Finish Line

It’s the final days before the start of a major initiative. Plans have been made and a team is gearing up for a long and challenging project. The starting gun is about to fire and there are dollars, reputations and maybe even the company’s future at stake.

Several studies show that the majority of projects with budgets over one million dollars or timelines longer than twelve months are likely to miss their objectives or be cancelled all together.

When looking back on failures, most Project Managers would likely point to root causes that existed from the very start of the project. With the stakes so high and the statistics against you, what can be done to ensure your project comes out of the starting blocks, ready for all challenges and capable of making it to the finish?

The answers to these 7 questions are a good indicator or your readiness to launch:

  • Are the project objectives clear and achievable?
  • Is the business case sound?
  • Are the sponsors aligned and engaged?
  • Is the schedule realistic?
  • Is the team capable, prepared and available?
  • Are the risks understood and mitigated?
  • Does the organization have the endurance to finish?

Are the objectives clear and achievable?

Without clearly defined objectives, a project has as much chance of succeeding as a marathon runner who doesn’t know where the finish line is. Without specific documented objectives, project teams may be off track without even knowing it. By having objectives agreed and communicated before the launch, the team will be able to periodically assess progress towards achieving objectives as opposed to just marking time on a plan. Best practices for managing to objectives include:

  • Document specific objectives in the project charter
  • Review objectives with the project sponsors to ensure they are aligned with the strategic vision of the project
  • Agree and document the metrics that will be used to measure progress and achievement of objectives
  • Assess the project plan to ensure the objectives are achievable within the scope, budget and timeline of the project
  • Communicate the objectives to the project team at the kickoff
  • Keep the objectives at the forefront of project status reviews

Is the business case sound?

Many projects are cancelled because the costs attributed to the project begin to exceed the perceived benefits. Before the project launches, Project Managers should schedule reviews of the business case with their sponsors to ensure that the planned budget and expected benefits add up to a project win. When creating a sound business case Project Managers should ensure that:

  • Quantitative benefits can be attributed to reasonable cost savings, improved efficiency or increased revenue opportunities
  • Qualitative benefits will support the company’s strategic vision by enabling new capabilities or improving customer or employee satisfaction
  • All costs (initial and long term) have been accounted for and vetted
  • Contingencies have been established for unexpected project impacts
  • Both cost and benefits can be monitored and reported throughout the project lifecycle

Are the sponsors aligned and engaged?

Simply put, Project Sponsors own the business case associated with the project. As discussed earlier, in order to succeed, projects need to demonstrate that they are achieving the desired objectives within the parameters defined in the Business Case. The surest way to kill a project is for the sponsor to feel that they aren’t going to get what they paid for. Unfortunately, because of their demanding jobs, sponsors tend to be very busy and have limited time to consume a project status and make key decisions that will affect the ultimate outcome. To ensure alignment and engagement throughout the project, experienced Project Managers will:

  • Establish regularly scheduled updates or steering meetings with the Project Sponsor
  • Use clear, concise and direct status dashboards to keep the sponsor informed
  • Escalate critical issues quickly with a precise statement of the impact
  • Don’t just present problems; offer solutions
  • Show progress on realizing benefits throughout the project

Is the schedule realistic?

Too often, project schedules are built by backing in to a desired end date. Before launching a major initiative, the project schedule should be reviewed, understood and agreed by all stakeholders. Keep in mind that at the start, there are more unknowns than there will be at any other point in the project. To develop a sound plan with the greatest chance of success, make sure to:

  • Get input on estimates from all task owners to ensure they are realistic
  • Evaluate and highlight the projects critical path to identify schedule risks
  • Build in contingency time in case of unexpected issues
  • Account for outside schedule influences such as vacations, company meetings or non-project related activities
  • Conduct a plan walk-thru at the kickoff to ensure the team understands their responsibilities and the dependencies between tasks

Is the team capable, prepared and available?

Ideally, resources will be fully dedicated to a project. However, it is more likely that a Project Manager and its team will have the responsibilities of their “day jobs” that could draw time away from critical project tasks. This is especially true in matrix organizations or on projects where IT resources are also responsible for system support. Also, project teams may be faced with challenges that they don’t have experience in or require capabilities that are new to the organization. Because no project can succeed without the right team, Project Managers should:

  • Develop a Deliverables RACI matrix to monitor whether team members are Responsible, Accountable, Contributing
  • In matrix organizations, make sure that resource managers are aware of the time demands on their direct reports
  • Review all project responsibilities with the team members to ensure they have the skills required to complete their assigned tasks
  • Monitor resource time reporting to ensure that it aligns with commitments
  • Have a clearly defined escalation path to resolve resource priority conflicts quickly

Are the risks understood and mitigated?

Prior to starting a long complex project, a structured Risk Assessment is absolutely essential. A proper risk assessment identifies things that might go wrong and develops strategies to prevent the risk from impacting the project or to respond quickly in the event the risk becomes a reality. Just like no experienced cyclist would begin a hundred mile ride without checking their tires for defects and having replacement tubes in case of a flat, no Project Manager should kickoff a project without assessing project risks. Best practices or structured risk analysis include:

  • Develop a Deliverables RACI matrix to monitor whether team members are Responsible, Accountable, Contributing
  • In matrix organizations, make sure that resource managers are aware of the time demands on their direct reports
  • Review all project responsibilities with the team members to ensure they have the skills required to complete their assigned tasks
  • Monitor resource time reporting to ensure that it aligns with commitments
  • Have a clearly defined escalation path to resolve resource priority conflicts quickly

Does the organization have the endurance to finish?

Projects that run for a year or longer have the greatest likelihood of failure. While this can be correlated with the fact that longer projects are likely more complex and encounter significantly more issues, it is also a matter of endurance. Just like athletes, project teams can become fatigued when project intensity runs high for an extended period. Also, projects that run over a year will span the entire annual business cycle from strategic planning to year-end profitability reporting. As a result, longer projects need to show progress, or they will come under intense fire when budgets get tight. To mitigate some of these risks associated with long projects:

  • Plan to show progress and value throughout the project by tracking interim deliverables and key milestones
  • Review resource loading to ensure teams aren’t over allocated
  • Plan for peak activity times and mitigate team fatigue with alternative periods of intense and moderate activity
  • Consider breaking single large projects into smaller projects under a program umbrella

In Conclusion

Although long complex projects carry the highest risk of failure, that risk can be mitigated with careful planning. Understanding the unique demands these projects place on resources, budgets and organizations as a whole will help Project Managers to lead their teams across the finish line. Finally, before launching a major project or program, conduct a Readiness Assessment focused on the above 7 questions.