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Making Projects Work

13 August 2008

Key to many FM projects or change management initiatives is the IT function and its network of crucial systems to support the business, human resources, and the built environment. David Walton offers strategic guidance on getting it right

FAILURE IN BUSINESS IS GREATLY FEARED as it attracts criticism and generates negative press. In this context, IT projects stand out above all others, for example, huge public sector schemes that end up costing too much, being delivered too late, not meeting performance or quality expectations, or simply being cancelled.

For the facilities manager, the IT issue can become a nightmare if an organisation undertakes a major relocation, often used as a catalyst to bring in new systems. In less ambitious projects, such as a refurbishment, the accommodation of IT systems and associated staff can still be a major headache. Both scenarios represent highly disruptive risks to business continuity.

However, the purpose of this article is not to talk about operational processes, but the fundamental principles underpinning successful outcomes. How can you plan to get the best result in practice? Planning is done in meetings and deskwork is where different ideas can be discussed. Get it wrong and later, when plans are being physically implemented, it may be too late and costly to make corrections. True, there are
sophisticated project management software tools, but few if any give you a strategic overview: the essential dashboard that simply tells you everything is running smoothly, or where there are risks.

● Values and outcomes: To achieve success there are several key factors that must be kept uppermost and continually reviewed throughout the project. Step one is fundamental: In many cases the root cause of a failure may be traced back to the start of the whole idea, before planning has even begun. In short, the underlying business case may be flawed.

The principle here is agree what value is expected to be delivered by the investment, over its lifespan: be absolutely clear about the whole point of spending the money. Identifying and specifying the desired outcome and value factors right at the beginning will help the project or programme achieve its real purpose.

To make this task easier frameworks and techniques are available. One particularly successful approach is called outcome driven project management (ODPM). In major projects and multi-project programmes it provides a structured way to help managers see real business needs, define measurable outcomes, and achieve what is desired.

Attention to strategic results, supported by proven activity and resource planning, is in contrast to the usual short term fixation with delivery on time, to budget, and meeting the requirements specification. There is nothing wrong with these essential goals, but that is only half the story: the real aim is to achieve overall benefits realisation and return on capital over the lifetime of the investment.

Essentially, change management is about risk. Whether you are moving to new facilities or staying put and refurbishing, all these endeavours introduce new levels of risk – will the move be done in time? Where are the cost traps? Will this new technology work? To comprehensively address risk, we use a workshop to bring sponsors and the project team together. This ensures everyone gains a unified understanding of true purpose and desired business benefits.

An interactive workshop also overcomes another management issue: the tendency for project managers to work in relative isolation. Bringing the supply (project managers) and demand (client) sides together improves comprehension and agreement. It also reduces risk by exposing and eliminating what is unrealistic, or wishful thinking – all wasteful factors that may incur some aspect of extra cost. Assumptions are risks, so qualify, quantify and justify everything at the start.

● Projects and Programes: There is an important difference between a project and a programme. Programmes are typically large and complex, made up of many inter-dependent projects and sub-projects. They are designed to bring about a major business change or transformation. A programme manager faced with multiple projects, many resources and often hundreds of activities must be selective about the crucial areas upon which to focus, i.e. those key factors that will make or break the desired outcome and where value can either be lost or gained.

The person responsible for the programme, or sponsor of the investment, doesn’t need to understand or get involved in minute details. If attempted, critical issues are likely to be missed altogether. The challenge is to identify when and where to drill down into ‘at risk’ areas that need sorting out. After resolving a potential or actual issue the director must quickly return to a strategic view of the programme.

● Wishful thining: Projects work best when there is least sense of fear and more tangible and positive support. I have run many programme health checks that resulted in a critical diagnosis or a ‘Red’ delivery status. Yet the programme manager confidently told his sponsor that the programme was fit and healthy, and running at ‘Green’ status.

This may happen because the manager fears telling the sponsor about major difficulties. An ‘emperor’s new clothes’ denial of never reporting red status (until a problem that could have been rescued erupts into a major crisis) often pervades the whole programme. It can result in issues that will suppress the desired outcomes. This mistaken approach carries a high risk and invariably there comes a point when corrective action becomes impossible.

If the programme culture is honest and supportive, any risks to realising desired outcomes should be flagged to the programme director, or steering committee, for timely help and resolution. The delivery status of the project or programme must be objectively defined, rather than being a subjective opinion. Contrary to what many project managers think, most project sponsors, directors and stakeholders will in fact take timely bad news, but what they won’t accept is late bad news.

A well-proven, systematic framework and related processes is paramount. This approach entails jointly agreeing with project managers the milestones that need to be promoted or escalated to a programme level. If a promoted milestone in a project slips, then the slippage appears on the programme plan. It signals to the director to ‘drill down’ and sort the problem. Similarly, it is advisable to put in place effective programme risk and issue registers (agreed in the workshop). When one of these risks is not being mitigated, or an issue is hard to resolve, use of the right tools will signal a need to take timely and corrective action before it is too late.

● The right tools: Planning for change should involve both the supply side project managers and the the demand-side client, but each will want – from the same source of data and information – their own particular views of the project or programme.

Project planners use the operational language and graphics of Gantt charts and other processoriented, workflow tools. Business managers don’t understand or need to know about this technical level. They are more interested in the big picture, including a high level format of milestones and associated checks and balances. To aid communication and create ‘joined-up’ management make sure each participant has a view of the project in terms they can understand, that are appropriate to their needs.

Luckily for project managers they have a wide choice of tools: packaged software that automates the complicated demands of managing and balancing time, cost and other resources to get the job done. These tools tend to be complex, with a hefty if not excessive amount of functionality. That’s fine for the individual project manager, whose head is under the bonnet, making sure everything is working as it should be.

Senior management lacks this choice; there are few relevant programme and portfolio management tools designed specifically to see what’s going on in their terms, i.e. allowing milestones to be set, and risk and value management ‘what-ifs’ to be performed. Strategic tools of this kind – in effect executive information systems (EIS) - work from the top down, not like project management tools, which work from the bottom-up. The latter are too cluttered with ‘under-the-bonnet’ details relevant to project management and lack the ‘dashboard dials’ directors need.

The high-level tool should be positioned above and integrated with project management software. It will let senior management check throughout the lifecycle of the programme or constituent projects before, during and after delivery, that outcomes are likely to be achieved. If a risk is identified, appropriate and timely corrective action can be taken, before any crisis is reached.

To summarise, several approaches and methods may be used to ensure more certain outcomes to projects and programmes. Certainty means ensuring the right thinking takes place before the planning stage is started, checking the business case is robust and as complete as possible. Involve the project or programme management team and the sponsors of the investment in an early, collaborative workshop to identify and minimise risk. Remember to keep things simple and above all, think about the lifecycle of the investment and full benefits realisation: the outcomes that are expected beyond the delivery stage. This will avoid your relocation or refurbishment project running the risk of failure.

David Walton is MD of Bestoutcome, a consultancy firm that specialises in project and programme management for large and complex change programmes, including the improvement of IT efficiency and effectiveness, methods and training.

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