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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Nine Steps to Project Success

Often, it’s once bitten, twice shy. We try something. It doesn’t work out. We go on to something else. Yet, many discoveries and innovations are launched from an initial failure that yields valuable lessons and ultimately paves the path to success.

In this case, a failed project provided valuable insights that helped this company launch a second, highly successful effort to address an important business challenge. The lessons learned from that first project formed the foundation for later success.

Thanks to F.W. for the details on this case.

The Situation

This facilities contractor had a nation-wide presence designing, constructing and servicing commercial and residential building systems including heating and cooling, plumbing and electrical. The services business was a consistent, reliable revenue generator with minimal risk. However, the project side of the business was another story. The company had a checkered history of performance and suffered a number of losses when projects ran into trouble. As well, clients often demanded fixed price contracts to limit their exposure but that put the contractor under greater risk.

The company had attempted to improve their project management capability and performance in a previous project, but that had been abandoned when the delivered solution failed to gain traction. The post audit from that attempt revealed a number of causes:

  • Very few project participants realized the importance of the project to the company’s ongoing well-being.
  • There was little user input in the design phase so users had little motivation to use the application or seek remedies to make it work for them.
  • Duplicate entry of data was required by a number of different users, a significant disincentive to use.
  • There was little value to many of the targeted users as the data was accessible only to the managers.
  • The application was very time-consuming for the foremen so the foremen tended to use it only as a last resort.

Learning from those earlier lessons, the company launched a new project to address their project management challenges. This time, the project needed to achieve its goals. The company’s bottom line depended on it.

The Goal

To institutionalize project management best practices across the organization to significantly improve project performance. The delivered system would support planning, scheduling and budgeting activities as well as change orders and performance tracking and reporting. The corporate target was for 80% of projects to meet or exceed gross margin forecasts.

Because of other corporate priorities and financial constraints, the budget for the project was void of any new capital acquisitions. The project would have to make do with assigned resources and available technologies.

The Project

The CEO formed an initial steering committee that included the head of the organization’s Project Management Office (PMO), the head of the Business Process Management (BPM) organization and the process manager for facilities projects. He also included primary contacts from two key sub-contractors. The head of the PMO added a knowledgeable project manager to the team. The PMO members were to be the subject matter experts. The BPM members would actually guide the project.

The CEO also announced the formation of the steering committee and launch of the project to all staff and to many of the company’s sub-contractors. The communication stressed the importance of the effort to the company’s bottom line, asked everyone to contribute to and support the undertaking and promised frequent updates as the project progressed.

The process manager pulled together a project charter that reflected the lessons learned from the prior project and itemized the remedies and actions that would be incorporated into the new project, including:

  • Improved stakeholder identification and extensive engagement
  • Better communication to all stakeholders
  • Appropriate recognition and rewards
  • Providing better data for more informed decision-making
  • Reduced data entry
  • Phased implementation

The charter included a high-level plan with a three month requirements exercise engaging key stakeholders across the country, staged design and development including prototyping to facilitate collaboration and accelerate consensus, piloting of development iterations with selected targets and a staged rollout over the year. The communication strategy included in the charter covered monthly updates to key stakeholders, quarterly CEO updates, and periodic local show and tell sessions to give stakeholders a sense of the new project management environment and to solicit feedback. The process manager also proposed a recognition and reward scheme that included recognition for key project contributors and bonuses for facilities projects using the new project management process and tools that achieved the corporate goals.

In addition, given the constraints on the project’s capital budget, the process manager recommended using Excel as the primary interface for the delivered functionality. All facilities project managers had Microsoft Office on their laptops, they were familiar with the tools so little additional training would be required and it would allow the project to focus on the new project management process versus a new technology suite.

The document received full approval from the steering committee and the project was underway.

The Results

The results were quite amazing. Where the previous project met with indifference and, ultimately, abandonment, the new project management environment was met with enthusiasm, internalized and fully integrated into the organization’s operating practices. Participants knew it was a CEO top priority, they had numerous opportunities to shape the solution and they were rewarded for their contribution and their facilities projects’ successes using the new environment.

The project was completed mostly on plan and budget. What variances existed happened because of decisions to change approach, timing and content based on experiences and target feedback. In the year following the first successful implementation, 93% of facilities projects met or exceeded their gross margin forecasts. As well, there was a significant increase in best practice submissions from facilities project teams across the country, many of which were embedded in the new project environment, helping shape a continuous improvement culture across the country.

How Great Leadership Achieved Success

This project is a great example of how the learnings from an initial failure can be harvested and leveraged to feed the follow-on project’s success. Nine actions taken by the key stakeholders made all the difference:

  1. Great Sponsorship – The CEO took on the sponsorship responsibility and guided the change through the realization of planned benefits. Everyone knew the project was his and responded accordingly. His personal emails and visits to key contributors and successful facilities teams elevated the project to top of mind for everyone.
  2. Engaged Stakeholders – With active sponsorship and frequent virtual and face-to-face visits from the project team, staff and sub-contractors affected by the change were vital and enthusiastic contributors.
  3. Appropriate Incentives – Emails and visits from the CEO, mentions regarding personal and team contributions in cross company project updates and bonuses for those using the new environment to deliver successful facilities projects created an unprecedented demand to be involved.
  4. Process Over Technology – Sometimes a limited budget can be a benefit. In this case, the default selection of Excel allowed the project team to focus on the new project environment, which accelerated delivery, lowered the learning curve and minimized resistance.
  5. Phased Development – The team was able to focus on the key functionality and gain acceptance quickly, incrementally adding capability according to need. That reduced risk and built an expectation and reality of continuous improvement.
  6. Piloting Makes Perfect – Nothing aids understanding more than being able to try something. The piloting activity was instrumental in getting stakeholder buy-in and providing feedback and insights to improve the environment.
  7. Staged Rollout – The staged rollout helped build a wonderful camaraderie between the team and the targeted stakeholders. The team was able to focus exclusively on the rollout subset and work with the targets until they were fully knowledgeable and performed competently. The after implementation dialogue that frequently occurred generated numerous ideas for future improvements, which were often incorporated as part of the rollout.
  8. Stellar Communications – From the CEO’s quarterly updates to the process manager’s targeted reports, from individual and team acknowledgements to facilities project successes using the new environment, no one in the organization or among key sub-contractors was uninformed or left untouched.
  9. Lessons Learned – This project was the offspring of lessons learned from the forerunner. As well, the conduct of the project, from stakeholder engagement to phasing, piloting and staging was fully geared to harness lessons learned as the project progressed and after implementation, in a continuous improvement culture.

These nine actions aren’t new. We (the project/change management practitioners and others) know they work to reduce risk, add value and accelerate delivery. They’re not rocket science. There’s lots of information available about the practices. They’re reasonably easy to apply. So why aren’t they used on every project? It’s a mystery! If we analyzed the fifty plus posts in this blog we’d find, I expect, that most of the successful projects used the majority of these practices and most of the failed projects didn’t.

So, please, put these points on your checklist of things to do in future endeavors so you too can be a Great Leader. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering stakeholder, the engagement and collaboration process and decision area best practices right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, if you have a project experience, either good or bad, past or present, that you’d like to have examined through the Project Pre-Check lens and published in this blog, don’t be shy! Send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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