At the risk of mixing too many metaphors, keeping a project on track isn’t rocket science. Every programme or project requires a clear and viable business case supported by effective sponsorship and proactive leadership if it is to going to be delivered on time and on budget. But these factors alone cannot ensure that a project stays true to its timetable and travels in the right direction.
Time and again, projects get derailed for the same reasons. So here are five questions programme sponsors should ask to establish whether a health check or recovery may be necessary and to keep their project on the right track.
Leadership: are the right leaders with the right skills in place?
Companies often appoint senior personnel to manage projects based on availability or cost, rather than experience or skills. If a leader isn’t suitable, the project and the team can lack clarity of purpose in that approach, governance flaws emerge, and people become disengaged with the project. At this point, the delivery culture fails and the project or programme dissolves into disarray, rather than moving in one clear direction. The leader is then left holding the various elements of a project together.
Commitment and know-how is needed at the top to drive the project, while members of the delivery team must believe that decisions have been made with the necessary gravitas. It is therefore essential that the leadership inspires confidence at all levels, from stakeholders and sponsors, to team members and suppliers.
Clarity of purpose: do your stakeholders and sponsors describe objectives and business benefits in the same way?
It is vital that all team members understand the business benefits and expected scope of a project or programme. Performance reviews must be agreed, assessed, and communicated regularly to ensure consistency of objectives, and verification of delivery targets. Regular assessment also increases clarity of purpose and enables project aims to be realigned to current business needs.
This structure can be imposed internally through top-down authority, or through an external party with the specialist project delivery knowledge that organisation’s often tend to lack. Both methods require the right leaders to be in the right decision-making roles so as to ensure consistency of business objectives throughout the project. Without clarity of purpose, a delivery team can quickly lose sight of objectives. And if a project is consistently failing to make visible progression, then clearly there are deeper issues that need addressing.
Effective governance: can you make decisions quickly and are you confident delivery milestones will be achieved on time?
Having the right structures and decision-making processes in place within the programme and the wider organisation creates effective successful strategic governance that inspires confidence in successfully achieving timetabled milestones. For example, if you don’t schedule regular steering groups that include an agenda item for change approvals at the beginning of the project, it is extremely difficult to organise such meetings on an ad-hoc basis.
If an emergency occurs, be that an unforeseen supply problem or where assurances upfront have proved invalid, mechanisms must be in place to authorise a quick decision so that the project is not delayed. Your governance processes need to be tailored to the project‘s specific requirements if it is to be effective. Reviewing the project’s progress regularly is also a must if aims and milestones are to be achieved to schedule.
Delivery culture: does your team do what it says it will, in the time agreed?
Some organisations are not designed to deliver change projects. They might be focused on sales and marketing, or e-commerce, for example, but embark on a change programme because circumstances demand it.
If the organisation does not have a delivery culture and the right management in place, leadership will be lacking. Without the right leadership, people become disengaged as they don’t see the programme as a priority sanctioned by senior personnel, and they don’t understand how to deploy a project to a particular deadline.
This lack of commitment, experience, and knowledge from the leadership means that challenges are not foreseen and solutions are not planned for pre-emptively. It is like trying to run a train line without any radio system - it is doomed from the outset. When the culture is missing, it is very hard to get something delivered within that organisation.
Smart processes: do your team do things in the same way, and use their time effectively?
Having a customised, robust delivery process in place enables team members to measure their progress and performance in activities and milestones against a control framework. This is essential not only for creating visibility for stakeholders, but to illustrate where stages are not being handled well or where quality is slipping, due to financial or time restraints. Any disjunction between the smart process and the real life process highlights what the impact would be of not following the guide.
For example, in construction there is a clear procedure when erecting a building that most people would follow. If the foundations are not placed first then it is difficult to proceed, and extremely difficult to put them in later. Processes for delivery are much the same. If you are not doing the right things at the right stages of the programme, it causes delays further on and it’s much harder to deliver the project to schedule.
The most common signs that indicate if a project needs to be put in recovery are cost pressure and time pressure. Often these two issues squeeze the scope and detrimentally affect what is delivered, compared with what you set out to deliver. One trigger, however, can easily be rectified internally, but if issues are arising in more than one of these five fundamental areas then they could be common triggers for a health check or recovery to realign business direction. It is vital to remember that the faster issues can be identified and repairs made, the faster your project can pick up steam once more.