Internal projects naturally drive additional business activity and costs but our experience at ThinkEvans indicates they do not always result in an appropriate return on investment. So what is going wrong? Here we look at some of the classic issues we see in businesses and suggest a few actions to start successfully delivering the projects that matter.
Risking oversimplification there are three main areas to consider: Deliberate Projects, Landing Delivery and Sustaining Change. These are just as applicable for a centralised program office, within a business unit or for the whole team in a small business.
Symptoms: For many projects, good ideas are not a problem. In fact, the opposite is often the case. Typically, walk into any business (for profit or not for profit) and you will see that project activity is everyday work for many people. At best, this means that some will work and make a sustained contribution to the organisation’s purpose.
However – and it is a big and unfortunately common “however” – at worst no one can say how many projects are running, which projects support the strategic vision, or represent highest priority activity. Priorities are confusing and nightmare-ish, and create needless anxiety and overwork. Typically, staff involved will quickly point out very common complaints – projects that miss looking at the bigger picture, scope which is limited to the remit of the exec leading the charge, managers failing to consider the end-to-end process and consequences of change.
Classic root causes: In our experience these scenarios arise when the fundamental failure to link projects to agreed organisational outcomes means that prioritisation is not actually led and exec management is not working collegiately to guide projects, and project activity is run within business areas/units with little or no reporting to keep other the broader business informed.
Better Prioritisation: Firstly register projects in a central place noting information such as objective, scope, cost, resource requirements, timings and return on investment. Use this to form the positive intention to develop an organisation-wide view that informs senior decision making. Review and agree on the priority projects as a exec management team including scope in each case. Priorities vary of course but as an example approve projects which deliver statutory changes, support the strategic vision (growth, cost reduction, diversification, consolidation etc) and meet return on investment criteria. Importantly allocate an exec sponsor to take accountability for delivery, within greed timelines and budgets.
Symptoms: It is a truism that organisations typically have projects that are overdue, over budget, under delivering, have no apparent benefits or which are outright failures. It would be unsurprising if progress reports were ad hoc or even not documented, benefits tracking was voluntary and often missed. Project Managers would likely mention that they have little influence within the business, roadblocks appear and issues never get resolved essentially making them ineffective. Change fatigue may also be a factor. Look for frustration, insecurity, and higher churn rates.
That said, this is normal. Project work inevitably takes the organisation into the unknown and learning from the experience is crucial. So the more important steps are to routinely take stock and risk management projects, looking at root causes.
Classic root causes: Some of the issues could be clear project accountability is not in place, projects are not planned to stagger costs and resource impacts, there is a poor track record of accurately predicting costs and impacts, executive project governance fails to remove roadblocks, and project management competency relies on innate talent and experience, engage, influence, manage, track and report change.
Delivering Change: Delivery is largest driver of project cost, committing resources to thoughtful planning, engaging the business and tracking will enhance the likelihood of successful delivery. Map the areas impacted by projects and include a consideration of the level of change impacting in addition to planning cost and resource impacts. Communicate and communicate more, successful change relies on engaging people before and taking them on the journey, regularly update the whole business. Asses the project management competency of your change agents – it is not a role for the fair hearted, or those who don’t enjoy interacting with co-workers as a central part of their role. Clear project executive sponsorship, regular progress reports and holding project managers play a large part in delivery. The level of reporting should match the maturity of the business and project importance and could range from a few agreed metrics with risks and issues through to a delivery dashboard with ROI probability.
Symptoms: Implemented changes quickly or slowly revert with time, this behaviour is unsurprising and in fact, is generally expected. The lack of process to monitor continued activity allows changes to revert and in many cases lack of documentation is used as an excuse to return to the old status quo.
Classic root causes: Failing to adjust budgets for projects delivering savings is common for a range of reason yet the result is the same, no benefits are realised. The people impacted by change may feedback poor engagement, inadequate training, communications and handover documentation. Post-project performance reporting could have been an oversight, audits and ‘top-up’ interventions are either inadequate or ineffective.
Embedded Change: A pain-free project is unlikely; however, on the whole the business should feel the change was delivered ‘with’ them and not ‘at’ them. The drivers of sustained change are not after the project, they are during the prioritisation and the delivery. Focusing project activity only on those strategically important projects, communicating the importance and the realised benefits, engaging the people who are impacted and demonstrating delivery accountability all reflect the serious intention and expectation to change the business.
Smart money sets up successful change by focusing on the right projects, engaging the business and checking for high quality delivery at each stage of the project. Not-so-smart money is thrown at projects which failed to be delivered or don’t stick. Wasted money is spent on projects with no strategic value. Projects are an investment and, like any investment, setting criteria to focus funding and monitoring return are essential.