How planning, proactivity and PMaaS prevent poor performance projects
Over the course of this year, I have been asked to consult on many IT Projects. As always, I consider this a huge privilege, and nothing gives me greater pleasure than helping an organisation achieve successful project outcomes.
The reasons that project teams ask for help are manyfold, sometimes the project is more complex than the client's in-house capability and experience, at other times a stretched portfolio requires more resources and then at other times a client may have no in-house facility and need end to end Project Management Office services.
Then .... there are the emergency cases.
There have been many surveys and studies on how many projects fail over the years and they have pretty much all been above the 50% mark. Imagine if over half of trains were late, or over half of hospital patients didn't survive operations, or over a season Manchester United lost over half of their games, actually that last one is a bad example right now, but you get my point. Questions would be asked in any other industry facing such failure rates.
We took a look at the reasons behind many of the emergency calls that we had received, and a trend started to emerge, they seemed to fall into two main categories.
Planning and Proactivity. As with most project problems potential solutions are available in the Project Management as a Service market, more on that later but first let's drill down a little deeper.
Let's start with ...
1 - Planning ...
"Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance" (and slightly more colourful variations of this) has become a bit of a business cliché over the years.
Despite this, many projects are starting without the necessary level of planning.
Often, projects are started too quickly because of well-intentioned over excitement. Let's face it, when you have pitched an idea that you are passionate about and you get the green light - it is understandable that you want to crack on as a soon as possible. Subsequently, we are seeing projects run aground later because the planning phase was rushed, and not enough consideration was given to risk or any potential issues or concerns, in a recent case, even concerns that were flagged up by a client were overlooked by a project team who rushed at their project like an over-enthusiastic Labrador puppy! In these times of increasing complexity, it is more and more essential that teams put proper care into the planning phase.
Before we lay all the blame at the project team's door, clients can have a hand in disrupting the planning stage too. In a recent case, a client's over-reliance on their project partner caused problems as both service provider and client assumed that each other was asking the right questions to plan for any challenges that might occur.
In another, the client had not initiated an IT Project for a long time and assumed that the project was within the capability of their in-house team, the team was rusty, and the new project was more complex than previous ones. They soon reached out for help but not until after the project had started - proper planning would have flagged these potential concerns ahead of them becoming a real-time problem.
Then, there is the "figure it out later" brigade.
As a fervent planner, I always used to have a reluctant admiration for project managers and teams who seemed able to fly 'by the seat of their pants' through a project. As Projects have become more complex and increasingly business case linked though, these types of PMs are enjoying fewer successes. To leverage the maximum benefit from a project you really have to have deliverables and milestones clear in your mind before you start. The days of knowing what the end result will look like and then filling in the middle as you go along are confined to history. Ironically, even former 'seat of pants' project managers are finding that by having crystal clear objectives, properly allocated resources, realistic timelines and projects that are planned in manageable, properly delegated chunks of work, they have more freedom to improvise responses, rather than less.
2 - Proactivity
Far too many projects are failing because the teams leading them are reactive rather than proactive. This follows on nicely from the part about flying by the 'seat of your pants' because the other discipline that these project types need to learn is the art of defining risks before a project starts. I read somewhere that this is the cause of about a third of project fails, certainly anecdotally when we are asked to rescue a project, it is often the undefined risks that have broadsided teams.
Contingency planning is key to the success of a project and the more experience you have, the more you start to see patterns emerge in the things that can hamper even a well-planned IT project.
A friend told me about how she and her team were working on a project that had hit challenges because the regulatory landscape for their industry changed and the project, as scheduled for delivery, would no longer be compliant. I think that she was expecting sympathy, and as a friend, I gave her some, but as a fellow project professional, I wondered how long the regulatory changes had taken to pass through parliament and whether she could have realistically anticipated them. Indeed, the white paper on the subject predated the planning stage for the project so there really wasn't any excuse.
As, a kid I remember seeing a darts player, John Lowe, interviewed after a match he'd won. Before he threw the winning dart his two previous arrows had hit the wire and bounced onto the floor drawing gasps from the crowd. His opponent also had a potential three dart finish, had he been allowed to step up, so the pressure was on. That third dart had to count! Lowe calmly threw the dart, it hit the target and he won the match. Afterwards, the interviewer asked how he had maintained his composure with the previous two attempts rebounding onto the floor and Lowe said, "I never look at the dart on the ground." I've never forgotten that - he had a proactive plan. A dart hitting the wire and landing on the stage is paradoxically both unlikely and likely in equal measure but so are many of the things that can derail an IT Project. It’s your preparedness to respond that can make all the difference.
The point is, anticipating problems and knowing how you will respond is a great skill, a skill that you get better at the more experience you have, and which gets easier the more thorough your planning stage is. That's where the third P of the pack comes in - PMaaS. The Project Management as a Service market has resources from single talent to end to end Project Management Office to help fill planning or proactivity gaps or whatever capability issue you encounter. The more flexible PMaaS partners allow you to dial up and dial down the resource you hire in sync with your needs at any given time.
Project failure rates are still worryingly high but with a universe of PMaaS resources available and proper planning and a more proactive outlook, the industry has a real opportunity to put things right - it is within our power. I just wish we could do something about Manchester United!