Do the right projects in the right way

There are many statistics about failure, many explanatory theories and many hard-news headlines, but less prominence is given to understanding project success and the merits of following a project management approach

Ben Brownlee has experienced the successes and failures of complex project delivery across several different industry sectors, including financial services, oil and gas, and the public sector as a project director and head of a programme management office. He discusses defining project success, setting out appropriate approaches, the consequences of not following them and how to set up for a successful completion.

A recent study highlights that only 2.5 per cent of companies successfully completed 100 per cent of their projects. The study defines success as delivering within the deadline, costs and scope, and with the right benefits for the business.

But what does that mean and is this really how to define success over the longer term? When considering projects, the long-term outcomes have to be carefully set out and tested throughout.

Consider the development of the Sydney Opera House. Was this a success in terms of a project? The answer initially appears to be no. It was reportedly over budget by 15 times the initial estimate and late by eight years when it was completed.

However, the required outcome was to develop something of “national standing and character”, putting Sydney on the map. This, the Sydney Opera House has done, so many now consider this a successful project.

Another successful project, the BBC’s W1 Programme which redeveloped Broadcasting House in London, set out success as “coming together to serve our audiences better”. It had to win the internal argument that bringing the three main output divisions of the BBC together would create enormous new creative opportunities. This it did by developing the benefits of the change with the 6,000 individuals and many groups affected, and delivering those benefits using a team, drawn from all areas involved, with the right capabilities.

Without adopting a project management approach, including the structure and controls that are part of this, organisations run the risk of delivering the wrong solutions

Projects often try to create something which is hard to achieve using business-as-usual approaches. The need to take a specific project approach or not can be helped by considering several questions.

Firstly, is the solution to be developed innovative? Secondly, does the organisation need significant resource from outside to deliver, that is it lacks sufficient capability on its own? Thirdly, will it require collaboration across a large number of stakeholders, not all of whom are in agreement? Finally, is the scale of the undertaking relatively large compared to the scale of the organisation undertaking it, where scale can be size of effort, amount of risk or amount of benefit?

If the answer to some of these questions is yes, then the undertaking is complex. For these types of projects, even in smaller organisations, a project management approach should pay dividends, if adopted in the right way.

Organisations try to develop innovative new products, services or offers without necessarily thinking about these questions, or always considering the desired outcomes and potential consequences. But keeping these questions in mind helps to avoid costly mistakes, such as Hoover’s 1992 offer of a free transatlantic flight for every appliance bought over £100, which eventually cost the company an unforeseen £48 million, when consumers bought appliances just for the flights.

A key to success is developing and using the right approach. Some organisations can follow an efficient, process-based approach, if that fits their culture and the type of projects that they are undertaking. Other organisations try to adapt their approach for each project from a set of minimum project management standards.

If a project is complex, then the capability of the project team should be matched to the challenge at hand. Projects sometimes fail as a result of the team’s lack of capability in the specialist area, rather than inexperience in delivering projects.

Taking time to properly set up the project is better than relying on identifying problems as the project progresses and then trying to “course correct”. Early signs of derailment can include the business not buying into the project, perhaps paying lip service to the ideas, but never fully supporting them and the inability to describe benefits in detail.

Sometimes it is right that the project changes course. If the environment changes, the organisation changes direction, or the project is not doable in its current form, then it is right to change the project. Without adopting a project management approach, including the structure and controls that are part of this, organisations run the risk of delivering the wrong solutions.

Many organisations group projects together into a portfolio in an attempt to understand consequences, manage complexity and achieve corporate objectives by deploying resources in the best way. This is something that pharmaceutical companies have been doing for many years with their drugs development projects, stopping them early if they don’t show enough signs of coming to fruition. Organisations therefore sometimes have a function that looks across an organisation, overseeing projects and the approach to delivering projects. This is often called a portfolio or programme management office (PMO) which operates under a variety of guises, doing different things depending on the projects and the organisation.

We can learn a lot from successful and failed projects as well as PMOs. The London 2012 Olympic Games have been a great success, to date, when considering the vision of “hosting an inspirational, safe and inclusive Games, and leaving a sustainable legacy for London and the UK”.

However, along the way many lessons were learnt, and not just about security and ticketing. In 2007, the London 2012 programme closed its PMO that was set up at the start of the programme and transferred its responsibilities to a government department’s central programme office. Its aim was to bring together oversight of this vast programme, which the original body was not wholly successful at achieving. To be of greatest value, a PMO should not be perceived as a policing body, just demanding regular reports on progress and costs. It should proactively help delivery, advising on how to avoid common pitfalls, and be the project management coach, acting as a critical friend.

The hard-won lessons from project management are to recognise what a project is and is not, and to be clear about what is success right from the start. Also important is to pull projects together into a coherent group to manage them more effectively and adopt the approach most likely to give success. Only then do you stand a chance of delivering the right outcomes.