Thoughts –

A ‘project’ is a tricky thing to define. It’s a bit like describing a dog to a Martian. Pekinese and Great Danes are both dogs, but one is small, fluffy and barks a lot, and the other is very large, short-haired, and doesn’t need to make a sound to get it’s point across. I could say that a project is “a quantifiable piece of work, with a specific end goal, and a target start and end date”. But cleaning out my fridge between Christmas and New Year fits that definition. Is that a project? Maybe. I’ll try coming at it through the back door: what’s not a project? Similar work that’s repeated on a regular cycle. Like cleaning out my fridge once a month? You see the problem.

I’ll stop trying to nail the definition. After all, most of us have worked on a project, at home or at the office, so we intuitively know what one is. What then are the characteristics of this ‘project dog’?

Projects have a particular energetic pattern. They begin with enthusiasm and excitement. Then they move into a period of just getting on with it, peppered with anxiety (sometimes verging on panic) over whether or not it will ever be over. Then there’s a final burst of energy as the end comes in sight, and finally, (if we are lucky) there’s a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at a job well done.

While every project is different, because the goal, circumstances, and team composition are always a unique combination, all successful projects pass quickly or slowly through six phases. Using the analogy of building a house to describe these phases, or stages, is helpful because most of us intuitively understand the work involved:

  1. Decide what kind of house you want – create the vision of it. How many bedrooms and bathrooms? Do you want a suite for your mother-in-law? Think about your budget and how long you can wait before you move in. (And then think again about how many bathrooms you want.)
    This is the scoping and requirements phase
  2. Make the architectural drawings. Decide on the kind of materials and finish. Get an engineer to make sure that there will be no surprises when the foundations are being poured.  Get approval from City Hall.
    This is the design phase
  3. Assemble a crew with the right skills and experience to do the job. Work with them on refining the schedule and the budget so you’ll have a reasonable idea of when you’ll be able to move in, and how much you’ll owe the bank when it’s all done.  Choose who is going to make the final decisions if you and other members of your family disagree about the tile for the kitchen or which faucets you want in the en-suite.
    This is the resourcing and detailed planning phase.
  4. Build the house. Make sure all the members of the crew knows what they are to work on and when. Bring them coffee and muffins, go and pick up the extra paint – if that’s what’s needed to keep the job on track. Make the tough decisions: got to say goodbye to that Italian wallpaper. Deal with the issues: the electrician is not going to give up vodka, better look for another.
    This is the development phase
  5. Get the inspections done. Walk through from basement to attic and make sure everything works and has been done according to the specifications. Make a list of deficiencies and work with the crew to get them fixed.
    This is the test phase.
  6. Move in. Have the house warming party. (Don’t forget to invite the crew!) Move the sofa to the other wall, if it looks better there. Let the kids swap rooms if they really want to. Get to know the neighbors, find your favorite restaurant. Start thinking about putting another bedroom over the garage.
    This is implementation and sustainment.

What makes a project successful?

An unfortunate characteristic of projects, particularly big, expensive ones, is that quite a few of them fail. Luckily, they often fail for the same reasons so we can come up with some golden rules for success.

  1. Be very clear about what you want to achieve
  2. Many projects begin with a solution when they should begin with a problem.

    “We need a new computer system!”
    “Why?”

    “Because the reports we get from the one we have are all wrong.”

    Digging into the problem of the reports presenting inaccurate information might reveal that the staff who are producing them were never trained, and don’t have any documentation.

    Step one: understand the problem. Step two: define the solution.

  3. Keep the scope within manageable boundaries
  4. Sometime we allow the scope of a project to grow too large.

    “If we are going to change the computer system, we should reorganize the department and change everyone’s job descriptions at the same time.”

    It’s hard sometimes to know when to stop. Making incremental changes, is not only easier to manage, it’s also easier for the organization to absorb.

  5. Keep the four corners balanced
  6. Projects have four ‘legs’ like a table: scope, budget, schedule, and team resources. These four legs need to kept in proportion to one another, or the project will be off-balance and its chances of success compromised. If the scope ‘leg’ gets too long, or the schedule or budget ‘legs’ are cut too short, or the team looses a key person or two, then the project will become unbalanced and a lot of the team’s efforts will be diverted to preventing it from collapsing.  It’s tempting for sponsors, for example, to choose an implementation date that makes sense for the organization, or for the finance department to pre-determine a budget without closely considering the scope of work and the resources available to do the job. This is the equivalent of taking a saw to the table’s legs. The size and composition of the team, the budget allocated to the project, and the implementation date need to all be in balance with one another, and with the scope of work.

  7. Make one person accountable
  8. The buck eventually has to stop with someone, and it’s better to decide who that should be right from the start. The person with ultimate accountability is often called ‘the sponsor’. The sponsor delegates responsibility for specific decisions and tasks to others in the organization. These people, sometimes called ‘the stakeholders” can, in turn, delegate to other team members. This kind of hierarchical model can be viewed as not sufficiently collaborative, but collaboration is a way of working, not a governance model. Teams collaborate more effectively if there is someone there to make a decision when an agreement is not possible.

  9. Keep everyone informed and tell them what you want from them
  10. Everyone who will be affected by the changes the project will introduce needs to know what’s happening, why, and what’s expected of them. They also need a way of responding. This is the essence of two-way, “action-oriented communication”.  It’s tempting for the team to say, “we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet” or “the plan keeps changing, it will just confuse people to tell them one thing this week and another the next”. It might, but in absence of information, people make it up, and fiction is almost always scarier than fact. Even if the fact is that you don’t know yet.

  11. Lead the people, manage the tasks
  12. It’s important to know if the work is on schedule and if the budget is going to be sufficient, but it’s the people who get the work done. Most people perform at their best when they are led not managed. Leaders know what the individuals on their teams are good at doing. Whenever they can, leaders give their team members work that uses their skills and strengths. Leaders give clear direction, they offer support when it’s needed, they praise success publically, and they correct privately. Working well in a team environment demands generosity, openness and mutual support. Happy individuals make happy teams.

What makes a project worthwhile?

Organizations initiate projects because they see the need to change something -to fix a problem, to grow, to reach new markets, to become more competitive… Sustaining the changes implemented by a project is a different animal from developing and rolling it out.
Implementing a project typically means that people have to change the way they work. They may be using new tools, they may have different tasks to perform, they may be working with a new group of people, or be reporting to a different manager. These changes frequently mean learning new skills, adapting to new routines, and building new relationships. The secret sauce to sustaining change has three ingredients:

  1. Knowing what’s expected
  2. Having the skills and knowledge to do the work
  3. Knowing how success will be measured

Mixing and applying the secret sauce relies on communication, training and documentation. Organizations who successfully sustain the changes they paid for do it by building in these three elements into the project plan from the beginning.

Bringing the vision into being and reaching the project’s goals is the obvious pay-back for doing the work, but sometimes, it’s not what benefits the organization the most. A team’s experience of working on a successful project can shift the energy in the workplace from ordinary to extraordinary, increasing loyalty, commitment, innovation and productivity. The experience can be a career-changer for individuals too. People who are seconded onto a project can discover skills they didn’t know they had, and can learn new skills. They can see develop new perspectives on the organization from seeing it from a different vantage point.

I’ve seen individuals get promotions. I’ve seen others change careers. I’ve witnessed organizations get such a confidence boost from a successful project that they develop new lines of business, go international, and win new clients.

The experience of working in a high functioning team, for project managers and team members is often a reward in itself. High functioning teams have very specific characteristics:

  • Team members support one another’s success – they trust one another’s skills, make up for each other’s limitations, and celebrate achievements
  • They collaborate, which means that they strive for solutions that work for the project as a whole
  • They communicate – they openly share what they know, never hoarding information for personal advantage
  • Everyone works to keep the focus on the end goal

Any organization that includes people with the experience of being in a high functioning team has to benefit from it!