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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Projects: What Do You Mean, SUCCESS?

     I had this informal document that tracked a software project from first requirements, resource allotments and schedule to final conclusion, triumphantly scored at the end as a success. The lead author and project manager provided it, assuring me of its authenticity. I think she wanted to make a point.
     The document was an amazing string of email messages, periodic exchanges among the remotely-located team members over an eight-month period.
     With an apparent straight face and an utter lack of adherence to reality, the compiled emails reported “progress” as a two-month plan incrementally expanded to seven months, the team handled 130+ out-of-scope tasks and the invested person-hours went who-knows-where.

     Each message referred to a new deadline and a new invested-hours goal, with no acknowledgement of the obliteration of the original constraints and subsequent amendments. They were never mentioned as they wafted by. The tone was unrelentingly matter-of-fact and positive. It always looked ahead.
     The project, at the end, was declared as coming in under invested-time estimate and ahead of schedule. The cheery wrapup message in the email string included both estimate and schedule, but did not mention that they were brand new, having resulted from upward revision – yet again – a couple of weeks before. 

     If this seems nuts, it may be only because of the unlikely existence of a true historical record. Usually, the initiation, direction and ongoing history of projects are not fully documented, and it’s so easy to forget those earlier expectations as the buildup of ad-hoc problem-solving slides things along the calendar and the “budget.”
     Sometimes the outcome approximates original intentions, and sometimes it doesn’t. Who knows, for sure?
     In most cases, the key project stakeholders don’t thoroughly specify starting requirements, track ongoing performance and seriously evaluate outcome at all, really. For most of their expectations, they rely upon general ideas expressed in sloppy paperwork and verbal exchanges preserved in wobbly human memory.
    Most project documents are historical artifacts, often incomplete, far outdated and sedimented under other unexamined paperwork somewhere in deserted corners.
    That is what really is nuts. Projects deserve more professional handling, because they are mounted to provide significant new value to the organizations that sponsor and fund them. That’s what well-run PMOs (project management offices) are for.

     Success is a moving target. But, when projects are properly managed, they move under control  from an extremely solid, completely mutual base. All key stakeholders, especially those at the top of the authority chain, are fully informed about the intent, fundamentals, risks and needs of the project. And they buy in. 
     As implementation then runs into or exposes variances, the leadership is unswerving. There are no abrupt stops and demands for basic reconsideration. Change management is open and consensual among the disparate stakeholders, because communication and consultation have been robust and uninterrupted. Scope change is disciplined and controlled.
     The progress of the project, if it is to be solid, must stand upon a secure base. An interesting requirement for properly basing a project is rigorous exploration of assumptions.
     When success is defined adequately, it is built upon the airing of everybody’s ideas, worries, speculations. What do the decision-making stakeholders have to say about why they are involved? How successfully do they arrive at full acceptance of each other’s imperatives?
     The ideal is that this plank in the project’s basic platform is constructed in a full exchange among all the people who seek to benefit from the project, must contribute various resources to the project, will work on the project or will be affected by the project.
     I am convinced that the navigation of the dark and swirling waters surrounding major projects requires a sound vessel – a project plan strongly supported by knowledgeable stakeholders in all quarters. They understood everything they needed to understand when they bought in
    Success is a hardheaded business definition.

     That kind of powerful, sustained backing is essential if a professional project manager is to lead a complex project through to the highest possible outcome with the lowest possible investment of time, funds and human effort.
     In the normal course of a typical project, the original agreements – however thorough their development – are bound to be confronted by unexpected variances. The uncertainty factor in planning is perhaps the most predictable characteristic of sizable projects.
     The challenges will not be a serious problem if the start-up base is sound and the ongoing management, including communication, is effective.
     True success, then, is when your documentation of performance and result matches up well with your documentation of expectation and preparation.


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