Keys to Project Success - Part 1

Over the course of my career I’ve managed many projects – from small, straight-forward software development projects for one department in an organisation to global system roll-outs across multiple continents and time-zones.  I’ve learned a number of lessons along the way, read some really excellent books throughout my career on project management, and made sure I always learned from my mistakes.  This series of posts will cover a few things that I believe are critical to project success.

Do the Prep Work

While this sounds obvious, I’ve always found it surprising that this is one area where people often do less than I think they should.  Before any detailed planning and execution work, there are a few things that you really must clearly understand and do.  After all, the devil is in the details.

Begin with the End in Mind

Anyone who has read “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” knows this one, and it’s critical in my opinion for project success.  Know what the end-state is supposed to look like, in as much detail as possible.  What is it that you’re supposed to have built / achieved / put in place by the end of the project?  What exactly does it look like?  Often part of the project is to define this, and in that case, you must at least be clear on what the business objectives are that the end-state and the business processes you will develop are supposed to achieve.  If this critical beginning work isn’t done well, it will doom the project.

Get the Right Champion in Place

Make sure you have a champion senior enough in the organisation to not only remove any roadblocks that you may have throughout the project, but to also be your prime evangelist.  Make sure he / she know that those accountabilities will be part of his / her job in ensuring project success.  And, make sure she / he believes in the project and is engaged from the get-go.  If not, you’ll be sunk before you begin.

Assess Feasibility and Viability Dispassionately

Another way of putting this is determine right up front and honestly without emotion, “Can we do it?” and “Should we do it?”   

Feasibility deals with not only technical feasibility (does the technology exist and is it mature enough to do what we’re proposing?), but also organisational capability and capacity, and legislative / regulatory constraints.  Capability and capacity are particularly important, because if an organisation doesn’t have the talent internally to execute or the scope of the initiative will dangerously stretch the organisation, then is just as risky if not more so as using unproven technology. 

Once we know we ‘can’ do the project (and at a high level we’ll have worked out some the ‘how’ in determining that we can), we need to answer the “should we” question.  In other words, knowing the costs (that’s where the high-level ‘how’ comes into play) and the anticipated benefits, is there a positive impact on the bottom line, either short-term or long-term, and at least long-term.  This can be a bit of a challenge, as it’s often difficult to quantify some things such as improved productivity, employee morale, community standing, or a number of other factors that are not obviously tied to increased sales or clear elimination of costs.  But I believe one needs to understand the up-side of the initiative, and with a bit of analysis, and some reasonable assumptions, those benefits can be quantified (it’s the accountant in me coming through).  Once you do, then you can look at the costs and benefits, and the answer to “Should we do it?” becomes pretty obvious.

Start Organisational Transformation Work Right from the Beginning

Every single project creates change in our environment.  That’s why we do them.  People respond in a variety of ways to change, from positive if we can show them how the project will make their lives better, to negative if they perceive they are threatened by what is to come.  It’s far better to determine who those stakeholder groups are and how they will view your project early, and determine how you can bring them all onto the positive side.  That will help to create momentum for the project.

This work is much more than just a project kick-off meeting.  It means doing some analysis and leg-work:

  • enumerating both individual stakeholders and stakeholder groups;
  • assessing whether they would be for, neutral, or against the project, and why (i.e., how the project and its outcome will impact them);
  • what to do to ameliorate the real or perceived negative consequences for those stakeholders that would likely be against the project so that they would at least become neutral, if they cannot be transformed into supporters;
  • how to turn stakeholders who would have a neutral perspective into supporters;
  • how to ensure continued positive perspective for the supporting stakeholders;
  • having one-on-one conversations with key constituents to engender their buy-in;
  • honestly assessing the strengths of the headwinds for the project, and engaging the champion and other influential, supportive stakeholders early to address those headwinds; and
  • creating the start of an organisational transformation plan.


Read Part 2!