Who could run that project?
[ Methods for managing successful projects ]
By Rod O’Doherty, Salar IT Consulting, April 2019
This is a question which many managers ask when someone’s great idea becomes a business project reality. But who do you choose?
By far the best choice is to use an experienced and qualified project manager. But unless you are a large organisation which has qualified project management resource in-house or can afford to hire-in such resources, then this option is not always feasible from a cost/benefit perspective.
There’s still a number of further possibilities depending on your circumstances. You could choose the person or manager closest to the area of project focus, the one who is the SME (subject matter expert). This makes a lot of sense, the SME will have first-hand knowledge and experience of the project’s arena. They will understand the requirements, be familiar with the various project stakeholders and are already competent at their day-to-day business activities. So provided they have time to spare, this could be a good choice. But beware of overloading key employees who need to run business-as usual activities, particularly if they are not ‘bought-in’ to the project or may be apprehensive about the outcomes of the project for their own future.
At the other end of the scale, you could use a person with less specialised subject matter knowledge or someone whom you can afford to divert away from daily business-as-usual activities. Again, this could be an attractive alternative. While the project may prove challenging for such an individual, it can also prove to be motivational, help develop skills and widen specialist knowledge within the organisation. But again there are risks; a less experienced person will not be able to hit the ground running. They may not be as aware of potential threats and issues within the project. In these circumstances, during the life of the project, this individual may need significant time, effort and support from the SME and other key employees to achieve a successful outcome. This is obviously counter-productive as the original reason for choosing such a person would be to minimise required effort from other key employees.
Whomever you choose, if the project is to be successful, it’s important that the person adopting the PM role has at least some basic project management capabilities. If the business case for the project has not already been clearly defined, then the PM will need the business skills to bring this together. No project should begin without a clear understanding of ‘The Why’. The business case is not just a justification to commence a project, but a baseline from which we can measure the progress of the project (ie: Should we continue with the project?) and whether the desired outcome has actually been achieved in the end. In both these cases, it’s therefore important that the business case is defined in terms of measurable criteria and not just vague or aspirational intent.
We’ve all heard the expression that he or she couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery and despite the levity of this expression, it has some serious business connotations to it. Some people are just not equipped to perform the organising process. Apart from having some basic business knowledge and experience, the process of organising often requires the ability to change or reset one’s mind-set. It can be very difficult for some people, particularly at the lower levels of an organisation, to grasp the bigger and wider picture which enables them to be an effective project manager. However this should not bar them from having an opportunity to grow into a PM role. Given some training on project management methods and some genuinely sympathetic mentoring, it can be surprising how some individuals will successfully rise to the challenge and become greatly rewarded from their experience. Not only does this benefit the individual, but the business will also benefit from greater employee motivation and enthusiasm which is specifically driven towards the goal of business improvement.
The biggest challenge facing someone who takes-on a project management role is having the genuine confidence to work-out what to do. There are often many considerations, drivers, alternatives, variations and stakeholders (possibly with conflicting opinions) which need to be addressed. Even on smaller projects it can be daunting for someone to engage with all the moving parts which the project may present.
So how can project management methods help someone to successfully take-on a project manager role? Primarily what PM methods achieve is that they encourage the implementation of a set of disciplines and best practices. This approach directs a train-of-thought to methodically define and progress the project. While formal project management methods may differ in approach, they all seek to organise a common thought process aimed at supporting the ultimate successful delivery of the project. This is achieved by breaking-out a number of overall project considerations and dealing with them in a way which is both manageable and methodical.
The break-out of project considerations are typically as follows;
Business Case Typically the business case will define the duration, cost, benefits, payback, risks and challenges of the project at a high level. It is important that these project qualities are defined in a way which can be measured, both during the project and as the outcome of the project continues to deliver its benefits once the project has ended.
Organisation Defining roles and responsibilities within the project. This identifies responsibilities for defining the project outputs and ensuring that they meet the required specification. It also identifies who will be responsible for delivering the outputs, along with how decision making will be carried out.
Quality This defines the expectation of what will be produced during the project. It describes the detailed specification of outputs so there can be no ambiguity between what is required and what is delivered. Under this topic it is good practice to define the tests and stress limits within which the outputs or products must perform and not just what will be delivered.
Risks Provides a proactive advance understanding of the likelihood and impact of ‘possible’ problems which might arise during the project. Understanding the business risk appetite and being prepared in this way helps lessen the impact of problems should they actually occur.
Change At any point in a project a change to the original scope may be requested or required. Having a plan to control and authorise potential change it advance is important. It avoids unnecessary and perhaps unrealistic changes to the project’s original scope. Unchallenged or disorganised change in a project is one of the most significant factors which causes projects to fail.
Plans Understanding how to breakdown a project into its component deliverables is fundamental to project management and scheduling. Of even greater importance is understanding how dependencies between project components will affect the sequence in which the project delivery work is carried out. Project management planning tools such as Product Breakdown Structures, Work Breakdown Structures and Product Flows can significantly help to channel thought processes to successfully plan the delivery-elements of a project.
Progress Knowing how the project is progressing is important to all the project’s key stakeholders. Ensuring that the project delivers regular updates on how the project’s implementation will affect those who have an interest. This consideration defines the means, frequency and content of projects to each of the stakeholders. It will also address how failure to progress against project plans will be dealt with.
One common cause of project failure is to prematurely dive straight into project delivery without giving due consideration to how one will manage the actual project itself. So when one examines these considerations it’s not surprising to note that all of them need to be thought about up-front and well before the project delivery stages commence. But how do we get our heads around these considerations – where on earth do we start? The answer to this question fundamentally revolves around people.
All projects, one way or another are about people and how they have impact-on or how they are impacted-by the project. A PM must be able to analyse all of the project’s stakeholders and understand where they are coming from. There will be people who desire the project, people who don’t want it, people who fear the outcomes, people who are resistant to change, people who are enthusiastic and people who couldn’t care less. Only when we have understood how project stakeholders are likely to positively or negatively affect the outcome of the project, can we properly engage them in helping to define and refine the above project considerations.
There are two tools which a PM can use to understand stakeholders and how best to engage them in the project. The first is the stakeholder analysis which helps the PM understand how positive or negative each stakeholder is towards the project. The second is the communication plan, which helps the PM influence stakeholders to become more positive and more invested in a successful outcome of the project. There will of course be some stakeholders who are so resistant or so negative towards the project that they may appear to be a lost cause. But even in this case, it’s vital for the PM to understand who they are, where they are coming from and at least think about how they may be leveraged towards providing a more positive contribution. Stakeholders who are apparently negative towards a project can actually be a very positive influence. They can help to highlight risks and issues in a project and challenge the PM to more prudently improve the quality considerations of the project.
Choosing the best person to take on a PM role can be a difficult decision. While our goal is successful project implementation and providing business benefit, we need to be mindful of how well-equipped the selected PM is to run a project. We of course want them to be successful, but there is a risk that if they fail, there will be unfortunate consequences, not just for the business, but also for the motivation and well-being of the individual who is assigned the PM role. The discipline of project management may be intuitive for some individuals, but many will struggle and will need help to have a fighting chance at managing successful projects.
Providing your employees with some training on project management methods is the best start you can give them to help manage successful projects. Not only will they thank you for the training opportunity, but your business will also benefit from having more confident, focussed and capable people leading your business projects. When it comes to delivering genuine business benefit, people who can confidently lead projects are definitely worth their weight in gold.