Management clinic: Right approach for right project
Doing business as usual no longer works, skilled project management is needed, writes Dermot Duff.
In fact, it could be said that it never really worked, if you consider the litany of broken commitments, missed deadlines and poor results produced by organisations doing business in the “usual” manner.
Better execution would seem to be the answer, and yet Larry Bossidy famously declared that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Everybody wants to get more done, yet few want to embrace the supposed “rigours” of project management, fearing it will bring tedium and red tape along rather than precision and predictability.
Surely there must be a way to deploy the best elements of project management without becoming enslaved with bureaucratic procedures?
The solution lies in employing project management sensibly: decide the nature of the project and then use only as much management as is needed. Some projects will be so standard that they only need a basic approach: for example, planning this year’s annual conference will often only involve updating last year’s checklists.
Other projects will be complicated in that they need a high degree of co-ordination between different tasks and different people; the work can be defined and parcelled into distinct tasks, and classic project management is a wonderful approach to predictable tasks. Here, Gannt charts can help organise the sequence of tasks in a basic bar chart, and critical path analysis can be used to prioritise the sequence in order of time criticality ie, which tasks need to be done next.
Complex projects, such as business transformations or change projects, have the special difficulty of being hard to predict and therefore they need a more flexible approach; a rigorous approach can become a straitjacket, limiting effectiveness. For such projects, the upfront work of proving the concept is vital. The downstream activities cannot be planned with any real accuracy. In these change-type projects, not only is the desired outcome hard to delineate but the means of achieving them is similarly an unknown art. For these reasons, project management has evolved from the classic linear approach to a more agile philosophy.
Deciding on project approach
Projects can be characterised by the degree to which methods have been established and by the concreteness of the outcomes. For example, construction projects have relatively clear specifications but change initiatives, on the other hand, often have methods and outcomes that can only be described in vague terms. The figure below shows the four broad categories of projects.
A different style of project management is suited to each category of project:
Type 1: Classic projects - detailed planning, disciplined approach.
Type 2: Open projects – flexible, diplomatic, political, leadership approach.
Type 3: Familiar projects - require minimal project management tools.
Type 4: Innovation projects - require a light initial approach to generate ideas.
The classic (Type 1) approach to project management works best when the project has a clear specification, reliable estimates, a predictable sequence of events and a dedicated project sponsor. These conditions rarely exist, but under such circumstances, even very complicated projects (erecting industrial units, constructing bridges, scheduling advertising campaigns) can succeed. These require high degrees of co-ordination, discipline, strict planning and formal contractual relations.
Open-ended (Type 2) projects (such as change initiatives, product development, HR campaigns) are different; they are much less predictable, subject to human behaviour, organisational politics, unreliable peer support and uncertain rules of engagement. When project acceptance is uncertain, or when conflict is inherent, then a less prescriptive approach to project management is required, one that requires a tolerance for ambiguity, diplomacy and relationship building.
Familiar or routine projects (Type 3), where the risks, roles and responsibilities are well known, are essentially processes, and therefore require only a lightweight or administrative style of project management.
A different approach again is needed to develop embryonic Innovation (Type 4) projects, where ideas are not yet tested. In new business ventures, technological innovations or early-stage marketing trials, success is elusive. Good project management here depends initially on the ability to generate ideas, explore concepts and select winners rather than on a classic Type 1 prescriptive approach.
Each of these project categories need the appropriate approach as no single style is universally applicable.
Research repeatedly shows that two-thirds of all significant projects end in failure, either delivering little of the expected outcome, or greatly exceeding the expected time. Roughly one-third of projects should never have even been started, according to research.
What is a project?
A project is a concerted, planned effort to secure a pre-defined outcome within a set time and budget. It is a temporary endeavour with a distinct beginning, middle and end. Frequently, it is accomplished by a team effort, with members often unfamiliar with each other, requiring the project manager to be skilled in team building.
Examples of projects include change initiatives, business development campaigns, office re-locations, business start-up, product development, marketing launches, recruitment drives, software development and strategic plans; all of which must take account of the stages and activity levels below:
The essence of project management is the fusion of intuition, common sense and leadership with a systematic approach to managing tasks.
Assessing the organisation’s project capability
The project manager should try to avoid projects that are beyond the normal capacity of the organisation; the accompanying ‘staircase’ illustrates the natural sequence of project management maturity from basic competence to best-practice leadership.
The project life cycle: the four phases of a project
Projects can be considered to have a life of their own, from project concept to completion, as shown below:
A project can be regarded as having four distinct phases, from initial idea through detailed planning and implementation to completion.
Phase 1: getting started - concept Initiation, feasibility and inception
In this phase, the key activities are the generation of feasible approaches, the assessment of risk and reward, and the recognition of political difficulties with the project:
• Finding & testing ideas
• Recognising the key issues
• Deciding the overall scale and scope of the project
• Identifying the key risks and expected pitfalls
• Setting indicative milestones
• Proposing the project vision
• Building early political support
• Securing stakeholder commitment
• Identifying critical assumptions and constraints
• Setting up suitable project structures
Phase 2: detailed planning
This phase contains the classic project management planning activities, from the structuring of ideas into useful categories and on to the scheduling of resources:
• Detailed resource and time plans
• Getting the right people on board
• Setting agreed schedules and deadlines
• Deciding how to control the project
• Ensuring project quality
• Establishing how to manage the document trail
• Generating and agreeing the baseline plan; plan A
• Preparing contingencies; plan B
• Setting the parameters that trigger the closure of any phase
• Predicting the project’s likely faults
• Establishing a corrective action learning loop
Phase 3: implementation, monitoring, control and closure
In this phase, the activities move to implementation: monitoring if the tasks are on track and within budget, controlling deviations, and re-planning the project:
• Discovering if the project is still on track
• Recovering from project slippage
• Dealing with difficult personality types
• Predicting, avoiding and repairing political divisions
• Maintaining morale and sustaining momentum
• Problem-solving and dealing with unexpected issues
Phase 4: completion
In the completion phase, the emphasis is on getting the vital last tasks concluded and securing agreement from stakeholders that the job is completed, and that reward and recognition for a successful project is due:
• Securing final sign-off
• Closing project accounts
• Dealing with late issues
• Getting recognition for accomplishments
• Getting remuneration for work done
• Assessing the project
• Learning from the project
Successful project management then needs to take full account of the project life cycle and the brief detail above of the phases of projects.
“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time” - Sir John Betjeman
In our attempt to be as brief as possible in this short article, our examination of project management has necessarily omitted many nuances about the subject. The reader can find a more full treatment of the same in the book Project Management – A Practical Guide by Dermot Duff and John Quilliam, which will shortly be published by Management Briefs.com
You can visit the Business & Finance website and purchase a copy of the book and you can also see the range of other books published by Management Briefs which address additional key management and personal skills.
Type 1: Classic project
Example: Construction projects
Has clear methods and outcomes
Tasks and roles clearly defined
Emphasis is on project discipline
Deadlines have clear sanctions
Type 2: Open-ended project
Example: Change projects
Both methods and outcomes unclear
Needs strong sponsor
Disruption, ambiguity likely
Need to build relationships
Wide range of stakeholders
Type 3: Familiar project
Example: Annual meeting
Project resembles a known process
Stakeholders know their roles
Working relationships established
Estimates and schedules known
Low in political issues
Type 4: Innovation project
Example: Product development projects
High uncertainty, major risks
Explore alternatives early
Focus on low-cost trials
Introduce or buy in innovations
Use simple planning
Before you say yes
Advice to intending project managers
• Recognise the type of project involved, and adapt your management style to suit
• Stay within the limits of the organisation’s capability to deliver a project
• Be prepared for shifts in priority as the project progresses through the lifecycle
• Avoid the temptation to accept the project without checking its feasibility
• Use your bargaining power from the outset to get the resources you need
• Establish the limits of your authority – and your responsibility
• Understand the different phases of a project
• Be warned: the project will usually take longer and cost more than predicted
How it evolves
Project management maturity levels
1. Common language – basic knowledge of project management
2. Common process – defined methods in widespread use
3. Singular approach - project methods developed for particular situations
4. Project process improvement – benchmarked and continually improved
5. Advanced project capability – innovative and leading beyond industry norm
Project maturity is achieved through a mixture of conscious learning from experience, training, education, and developing tailored project management processes.