At the beginning
Where did the project come from?
There may be all sorts of reasons why you are being involved in a project. Below are just some of them.
- Someone, somewhere in the organisation, has identified an opportunity or a problem and made a business proposal that the opportunity should be taken up or the problem resolved. That someone might even have been you! This proposal has subsequently been ‘turned into’ a project.
- The organisation may already run programmes of projects – large-scale strategic change, sub-divided into a number of projects designed to deliver that change in manageable chunks. This may be one such project.
- Your organisation is an external contractor or consultant who bids for and tries to win project contracts or assignments.
- New legislation or regulation requires changes to be made to your organisation’s activities or processes and making these mandatory changes has been turned into a project.
- Your boss has seen something that he wants doing and has decided to make it a project.
- You have identified something you think should be done and want to initiate a project.
- Some projects just start when a manager says ‘I have been thinking; would you just...’ – take care; it might be a project in the making...
And so on, and so on... Clearly, the reason for your involvement and the nature of the project will determine what needs to be done at the beginning. If you are being assigned to a project that is already approved and about to start (typically, examples 2, 3, 4 above), then you will need to make some sensible checks. For example:
- Are the Terms of Reference, Project Mandate, Statement of Requirements or Statement of Works clear?
- Are your roles and responsibilities unambiguous?
- Is the Business case still valid and realistic?
- Is there a plan or do you need to produce one to make sure the stated objectives are achievable before you commit to them.
If, on the other hand, you are getting involved in a brand new project (typically, examples 1 and 5), then you have to start at the beginning. This will mean working hard to make sure that there is a good Project Mandate (why is the project being initiated), a Project Brief, a solid Business Case and quite probably a Project Initiation Document (PID from PRINCE2), which goes into more detail about what needs to be done so that you have all the information needed to start the project on a sound basis. In short, this is the, ‘who, why, what, when and how’, part of the project. It defines all major aspects of a project and forms the basis for its management and the assessment of overall success. Building these documents can be quite time consuming.
If you want to propose a project yourself, you will have to put together a good case for it. Your organisation will want to know at least the following before deciding to support the project:
- What problems or opportunities does this project address?
What is the intended business outcome?
When starting on a project, it is essential that those involved are in agreement about the motive behind the initiative and what the desired outcome is.
- To be successful what must it achieve?
- What would be nice to have, but could be dropped if the budget gets too big?
- What other solutions have been considered?
- What are the obvious risks?
- What sort of budget will be needed?
- What return can we expect from that investment?
- What will happen if we do not do it?
- Is there a deadline for completion?
- What is the intended scope (what is included; what is excluded)?
- Can we be sure that the necessary skills are available or can be contracted?
Your own budget
Finally, of course, you may be someone who has their own budget, spending authority and decision-making power. In this situation you may be (say) the Marketing Manager in an SME or a departmental head in the public sector – someone who knows what they want, has the budget to do it and is willing to be, effectively, the project owner or sponsor. This means that you can just go ahead with booking an exhibition stand and order the required marketing material without obtaining ‘permission’.
The reality is that, even in the circumstances suggested above, if you use the disciplines inherent in project management, you will improve your chances of success considerably.
Although it is increasingly common to find that the requirements of good project management have been taken on board, there are countless occasions when the discipline is still ignored. People whiz off emails with good ideas in them, but without any real attempt to build even the slightest business case. Projects can start without any real calculation of the potential benefits – they are just someone’s idea (typically, someone with power/authority to make the decision and an ability to avoid any responsibility for the outcome). Such projects lumber on, burning up resources well after they should have been halted. Other projects are completed, but no solid benefits emerge.
What is different about using the logic of good project management is that bad ideas can be killed before they eat up resources; good ideas have to stand the test of ‘what benefits will it bring’ before resources are committed. With good project management, the value of different projects can be compared, and accountabilities and responsibilities are clear – as are the ultimate objectives, outputs, outcomes and benefits of the project. Finally, in projects that are managed well, the benefits that were expected are usually obtained.
One of the key strategic items in well-run businesses is that there is good project governance at board level. This means the board has put in place appropriate decision-making mechanisms for starting projects, usually in the form of a two-stage decision-making process.
Firstly, the concept for the project is properly evaluated, with an outline business case, giving some idea of the scale of the project and an assurance that it ‘fits’ with the overall corporate strategy and direction. This happens when the idea has been firmed up – the concept stage. This evaluation leads to the decision to proceed to a project appraisal and definition stage – or not.
During the appraisal and definition stage, the organisation will look at all the possible ways of achieving the desired business outcome and will carry out a feasibility study to ensure the best solution has been identified. The project scope, objectives and product deliverables will be defined to support the business case. This leads to the second major decision point – to invest or not – in the particular project.
When this disciplined approach is adopted, the board knows it is investing in the right projects at the right time in order to deliver its business strategy. Thereafter, its role is to ensure that, by continuing to make regular checks of the business case, the board knows that the projects it has commissioned are still required and will still deliver the required outcomes for the business in a timely and costly fashion. A key part of good governance is knowing when to stop an existing project whose outputs are no longer required or necessary.
Just so that you are alert to the whole project environment within your organisation, here is a short checklist of things that, if you were to tick most of them, should warn you that there is a large potential for problems. When projects are undertaken, do any of the following apply?
- Projects are inadequately defined.
- Business cases are often massaged to get project approval.
- Changes to scope and specification are ignored in cost reduction exercises.
- Users are able to push for changes without the cost implications being acknowledged.
- Planning is minimised or minimal.
- Little project prioritisation takes place; when it does, favourites get the best resources.
- Project management methodologies are used in name only or overly bureaucratically.
- Planning tools are over-sophisticated.
- Lots of effort goes into avoiding changes in the plan.
- Plans are not adjusted when actual resource availability is known.
- Resource overload is common.
- Financial hurdles make spending the project budget difficult.
- A lot of effort goes into comparing progress to the plan.
- Project decision-making takes a long time.
- Decisions are taken in isolation, without a thorough project perspective.
- Some senior managers are overt saboteurs or passive resisters.
- Multi-tasking on projects is seen as a good thing.
- Resources are frequently switched between projects.
- No one monitors the project context to make sure that it is still required (a sponsor’s duty).
No doubt there are many more, but these will do as a starter guide!
How did they choose a project manager?
One more thought here... If you are a project manager in an organisation or someone who has just been asked to take on a project management role, it is well worth asking yourself why you were chosen. Was it because of your previous track record in this area, because you have been asking for the chance to run a project or because you were the only person available at the time? This is not designed to de-motivate you ,but to help you develop a realistic understanding of why you are involved in the project. This should both alert you to the expectations held about you and motivate you to want to succeed!
What type of project is it?
There is one final thing to consider. One of the underlying problems is that all projects are different. Many old hands have a traditional classification for different types of project, based on the level of management skills required:
The organisation is very familiar with this kind of project. ‘We do them all the time.’ This makes it easy to plan and estimate, low risk and usually easy to execute. Often, a very precise methodology and process has been developed for their management and low-skilled project managers can easily cope with them.
People in the organisation are familiar with this type of project and can remember working on similar ones and the processes they used. ‘We do these from time to time; it’s similar to one we’ve done before.’
People don’t know anything about this type of project and haven’t done one like it before. They are aware, however, that a project of this type can be done, though their lack of familiarity with it will make it harder to plan and estimate, higher in risk and harder to execute. ‘We’ll work from first principles and try to talk with people who’ve worked on this type of project elsewhere.’
Absolutely new; people within the organisation have never seen or heard of anything like this one before; they don’t know what it is or how to do it. So this obviously makes it hard to plan and estimate; the risk factors will be high and it is unclear how it should best be executed. ‘First principles’ project management is essential to coordinate the research, definition and implementation stages of this type of project. ‘We’ll involve our most experienced project staff, research and discuss widely, and recognise that this type of project has similarities to R&D projects.’
Knowing what sort of project you are getting involved in is crucial to the sort of approach you’ll need to take.
If you have had no previous experience and this is an important and complex project, you need to think about training in project management (see What else do I need to know about?). You could look for a short course that sets out the fundamental tenets of good and effective project management. Many business schools, colleges and professional associations, such as the Association for Project Management (www.apm.org.uk), run or can point you at organisations that run courses, either public or in-company, possibly with computer-based training or on-line training. Alternatively, many organisations are using a tailored version of a proprietary methodology, such as PRINCE2. Again, you should look at the accreditation body for such courses – the APM Group (www.apmgroup.co.uk) will give you lists of accredited training organisations.