Project planning puts a process around the conversation of strategy implementation. In my experience in working with many companies across multiple industries and globally, I've found that the overwhelming majority of executives develop compelling strategies that would yield significant growth in business performance, yet only a rare few are able to implement the strategy successfully, and reap the rewards. Why? Execution is everything, yet there is a lack of focus on it.
Project planning fills a large part of the execution gap. How? First, by talking through the strategy, the key elements of the strategy (which, many times, turn into milestones) seem to naturally emerge in the conversation. Then, by discussing the key elements and the specific actions required to achieve them, a project plan begins to form. Lastly, by discussing the appropriate task owners, support required, and other key details, the detailed execution plan required to achieve the strategy emerges.
I've worked with hundreds of projects over the years in multiple roles (ranging in size, scope and role from project leader of multi-million dollar projects to project team member on a small but vital, $1000 customer project), and I've found no exception to the following rule: With appropriate executive commitment and upfront project planning, any project has an 80% better chance of achieving the intended results. Yet without those two prerequisites, the project team ends up running around in circles without any results to show for it.
So, what are the keys to success in project planning?
- Executive Commitment and Involvement: By executive commitment, I do not mean verbal commitment and it's done. The executive must demonstrate commitment and be involved to the degree required based on the organization and project team.
No strategy can succeed without this critical component - after all, who developed the strategy? Who understands the strategy? Who is best to communicate its importance? This step cannot be faked. Undoubtedly, tough decisions will surface, and the Executives must face them head on, evaluate them vs. the strategy and present a clear path forward.
- Effective Questioning: A secret to success in project planning is to develop an effective questioning process. Unfortunately, this cannot be left to inexperienced resources, as digging into the strategy to the degree required to develop an aggressive yet practical and clear project plan and timeline is vital. It is easy to get side-tracked on seemingly important topics which are not germane to executing the strategy. In today's world of limited resources (time, money, skilled personnel), it is critical to stay on target. An effective questioning method backed with execution experience will not only provide a razor-like focus but will also ensure that key components of the strategy do not get overlooked.
- A Rigorous Focus on the Critical Path: Although it seems as though every project task is important, all tasks are not created equal. Instead, the critical path (which is the sequence of project tasks that add up to the longest overall duration) is the 80/20 of achieving success. Therefore, the 80/20 of the project planning process should be focused on developing, modifying and continually reevaluating the critical path. Although all task owners are important, the critical path items will be those that lead to success or failure, so spend a few extra minutes on thinking about who you are assigning to own your critical path tasks. Do you want to hang your hat on their ability to succeed? If not, re-think it. Provide training. Beef up the project leadership. Do whatever it takes to minimize risk to the critical path.
There are few items more important than strategy - it is the cornerstone to business growth and profits. So, are you willing to invest the time into an upfront project planning process to ensure a successful rollout of your strategy? A simple well-executed strategy will beat a poorly-executed, yet sophisticated, strategy development process every time.
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