Project delivery is one of the critical services that IT provides. Unfortunately, in the industry, the track record of project delivery for IT is at best a mixed bag. A number of different studies over the past five years put the industry success rate below 50%. A good reference in fact is the Dr. Dobbs site where a 2010 survey found project success rates to be:
- Ad-hoc projects: 49% are successful, 37% are challenged, and 14% are failures.
- Iterative projects: 61% are successful, 28% are challenged, and 11% are failures.
- Agile projects: 60% are successful, 28% are challenged, and 12% are failures.
- Traditional projects: 47% are successful, 36% are challenged, and 17% are failures.
So, obviously not a stellar track record in the industry. And while you may feel that you a doing a good job of project delivery, typically this means the most visible projects are doing okay or even good, but there are issues elsewhere. In this post and in the next few I will provide a quick primer to check and ensure you are leveraging the key project delivery best practices that enable more successful track record.
Key project delivery practice areas: These areas are project initiation, project communications and reporting, project management, release management, and program management. There are also a few critical techniques to overcome obstacles including how to get the right resource mix, doing the tough stuff first, and when to use a waterfall approach versus incremental or agile. I will cover the first two areas today and the rest over the few weeks.
Project Initiation – I have rarely, and I suspect similarly for you, been part of an organization where the demand for IT to deliver projects is less than the supply of IT resources to execute those projects. In fact, this over-demand is often chronic and our IT response sometimes exacerbates the situation. Because of our desire to meet the business’s wishes, and to show progress, we make the mistake of initiating projects before they or our teams are ready to start. It is critical to ensure that you have effective sponsorship, a good bead on requirements and adequate resources before you initiate the project. There is no issue with doing concept or project exploration, initial requirements and designs, high level planning or estimation, but these must all be divided from the formal project effort with a strong entry gate that ensures you have the sponsorship, understanding of the deliverable, and adequate resources. Most projects that fail (and remember, this is probably half of the projects you do), started to fail at the beginning. They were started without clear business ownership or decision-makers, or with a very broad or ambiguous description of delivery. or they were started when you were already over-committed, without senior business analysts or technology designers. This is just a waste of money, resource time, and business opportunity.
Address this by setting a robust entry gate and be disciplined about when to start a project. If the business sponsors aren’t there, this is a discussion for you to have with that business leader. If the project is defined as overly broad or is ambiguous, don’t fall into that trap. Take the two or three most well-defined needs and split off or chunk the project into starting with just that piece. The rest will fall into place as the work is done and everyone understands better the situation. You and the business may decide not to progress further, If you decide to proceed then start up the next chunk as a separate project. And, as much as you want to get more done, don’t start the project before you have resources. As you operate your project ‘factory’ at extremely high utilization levels, each additional piece of work you add makes you less efficient and more costly. You must use higher priced contractors rather than internal resources. And your key experts that must do the work, now have to juggle one more thing and will be less effective. It would be far better for your 500 resource team to do say, 80 projects effectively, rather than 110 projects ineffectively. It is like a server that has not enough memory for the applications active on the system. More and more time is spent on overhead, paging things in and out rather than on real work. The end result is less work done in total even though more projects are active. This is a common trap that is overcome by knowing you effectiveness range and then simply prioritizing with the business. If something critical has come up then for it to be started you must ice and take off the table other projects. Make these choices with your business partners. If you maintain this balance, then you will get more projects done in the year — and that should be the true measure of delivery (not how man projects you started).
Project reporting and communication – Doing a project is a team effort. You have many staff with different backgrounds and skills from different organizations that must come together to deliver on a single blueprint to a common goal. With such a diverse team, effective communications are paramount. And yet, often, the only formal communications are those that a directed towards senior management. There are three primary audiences that a project manager should communicate formally: senior management, the business customer, and the project team. Further, the project manager should leverage the same detailed reporting and advanced analysis that they are doing to manage the project to quickly reformat into a digestible report for their audience.
Oftentimes, you find the project managers are burdened by multiple reporting systems where they are manually entering the same information two or three times. And then middle management for both IT and the business demand additional reports on metrics that are not useful and forms for approval that are bureaucratic and repetitive. Meanwhile, the critical data (e.g. risk items, resource utilization, critical path delays) are not reported broadly if at all. And the project manager is overwhelmed with the busy work versus the real task at hand.
So streamline the reporting process. Ensure your team a single, effective project reporting tool and invest in one if not. I recommend that all the but the smallest projects produce a weekly ‘4-Box’ report. This one pager can be used for all three primary audiences and ensures the project manager, the sponsor and the key stakeholders are paying attention to the important aspects of the project.
I will be placing a 4-Box sample on the reference page for your use later this month. But they key components are simple:
- a landscape page with 4 quadrants, a left margin column and a header section
- the header consists of the Project Title centered and Project Status in color boxes on the far right upper corner, and the project mission in small font (it always amazing how many people work on a project and do not know what it is intended to do — thus the mission on every communication)
- the left margin contains the names and phone numbers of the project manager, sponsor, and all key participants and stakeholders. Thus everyone knows who to call if there is an issue or question
- The upper left quadrant contains a brief description and the key milestones for the project with dates and a status indicator (e.g. completed, underway, etc)
- The lower left quadrant box contains accomplishments and progress for the past week (or time period). There should be a brief description of progress and a listing of the key milestones or tasks completed.
- The upper right quadrant is a listing of the key risks and issues the project faces. They should be catalogued and a status indicated (e.g. Mitigated, Underway, Open) with a color status as well.
- The bottom right quadrant should provide what will will get done this next week or time period by milestone or significant task with dates and with owners.
Additional information can be used to augment the report, but they key is now you can use the same one page to communicate effectively with all your audiences. This ensures everyone is one the same page (literally) at a minimum of effort. Note also that we avoid the ‘ creative writing’ of project status reports that some many organizations waste time and use to put an optimistic spin on the project progress. Instead, just the facts.
By aligning your project process and teams to these two best practice approaches, you will find:
- you are not starting projects before they are ready to be started
- you will run your project factory at optimal output and effectiveness
- you will lighten the overhead load on your project managers, so they can do more real work
- your project teams will be on the same page (and thus more effective)
- you and your businesses will know what is going on and can identify issues much earlier and solve them more quickly
In essence, you will deliver projects more successfully.
What are the variations on these approaches that you have used with success? What would you do differently? What other areas of project delivery are problematic that you have solutions for? Have a wonderful holiday and I look forward to your perspectives.