Establishing Successful Projects! Secrets Exposed!

Project Management

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Successful projects!! The holy grail for effective and efficient business investment and change initiatives always seems just out  of reach for most senior business and technology executives. A PwC study (2019) of over 10,640 projects found that a tiny, tiny portion of companies – just 2.5% – completed 100% of their projects successfully. The rest either failed to meet some of their original targets or missed their original budget or deadlines. There are many reasons for projects not being able to deliver on time and within budget. In our experience a lot of it can be traced back to the very start, the establishment stages of the project.

These days, project management experience is no longer enough. Twenty years ago, all that was required was experience gained on the job by working on projects and gradually one day progressing to running a project. Today project management has evolved into a specialised profession with career progression available in many organisations. There are various project management methods and frameworks such as PRINCE2, AgilePM, PMBoK and the Praxis Framework that can be used. Large organisations sometime use more than one framework or method to deliver different types of projects. Project managers these days are required to be experts in many approaches to project management and product development. In fact, a project management certification is almost a prerequisite for the job.

A certification against a project management method confirms that you are familiar with the core concepts of that method. However, as a newly certified project manager, if you are tasked with initiating a project, how would you go about it? Often, when you are appointed a project manager you have little more than a few lines or bullet points to run with, based on an initial discussion. How would you take all the newly learned knowledge and past experience of working on projects to initiate a new project?

It is a daunting task. Your manager or business sponsor (sometimes called a project executive) should have an idea, but that may be little more than a thought bubble. And other key stakeholders may have wildly different ideas to the sponsor. As the appointed project manager, you are the go-to person. Where do you start, what are you going to do, what are the sequence of steps you will take to establish, manage, and deliver a project, regardless of the project management method or framework that you may use?

Well, let’s look at this from the perspective of each layer of the project’s organisational structure – governance, day-to-day management, and product delivery. The first thing would be to establish the three layers of the project team. If you get this right early in the project, it will make your job easier and set the project up for success.


The Project Governance Layer

At the project governance level, you will need to establish a project governance group (sometimes called a project board or a steering committee) consisting of a project executive or business sponsor and other key business stakeholders who have an interest in the outcomes of the project, and who will support the sponsor and make the important decisions about the project to ensure its success. Ideally, the governance group will include those business stakeholders who are paying for the project, those who will be using the project outputs, and those who will be assisting you in procuring or developing what is required and implementing the products or services in the organisation. Let’s deal with them separately.

Business Sponsor

Typically, there is one senior executive (or business sponsor) who will fund the project out of their business unit budget to achieve business outcomes for their business unit and the organisation. They have the biggest interest or stake in its success. They will own the project business case and monitor the progress of the project.

Project Governance Group

You, as the appointed project manager, will need to work with the business sponsor during the project establishment phase to identify other members of the project’s governance group.

It is vitally important that the members of the governance group remain engaged with the project throughout its lifecycle.

Depending on the size of the project, the governance group should consist of, just the business sponsor for smaller, lower risk projects; up to around three (3) for medium projects; and no larger than five (5) members for large projects. Governance group members should have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the business interests they represent.

As the project manager you need to engage with the business sponsor to identify possible members, communicate with them and get their agreement to become a member of the project’s governance group. The first governance group meeting should be held at the earliest, to establish an agreed set of project objectives, and agree other aspects such as funding, scope, delivery approach and management method to be used, project risks, project schedule and business outcomes. Typically, an outline of the business case, project approach and the governance group’s Terms of Reference are the minimum foundation elements for establishing a project. At a minimum, the governance group must approve the initiation of the project, hold major review points (either scheduled or unscheduled) during the project lifecycle and finally, formally close the project at the end.

All governance groups should have their terms of reference clearly documented and agreed, so that members and other project stakeholders are aware of their roles and responsibilities, the frequency of governance group meetings, the types of decisions they will make and their expectations of the project management and delivery teams. The governance group plays a very important role in the governance of the delivery of the project as shown below:

  • Approval of project funding (budget), objectives, scope, outputs (key deliverables), outcomes, benefits, and schedule
  • Management of project risks
  • Resolution of project issues
  • Approval of project scope changes
  • Approval for the procurement of services and products
  • Approval of project communications for stakeholder engagement
  • Engagement with any critical stakeholders outside the governance group, including executive management of the investing organisation, and higher-level governance groups
  • Approval for the implementation of project changes (people, process, product) impacting the organisation

Some management methods also require the use of a Decisions Register to record each of the key decisions of the governance group.

In summary, a Business Sponsor who demonstrates leadership and owns the project, with a supportive and engaged governance group, are essential ingredients for a successful project.

The Project Management Layer

The project manager is at the top of this layer and is responsible for planning and the delivery of the project on a day-to day basis. One of the first key tasks of the project manager is to develop the foundation business case of the project.

The Business Case

Many projects are initiated without a clearly defined and approved business case, as business sponsors are in a hurry to start and implement the project as quickly as possible. All projects are investments, and the business case should be used as a tool to justify investment in the project. The business case is ultimately responsible for developing the business case, although the work may be delegated to the project manager.

Business cases factor in the estimated cost of the project through development and implementation to the desired outcomes to be achieved. They weigh the risks against the potential benefits of these outcomes to the business. There are many business case development methods available. An outline of a business case may be developed as the first step to justify a project and move forward with it. We recommend that all medium to large projects for an organisation should have a business case to justify the investment.

A business case is a living document and should be regularly reviewed and updated during the life cycle of the project, to reflect project scope changes, changes in assumptions of costs, or changed business conditions that may impact the original business case.

The Project Plan

The project plan is the foundational document for establishing how a project will achieve its objectives and is the responsibility of the project manager. All projects require a project plan irrespective of the project management method being used. It becomes the “Single Source of Truth” for project delivery and should be regularly updated during the life of the project. Project plans (at the very least) should address a range of items for the successful delivery of the project, including:

  • Project scope (what’s “in” and “out” of scope)
  • Project objectives
  • Delivery approach (waterfall, agile or “hybrid” – a combination of both) to be taken for various aspects of the project
  • A list of major documents (Design, Business Process, Use Cases, Change, Communication, Test Plans and User Acceptance Criteria, Implementation, Transition and ongoing support documentation) to be produced
  • Resourcing Plan to support delivery
  • Procurement Plan for services, products and technology
  • Lists of assumptions, risks, issue and dependencies
  • Project budget
  • A detailed project schedule with major milestones
  • Identify and set project controls with appropriate tolerances

Whatever the project delivery method used (here the project manager can make a recommendation to the governance group), the above are necessary from a project management, governance and reporting perspective so that the governance group can undertake its core responsibilities to guide the project and at the same time give the business sponsor confidence that the project is being delivered on time and within budget.

The Project Delivery Layer

Once the project plan has been agreed by project stakeholders and approved by the governance group, you as a project manager can get down to the task of the delivery of the project. Some of the key tasks you need to now undertake will include the following:

  • Identify and assign project resources to key tasks and deliverables
  • Initiate communication about the project to project stakeholders about their role, and the timeline and milestones of the project
  • Set up initial meetings with project stakeholders and project team members to agree on the delivery and completion of key tasks
  • Review the assumptions, dependencies, risks and issues regularly to ensure the project schedule can be met and you as the project manager can take corrective action; escalating to the governance group for resolution if required
  • Set up regular project team and governance group meetings to review progress, monitor risks and resolve issues, and provide leadership and guidance as required
  • Regularly review the approved project schedule and budget against actual performance
  • Ensure that you are the first point of escalation for everyone on the project (including external contractors and vendors)

Stakeholder Engagement & Communication

Regular stakeholder engagement and communication is the secret glue of project success. “No Surprises” may be the frequent diktat of most business sponsors and governance groups, but certainly early warning of surprises is expected. Lack of timely stakeholder engagement and communication can create enormous hurdles for projects, leading to frequent schedule delays, cost over runs and projects not delivering to stakeholder expectations. Getting this right, is a core requirement of good project management and often overlooked in delivery frameworks. A Stakeholder Map and a Communication Plan are some best practise tools that can be used for effective and efficient stakeholder engagement and communication. In agile methods, the use of “Showcases” and “Retrospectives” is an important tool for stakeholder engagement and communication.

Use a variety of tools to share information between project stakeholders; if using a waterfall approach, regular status report updates could be provided at weekly team meetings and governance group meetings. If using an agile approach, use tools such as a Kanban Board or JIRA or Confluence.

Project Reporting

Reporting is also a big part of a project manager’s role – getting the right information, to the right people, at the right time via agreed reporting lines that should be established early in the project and adhered to throughout its life. This is normally a major governance requirement in large organisations, irrespective of the project management method being used.

Governance groups will need to know basically whether things are going as planned – how is the project going against its time, cost, quality, scope, and risk parameters, and maybe benefits if they are to be delivered during the project. As a project manager, you should establish two reporting lines – regular reporting and irregular reporting.

Regular Reporting

Regular reporting is used to convey good news: we’re on track and remain within tolerances, maybe with minor issues.

Regular reporting should be used to ensure that appropriate information gets to right level of governance at appropriate intervals. The project manager should ensure that they schedule reporting from the delivery layer so that they can report as required to the governance layer, which often occurs on a monthly basis, or as required by the governance group. This should be designed so that it is clear what the issues are, rather than burying problems in verbose and useless documents.

If you are reporting on product based, activity based and agile based activities, you may need to ‘normalise’ them for the governance layer.

Irregular Reporting

Irregular reporting is used to convey bad news, e.g. the project is outside its control tolerances, hopefully with suggested answers.

Irregular reporting, exception reporting or issue reporting should be considered as arising outside normal parameters and escalated to the appropriate level of governance when they occur. This is particularly important when the project delivery team consist of multiple external contractors and vendors.

Defining ‘done’

Lastly, consider what is required to finish the project – agree up front, before you start, what ‘finished’ looks like. Then you can ensure that there is nothing left behind and there are no things forgotten or unreasonable additional expectations on the project after you think it has been completed.

Successful Projects

The guidance for establishing projects for success is learned from establishing and delivering hundreds of projects over the years and the lessons learned through conducting many project assurance reviews.

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