Ensuring Project Success II: Best Practices in Project Delivery

I hope that you are back from holidays well-rested and ready to go for the new year. My previous post provided some tips on how to get off to great start of the new year, today’s post will focus on some additional best practices for Project Delivery (I covered project initiation and project reporting and communication practices in my December post on project delivery). Today, I will cover project management best practices. I expect to also extend these posts with a project delivery best practices pages that will cover more details over the next month.

As I previously mentioned, project delivery is one of the critical services that IT provides. And yet our track record as industry of project delivery is at best a mixed bag. Many of  our business partners do not have confidence in predictable and successful IT project delivery. And the evidence supports their lack of confidence as a number of different studies over the past five years put the industry success rate below 70% or even 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 well, but there are issues elsewhere in less visible or lower priority projects.

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 Management – I think one of the key positive trends in the past decade has been the rise of certified project managers (PMP) and the leverage of a PMI education and structure for project activities. These learnings and structure have substantially raised the level of discipline and knowledge of the project management process. But, like many templates, if used without adjustment and with minimal understanding of the drivers of project failures, you can have a well-run project that is not going to deliver what was required.

First, though I would reinforce the vlaue of ensuring your project manager have a clear understanding of the latest industry PMI templates and structure (PMBOK) and your organization should have a formalized project methodology that is fully utilized. You should have at least 50% of your project managers (PMs) within your organization be PMP certified. If you have low proportion of PMs with certification today, set a goal for the team to achieve step improvement through a robust training and certification program to move the needle. This will imbue an overall level of professionalism and technique within your PM organization that will be beneficial. The first foundational attributes of good PMs are discipline and structure. Having most, if not all, of your PM team familiar with the PMI will establish a common PM discipline and structure for your organization.

So, assuming you have in place a qualified PM team and a defined project methodology primarily based on the PMI structure, then we can focus on three key project management best practice areas. Note these best practice areas help mitigate the most common causes of project failures which include:

  • lack of sponsorship
  • inadequate team resources or skills
  • poor or ambiguous requirements or scope
  • new technology
  • incorrect development or integration approaches for the scope, scale, timeframe or type of project
  • inadequate testing or implementation preparation
  • poor design

As I mentioned in the Project Initiation best practices post, there is a key early gate that must be in place to ensure effective sponsorship, adequate resources, and proper project scope and definition.  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.  Use this entry gate to ensure the effort is not just a waste of money, resource time, and business opportunity.

So assuming you have executed project initiation well, you should then leverage the following project management best practice techniques.

Effective definition, design and implementation approaches:  Failure in these areas is often due to what I would call ‘beating around the bush’. In many projects, getting the real work done — well-defined requirements, the core engineering work, thorough testing is hard and takes real talent. Many teams just work on the edges and don’t tackle the tough stuff. I recommend ensuring that your project managers and design leads are up for tackling the tough stuff in a project and doing it as early as possible (not late in the cycle). And when it is done, it should be done fully. So, some examples:

  • if requirements are complex and ambiguous at the start, a good project manager will schedule rigorous project definition sessions. The PM will ensure broad participation, and good attendance and engagement at the meetings. Perhaps even a form of Rapid Requirements is used to quickly elicit the definitions needed. Or, the project team will use an agile or highly iterative incremental approach to take back to the user interfaces and outputs for early clarification and verification.
  • if new technology is being used, or there is a critical component or algorithm that must be engineered and implemented, then work begins early on these core sections. A good PM knows you do not leave the tough stuff to be done last. In particular, these means you do not wait for the final weeks of the project to do complex integration. Instead you develop and test the integration early with stubbed out pieces. Pilot and test, if necessary in parallel, the tough stuff. And if there are major hurdles not anticipated, then you will find them out early and you can kill or alter the project much earlier with far less sunk costs.
  • as CIO, make sure that major IT initiatives that your company is investing in make a difference where the rubber meets the road. The system must be easier to do the most common tasks, not just lots of features and cool. You want to make sure the front line staff will want to use the new system (not be forced to convert).
  • in sum, the approach for the design and implementation work should be incremental, parallelized and iterative rather than serial, waterfall, or as I like to call it, ‘ big bang theory’.  Waterfall can be used for well known domains, well understood engineering, and short or mid-range timelines. Otherwise, it should be avoided.

Project checklists, inspections and assessment: Use lightweight project and deliverable review approaches to identify issues early and enable correction. Given the failure rate on projects is typically 50% or more, and given the over-demand on most IT shops, nearly every project will have issues. The key is to detect the issues early enough so they can be remedied and the project can be brought back on track. I have always been stunned at how many projects, especially large ones, go off track, continue to be reported green while everyone on the project team thinks things are going wrong, and only at the very last minute do they go from green to red.  Good quick assessments of projects can be done frequently and easily and enable critical early identification of issues. These assessments will only work if there is an environment where it is okay to point out issues that must be addressed. (By the way, if 90%+ of your projects are green, that means either no one can report issues or you have an extremely good project team). The assessments can be a checklist or a quick but thorough review by experienced PMs, issues should be noted as potential problems, and they are compiled and left with the PM and the sponsors to sort through and decide if and how to address them. Your senior manager in charge of your PMs and you should get a monthly summary of the assessments done. Often you will find the same common issues across projects (e.g. resource constraints or late sponsor sign off on requirements) and you can use this to remedy the root cause.

Another key technique to use in addition to project assessments is inspections.  Just about any deliverable for a project, requirements, high level design configurations, test plans, can be inspected — not just code. And inspections are an under-utilised yet typically, the most effective way to find defects (other than production). Have your project teams use inspections for critical deliverables. They work. And augment inspections with a few deep dives (not inspections) of your own of both in flight and completed projects to ensure you have a pulse on how the work is getting done and what issues your teams are facing.

I hope to add some Project Assessment Checklists to the best practice pages in the coming month. Anything you would add to the list?

Next week I hope to tackle Program Management and Release Management and key best practices in those areas.

Any good project stories you would like to share? Anything you would change in what I recommended? Let me know.

Best, Jim


About Jim D

Jim has worked in the IT field for over 25 years and as a senior leader for over 15 years. He has successfully turned around a number of IT shops to become high performing teams and a competitive advantage for their companies.
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6 Responses to Ensuring Project Success II: Best Practices in Project Delivery

  1. JJ says:

    Jim, it really is amazing how often projects fail and the the Dr. Dobbs reference is revealing. To expand on your advice for this post, I think it is a big help for an organization to have a cross functional group of leaders perform assessments after ground rules are set that make it a helpful assessment, offering suggestions on the team make up, technology and project risks, scope etc. Once the word gets out PM’s and project team members are more likely to be open about issues that they experience.

    While you mention poorly defined scope and requirements, I might also call out explicitly changes in scope that aren’t controlled as a key contributor to project failures.

    • Jim D says:

      JJ, I would agree that it is a disappointingly high number of failures. I do think having a culture that enables the project managers and teams to be open about issues — which are definitely going to occur — enables the organization to address problems much sooner and thus be much more successful with the project.

      An all green project status report indicates either cultural issues or incredibly good project delivery — and the bet would be the former.

      Best, Jim

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