In our life especially for those moving up their career ladder, at some point in time, one will invariably being called upon to lead and manage a project. Depending upon the nature of the work and the industry one is in, the size and magnitude, the intensity and rigor required of the method of project management may differ. At the simplest, it may just be the simple identification and definition of the various activities and tasks with assigned roles and responsibilities together with clear timelines and key delivery milestones. At the extreme, it may involve the full rigor of project management best practices utilizing robust Project Management (PM) methodology (such as those propounded by PM Institute, US or PRINCE, UK )and adoption of the various automated tools (eg Microsoft Office Project, complete with recruitment of fully qualified full time project manager or director to manage the complex process.
While one can avail himself to the variety of tools available in the market, does this guarantee project success. Detailed information on many PM Methodology tools is widely and freely available to all. Yet I must say that the mere adoption of such tools does not guarantee the project will be completed and implemented successfully. There have been far too many major projects that have gone wrong, unable to be salvaged. You can read many in the News.
What then is successful and how does one define that the project is considered completed and successful. Is completion of a project say done within budget and within timeline, consider success. I believe many would say so, after all, to the business, the project is implemented and to the supplier, he gets paid for the work done. Is this the sole criterion to determine success. What if the projects are completed, but never being used or worst still being shelved after a short while and ended up a white elephant. How do we account for the investment in this? The work done and delivered, irrespective of whether the project is used and serving its intended purpose. Ultimately, irrespective of which perspective you look at, if the project is completed on time and within budget, and adding value to the organization and indirectly also value to the society, then it is successful.
In the course of my career, I have undertaken numerous projects from small to major ones involving tens of millions and more particularly in the technology industry. While the key criteria to gauge the success or failure is determined by the order of the Management at that point in time, I must say that it is a very fine line largely dependent on the immediate stakeholders and users who stand to gain or lose by the project. And it is usually this group of people who determine the fate of the project, which may well be managed very properly and professionally. How qualified and knowledgeable is this group of stakeholders, I can only say appalling in most times, due to tendency to delegate to lower level staff.
I think the key requirements to ensuring successful projects are easily identified and obtained. Requirements such as getting right personnel, adequate time, adequate budget and so on, and with that, the assigned project manager to adopt a methodology. But despite the availability of such information and so-called tips and tricks or best practices, many projects still fail, and I mean real big projects. And maybe a professionally certified Project Manager will by no means guarantee the success. Perhaps a higher probability of success, but never a guarantee.
Here, I do not intend to delve into the key planning activities that a good PM tools will provide. Picking and standardizing one good, not necessary the most expensive and most elaborate one to suit your industry, organization and project is important for training, awareness and continuity of usage and support along the way. For continuity within the organization, there must be control on standards and not left to individual to pick his own due to familiarity. So the key consideration is like having the right people, the right tools and the right costs.
However, there are few focus points that I would like to emphasize that requires constant check and re-evaluation to ensure the success.
a) Select the Project Manager – At the start of the project, the assignment of the Project manager is critical. This is not a position that is offer to someone that happens to be available, with time to spent, or maybe senior enough. Blending this together with one that has good background knowledge of the business and industry as well as being able to see a holistic view is key. One that is handpicked by Project Sponsor for political purpose and although is willing to listen, to support and be advised by him is bound to fail as the Project Manager is ultimately the key person who shoulders the full accountabilities..
So if there is a need, one needs to hire one from outside the organization on contract basis, to be free from internal politics.
b) The Plan – Suffice to say, in any project, to be successful, it must be planned out first. As the saying goes, anything that is not planned is doomed to failure. So a typical plan as outlined in decent project management methodology such as the PMBok of PMI from the US, or PRINCE from UK will adequately identify and require the plan to include activities encompassing aspects such as Integration, Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, Human Resources, Communication, Risks, and Procurement. Due consideration must be given to each aspects to have adequate resources, time, cost and not just to suit top-down directives.
Planning must be done on participative basis with assistance from all stakeholders. Eventually, this has to be reviewed, confirmed and sign-off, and periodically used to monitor progress.
c) Define the Scope – The project manager can played a key role here to maintain what I call a fair and reasonable scope. While all stakeholders are involved and given time to define the scope and requirements, someone must be able to control the stakeholders to prevent runaway scoping. Firstly, unreasonable requirements such as requiring the project to provide the ideal leads to doom. One can talk about the ideal, but will never get started as they will be caught in analysis/paralysis syndrome causing repeated changes and delays. I say the PM plays a key role here to signal showstopper as to align perception of everybody, to avoid unreasonable expectations from this start point to avoid the need to raise issues at the final stage, if not arrested at this point. The final document must be reviewed and eventual sign-of by all key personnel. Mind you, this document will be the reference, when old stakeholders leave the organisation and new one replacing them will see no need to continue with the project and create problems to kill the project. Sometimes, I wonder, is the project undertaken for the person or for the organization. If it is for the later, why would new stakeholders so eager to kill of the project.
d) Regular and periodical review of Plan against status – There must be factual reporting, no trade-off, with sincere and concern for inactions. Here the PM’s job knowledge and confidence is very critical as it will call for the questioning of the various stakeholders roles/responsibilities and inadequate effort and performance in partaking this project. The challenge is how to expose all such deficiencies and yet maintain a working team.
We are sometimes governed by own internal politics where the project sponsor knowledge and trust of his Project Manager is important. Ultimately, the project will be guided by and advise arising from his knowledge or perhaps the lack of it. Solid real life experiences and foundations as an all rounder will place the PM in good stead to make a project successful. One must be able to call a spade a spade without tradeoff. The PM ability to see a holistic view and identify hotspots and to raise them at an early stage, is important, to ensure and keep everybody’s perception in tune.
e) Decision Making – Many a time, I find that too much of discretion is given to the business or users and not the supporting function. But they only have the view of their own functional areas. I always use the example of being efficient for the Department but inefficient for the organization as a whole. Of course, every Department will take care of their own interest, but when this goes against the company as a whole, the PM must be able to spot it and escalate for a “force” decision. How often we see the loudest voice rules, and the organization suffers?
f) Over demanding business/Users – When there is one over demanding person who occupy key position, but lacking the knowledge, the project is doomed to fail. Imagine what happen when there is indecisiveness or frequent change of decision can have on a project. While proper sign-off of the Scope Document may signify completion of the process and time-line as a formality, there is no guarantee of quality and completion, if the so-called key personnel has the overall say of acceptance and eventual payment. A weak PM would have succumb to such threat only to live with the problem that comes up when there is repeated delay after delay at later stage. A good PM needs to manage this, enforce strict change management and yet maintain the working relationship at all level.
g) Maintaining and keeping tabs of progress of all related activities. – As in doing up the Plan, the Project Manager must include all activities to have a dashboard of all the activities. Several times, I have come across Plans that are handled by a supplier, but did not capture the Activities and Progress of those handled by the buyer company. For example, the supplier could be involved in the supply of a computer system solution. So the plan only capture the part on completion of the system, while the part on getting ready the computer room, getting the necessary statutory approval, User Training etc are not capture. While such activities maybe undertaken by the buyer company and remains the responsibilities and accountabilities of the buyer organisation, nevertheless, a good PM would have capture such key milestones to track progress at high level. While it may be the fault of another party not fulfilling their part, it is the lack of full visibility of all key activities that cause projects to slip and then argument starts to follow.
Different people view success differently. It is hard to say whether a project is eventually successful. Many projects are completed and in use, but is the project delivering good value. Like I said, this is a fine line. Who eventually do we listen to whether the project meets the needs. After all , a truly successful project is one where the project is embarked to do effective things in an efficient way. Equally possible is when someone in power, in position embarks on an project based upon ineffective strategies and premises, but yet can be completed efficiently and therefore perceived as successful.
The point here is not the knowledge about project management, the industry, but the subtle qualities of the person put in charge, to lead the project and apply such qualities against the respective activities and tasks to fruition.