston or L.A.

A major challenge to answering, How are you going to get there? And how much will it cost? arises when projects are planned by small groups that are insulated from the realities of what it takes to actually complete the assignment. Besides the burden of isolation, they often suffer even more because they are under the gun to complete a proposal within rigid time constraints.

For example, a team includes an arbitrary one-month lead time for securing a subcontractor, when in reality it takes six to eight weeks just to complete the RFP cycle, let alone the time required for negotiations and contract sign-off. Or someone reviewing a proposal changes the scope or terms without adequate feedback because "that's what the client wants; we'll have to make it happen."

The last question may be the most important one: What is the payoff of completing the project? The core of "Have an idea" is identifying the quantifiable benefit, and then highlighting it regularly at all levels.

For example, what would it take to specify a new dam and electric power plant? You would have to begin by clearly defining the payoff. You can have a need for more electricity, a suitable site, and the resources to build and maintain such a plant, but it is not feasible if it will not generate enough revenue. That is the payoff, the quantified benefit.

This will not only deepen the team's commitment to the result but also reduce the impact of environmental shifts. Because the team understands where it is going, how it is going to get there, how much it will cost and the payoff, when there is a shift in management or some new buzzword sweeps the industry, the changes it brings will fold into the project instead of derailing it.

So, to reiterate, you "have an Idea" when management and team members can specifically answer the questions: Where are you going? How are you going to get there? What will it cost? What is the payoff?

Having now covered the second key to getting projects under control, "Have an Idea," along with the first key, "Plug Leaks," in the next, and last, article in this series will explore the last key: "Go Granular."

John Troyer has more than 20 years of successful experience leading teams as a project, program, implementation, deployment and department manager in a wide variety of disciplines and environments including DoD, aerospace engineering, IT, capital construction, finance, procurement and cost reduction.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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