Don’t just jump, leap

Lesson learned: Maximizing project throughput.
Category: Resource management / Portfolio management.

The following post is a “Lesson Learned” that comes from the analysis of the failed projects documented in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” or from the experiences the editorial team have had working with clients around the world. The post is published here to spark discussion and help individuals and organizations think about what it takes to improve project success rates.

Given the rapid pace of change in most markets and the need to use resources as efficiently as possible, organizations want things done as fast as possible. Throughput is the mantra: get as many projects completed in as short a period of time as you possibly can. Meet the customers needs, keep up with competition, pursue the latest ideas, JUMP when the C-suite says JUMP!

While such pressures are fully understandable, organizations need to be careful that they don’t bite off more than they can chew. Like the proverbial kid in the candy store, organizations can easily end up with more projects in progress than they have the capability to either manage or deliver. When that happens there can be serious side affects. Staff can become overloaded, stress levels can build and productivity can drop. Priorities keep shifting, confusion builds and staff loose faith that their senior leadership team have the skills to successfully move the organization forward. Falling morale and a burned out workforce slow the pipeline of work still further and the organization runs the risk of entering a death spiral in which many projects get initiated, but far fewer get finished. Given that business results come from projects delivered, not concepts floated or work in progress, biting off more than you can chew can be the slipper slope down which a business failure builds up its momentum.

Of course one way to improve the situation is to get control over the portfolio of projects and match the flow of projects to the available resources (project portfolio management combined with enterprise resource management). Those two are basics that every organization needs to put in place. Beyond that the burning question is: how do we increase project productivity as much as we possibly can?

Working as both a consultant and a trainer provides me the opportunity to work with people from many, many organizations. As such I’m able to contrast successful organizations with organizations that are struggling. In doing so there are some clear lessons learned that can help organizations become as productive as they can be. For discussion purposes here is a sampling of some of the most important themes that come through from that contrast;

  1. Prioritize skills & training over adding layers of bureaucracy – Projects move quickly when people with the right skills and knowledge are able to make decisions without being encumbered by unnecessary bureaucracy. Some organizations continually under invest in skills development and skills acquisition and instead try and rely on levels of bureaucracy to ensure good decisions get made. Skills are the multiplier of productivity while layers of unnecessary bureaucracy are the brakes that bind on the wheels of progress.
  2. Physically co-locate the team – Where teams are directly in touch with each other communications flows can dramatically improve. Relationships can build and decisions can be made much more swiftly. While “virtual-team” technologies are good and getting better, there is still no substitute for physically sitting next to someone on a daily basis. Where cross-disciplinary teams are able to co-locate things can really start to happen.
  3. Dedicate the team to the project – Where team members are supporting many projects simultaneously they are juggling multiple balls. Each time they shift between projects they are context shifting and loosing focus. Successful organizations tend to be the ones who allow their people to focus.
  4. Stabilize commitments and key decisions – The role of the Project Sponsor is in many ways the most important, where sponsors fail to understand their role or keep flip-flopping their decisions the foundation upon which the project stands is in continual flux. Sponsors need to think hard about what it is they want so that projects get off to a clean start. Poorly considered project initiations lead to churn and inefficiencies that sap energy from the organization.
  5. Establish a meaningful process – While skills matter, so too does having an efficient process. A good project lifecycle ensures the right decisions are made in the right sequence and at the right time. A lack of process means decisions are likely to churn and that chaos will burn.
  6. Communicate frequently and meaningfully – Shorter, but more rapid and efficient interactions are generally better than long more spread out interactions. Inefficient meetings and poor communications are one of the biggest problems some organizations face. Meetings and communications are tools to be used, sadly few organizations train their staff in how to use those tools effectively.

Periodically organizations need to slow down and consider whether their practices are supporting or hindering productivity. A facilitated session where the management team steps backs and takes a hard look at their practices can be a great thing to do. The above list is food for thought, but often the best ideas come from within. Failure to do so often leaves the organization surrounded by fires. When you’re surrounded by fires you may end up simply jumping up and down rather than taking that all important leap forward.

Resolution strategies to consider:

Investing in training (both for project team members and sponsors) / co-location of the project team / project portfolio practices / enterprise level resource management / empowered team members / streamlined processes and methodologies / bureaucracy reduced to the minimum necessary.

Robert Goatham – Editor the Why Projects Fail blog

Leave a Reply