As part of the Project delivery best practices, this reference page covers Project Management approaches and techniques that improve project success rates.
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 very well, but there are issues elsewhere in less visible or lower priority projects. Thus, better project management practices can result in improved results at most organizations.
Further improvement on project success rates can be accomplished by leveraging project techniques that enable overcome typical obstacles. These include such issues as: determining the optimal resource mix, when to do the tough parts of a project, and when to use a waterfall approach versus incremental, agile, or continuous. These techniques are covered elsewhere in the best practices section but we will focus on project management here.
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 but it still is not going to deliver what was required when it was needed.
First, though I would reinforce the value 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.
Improving Project Management through 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?
Best, Jim Ditmore