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Prevent a Project Heart Attack with Regular Health Checks

Have you ever been on a project where everything seems to be going well until a month before the deadline when suddenly, without any warning signs, its headed for failure? Failure comes in many shapes and sizes. The deadline could be missed, quality may be subpar, or the budget exceeded. The project status flips from green to red without going through an amber warning state. You can prevent this by having regular project health checks, preferably performed independently by an auditor or external consultant.

Like their medical equivalent, project health checks serve to detect underlying conditions that may not be evident at the surface. If left undetected and unresolved, over time, small problems can grow malignant and prove critical at later stages. When should you conduct a thorough project medical exam? If you have never had a medical health check performed by your doctor, now is a good time to schedule one. Similarly, if you have never conducted a project health check, get one done as soon as possible. You want to uncover any problems while they are still small and easy to fix.

A month after the project starts is a good time for a first check. This is to ensure that the right processes, team dynamics, resources and governance are in place and functioning well. At this early stage, missing or weak foundational pieces such as stakeholder engagement, communications and change management can be rectified with less effort.

Once the basic project structure and processes are established and functioning well, half-way through the project schedule is a natural time for another check. Assuming a one-year project, a health check should be performed after six months. If the project spans multiple years, then health checks should be conducted at least once a year. These mid-point checks ensure progress towards the end goal is on track, ground-level risks and delays, if any, are known and any changes in the external environment are factored into the project plan. If needed, a strategic pivot can be made halfway through the project in order to meet new goals.

Towards the end of a project is not a good time for a health check. Any issues should have been identified at the half-way mark and actively managed in the second half. Often, it is too late to start to address problems if they only surface late in the timeline. At this stage, issues become emergencies and the project team needs to escalate, get resources, and use different tactics to double-down to reach their targets.

It is appropriate to perform a health check several months after project closure to determine whether the transfer to operations has been successful, the level of benefits sustainment, and what continuous improvement efforts are necessary to safeguard and boost return on investment (ROI). Adding regular health checks to your PMO toolkit is a step forward in organizational project maturity. If done for the entire portfolio, it helps with organizational capacity management, planning for staggered delivery dates, and management of stakeholder expectations.

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How a project that delivers on time, on budget, and within scope can be a failure for the business

Pontiac Aztek. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The year is 2000. In a daring move, General Motors decides to revitalize its brand with a concept vehicle. Initial market response to the bold new look of the Pontiac Aztec was very positive. It was the “Most Appealing Entry Sport Utility Vehicle” according to JD Powers. Customers gave the Aztec among the highest satisfaction ratings in its class. By the iron triangle project measures of scope, time and cost, the Pontiac Aztec was a success. In business terms however, the Aztec didn’t even come close to breaking even. The return on investment was negative.

Traditional project measures that focus on output metrics are not enough. Projects need to evolve and start to monitor outcomes. Back in 2016, PMI published a thought leadership series on benefits realization. Returning to the analogy of the automotive industry, a project may be focused on designing and manufacturing a new car. But there is no benefit realized until a customer buys the car and drives it. For that to happen, there needs to be marketing, sales, financing, driver training, licensing, and insurance. This is nothing new for a mature industry but for emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things, project managers need to cast an eye beyond delivering new devices to seeing them adopted in the market.

Leading edge project offices have already incorporated benefits realization into its methodology and framework. If you are not part of such a PMO, here’s what you can do as a project manager. Read PMI’s articles on this subject. Start by holding a meeting to identify benefits during the initial phase of your project. Create a benefits register and assign a benefit owner to each item. At every milestone, report on benefits delivered. At the close of a project, when handing over to operations, hold a benefits sustainment meeting. List all actions that need to be taken to sustain benefits. Create metrics of key benefits. Every quarter, monitor and report the benefit metrics to the organization. This can be a great way to motivate employees who want to see that their work is making a difference.

Often projects are completed and initial benefits realized. Project resources are then diverted to new projects and focus shifts away from sustaining benefits. This does not maximize project investments in the long run. Measuring success based on whether the projects are completed on time, on budget and within scope is myopic. What’s critical is the harder work of measuring outcomes: did the project deliver intended business value and sustain long term benefits?

Benefits are not all about the bottom line. Leading organizations have mission statements that go beyond that. These could be about building communities, reducing carbon emissions, improving health and myriad ways to make the world a better place. Align your project outcomes to your organizational mission, find ways to measure it, then report on them regularly. As a side benefit, this could propel your project management career forward.

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Leadership Tips

Have you attended a consultative meeting where the decision has already been made?

UN Ukraine: Dnipro: Consultation on adaptation and localization of 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Last week, two friends were invited to a consultation but it turned out that the decision had already been made by the top person. The consultation was only for show. After having volunteered with this organization for over a decade, they will start to withdraw and eventually end their association. Similar “consultative” meetings occur in work settings and while employees may not leave, their hearts have walked out the door. Without fully engaged employees, the company’s performance and bottom line suffers. Human resources is then tasked with solving the problem and cultivate a more engaged workforce.

Where does project management fit in all this? In fact, project managers have a pivotal role to play. At the start of projects, they create the RACI framework. They should identify all stakeholders throughout the life of the project and insist that they be kept informed. If the project results in a lot of change, then stakeholders should be invited to self-select whether they want to be consulted. The understanding is that consultation doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be happy with the final decision—only that in the process of decision making, their voices are heard. The commitment of those to be consulted is that they participate in meetings.

Project sponsors and key decision makers may want fewer voices in meetings. They may think that stakeholders impacted later in the project may only need to be consulted closer to rollout. Here’s where project managers need to fall back on best practice and insist that all stakeholders be represented at the start. So long as they are part of the project kickoff, stakeholders can understand the why of the project and when it comes time to roll out changes in the future they are prepared to absorb the impacts.

 A case in point of failure in consultative process leading to project failure is the 2011 British Columbia Harmonized Sales Tax. Financially, the HST would have boosted BC’s economy. But British Columbians were unhappy by a lack of consultation in the process of implementing it. In a referendum, 55% voted to overturn the HST.

On the flip side, businesses need to be agile and respond quickly to changing market conditions. A consultative approach doesn’t work well in emergency situations such as COVID-19. Overall, for many organizations facing a variety of situations, a culture that supports a balanced approach to consultative decision-making and employee engagement is ideal. When achieved, it’s like cruising at maximum fuel efficiency.

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Why Agile Transformations Fail and How to Ensure Yours Succeed

A friend who’s an architect once joked, “My clients want a design that is good, fast, and affordable. I tell them to pick any two. If the design is good and fast, the price will be high. Something good and affordable will take more time. And if you want it fast and cheap, then it won’t be good.”

The same can be said of agile projects. The same three variables are at play: quality, delivery time and cost. Delivery time is fixed by the duration of the sprint. Cost or budget is also relatively fixed based on a stable team and technology. So the only wiggle room is scope. To get high quality deliverables within a fixed sprint, the scope must be right-sized to fit the sprint. Too large of a scope and quality suffers. This requires a shift in mindset but that’s not all.

There is the question of organizational culture and the speed of agile transformation. Agile is a strange animal. It thrives in different cultures dependent on its size and maturity. When it is young and little, think of agile being introduced to one team in IT, it thrives in a bottoms-up culture where the Agile Manifesto rules, teams are empowered by facilitative scrum masters, and decisions are made by the teams.

After some small, low-hanging fruit successes, agile grows from being a child to a teenager. All of IT may want to switch to agile. Other departments want to get a taste of agile success too. This is a difficult time. Agile teams may feel they have demonstrated how to create value for the organization and want to take the lead. Departmental managers, especially those new to agile, may not understand the new methodology but nevertheless, want its quick wins. Here’s where top-down decision-making needs to release some control to agile teams. If this doesn’t happen, agile will most likely fail to take root and may be abandoned by the organization.

Should agile survive the teenage years, then the next level of maturity is to scale it up to the entire organization where all departments embrace it. Another cultural shift is needed here. Scaled agile requires extreme discipline by all players. In other words, a top-down command-and-control culture that also understands agile methodology is what is needed. Bottoms-up decision-making is not going to cut it when scaling agile. Here’s where agile teams may need to give up some level of autonomy. This may be difficult to do if they were the champions who introduced agile to the organization in the first place.

The best case scenario would be for some of these early agile champions to have been promoted into senior leadership in tandem with the growth of agile in the organization. Like the growth of a child to a mature adult, there are key transition points for agile to scale into an organization. Knowing when and where these thresholds are and being appropriately agile when it comes to cultural changes is a key  factor in successful agile transformations. 

Another approach to agile transformation is to start with an agile mindset first. In a (post?)-pandemic VUCA world, the C-suite is adept at pivoting to survive and leverage new opportunities to thrive. They could start by switching from year long projects (annual sprint) to quarterly projects (3-month sprint). In so doing, they are automatically scoping down project deliverables into smaller chunks. Then they could ask for monthly deliverables. Monthly milestones translate to 1-month sprints. All this is achievable using traditional project management techniques. It also allows all departments to gradually adjust to shorter delivery cycles. It’s not just IT that needs to adjust, marketing, communications, operations, and support all need to be in lockstep.

Once an organization commits and all departments deliver on a regular monthly sprint, value is being delivered faster. There will then be less resistance to switching to a three-week sprint at this point. Here, traditional project management techniques must give way to agile methods. With the organization experiencing the benefits of shorter cycles, there will be less resistance to adopt agile enterprise-wide and eventually transition to a two-week sprint.

In conclusion, there are two approaches for agile transformation. The bottoms up approach, though more common, is also fraught with complexities of cultural transition. The top-down approach, starting with an agile mindset and traditional project management, experiencing the benefits of agile, then switching to agile methodology is, in my humble opinion, a surer path to success. A final ingredient to ensure success: a PMO that is comfortable and flexible with traditional and agile approaches can help navigate and support the organization through the various stages of a successful agile transformation.

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