Adapting project at the speed of business
In large enterprises, implementing a new project can be slow. It can take years from when management has an idea to improve the business and initiates the project until the project starts delivering value. Sometimes, by the time the project finishes many business opportunities are lost or, worse, business condition may have changed unfavourably from when the idea was incubated. Increasingly, business condition changes at a faster pace than in previous years. Projects must adapt to keep up with the business reality and deliver value faster.
Companies in various industries have projects running in their organisations at any given year in some shape or form. It can be a new business initiative, a new IT project, a new building construction, a new product launch, et cetera, et cetera. Many companies also have project-based organisations to manage the projects on an ongoing basis and send their employees through certification process for project management (such as PMI, IPMA, or IPMC Global). Sounds good, but even in the best funded and most experienced project-based organisations, project delivery often plays catch up with the timing of business needs.
Almost invariably, business stakeholders ask that projects be delivered earlier than when the projects will actually deliver. Unfortunately, projects constraints means that some projects are destined to run long. And it is the long running projects that often face issues when business condition changes midstream through the project lifecycle. So how can these projects adapt to keep up with business changes?
Define upfront, and then measure for, short term and long term business objective
Long project exists because, many times, it simply cannot be delivered in a short period of time for good reasons. However that does not preclude such project from needing to deliver business value as early as possible. Upfront, the project success ought to be defined in concrete and measurable terms for the stakeholders, not only for the long term business benefits for which the project is justified on, but also for the short (or medium) term business benefits. Short term benefits are critical in building up and sustaining support for the project and also as validation that the project is on the right course.
Aim to deliver some practical business value as early as possible even to the point of trading in some theoretical long term big picture benefit. It is a balancing act between real tangible benefit versus potential benefit in the future (that may not be there anymore if the business condition change). Early return on investment also helps make management team be more fact-based in making decisions when the wind of change is blowing. Decisions can be made either to stay the course as the return is already proven, or change the course to improve the odds of maximising return, or stop the project when getting a return takes a leap of faith. Upfront discipline enables agility later on through the project lifecycle.
Break project scope into chunks of modular blocks (as modular as feasible)
Define the project roadmap into blocks of scope that may be executed either in sequence or in parallel or a combination of both. The blocks can build on top of each other, but each should aim to deliver business value instead of only at the end of the project. Essentially, modularity allows the project to be flexible when it needs to change course, without loosing too much on sunk cost.
At the same time, modularity needs to be managed guardedly to ensure efficiency is not sacrificed and that transition flows smoothly from one building block of the project scope to the next. The project blocks cannot exist as loosely federated project streams that act only for their own benefits, diverging from the unified business objectives of the project. Whether companies have defined “portfolio management” or “program management” (or whatever fancy name) process is less important than having the entire organisation understanding and being committed to the essential driver of the business benefits.
Agree on the decision makers and decision making process upfront
Large and long project is usually, or hopefully, strategic in nature. Decision making process can be rather straining due to the impact the project can have and the number of cross-functional stakeholders it entails. So involve the right stakeholders early, clarify and agree upfront who the decision makers are. Then engage them often throughout the project.
Even when who the decision makers are clear, some decision makers can be slow in making decision. A decision making process can help mobilise the decision makers. Decision making criteria needs to be clear and pre-defined upfront with rules to break a deadlock. Analysis paralysis is a luxury that cannot be afforded when project agility is called for.
Keep the big picture in mind
Projects in most companies are funded based on annual budgeting process (true for public companies and also for most private companies), but business change does not wait for the next annual budgeting cycle. Budgeting process imposes important financial discipline but it should not handcuff the project from delivering business value flexibly. At any time of the year, management needs to assess project changes (or new projects) against decision making criteria of what brings the most good for the organisation. Budget allocation should not be static as projects are prioritised and re-prioritised according to business realities.
Also prevalent in large organisations is the institutionalisation of project methodology. This is often done out of the desire for standardisation and scalability (a la factory model for projects). Project methodology is good but it needs to be balanced with pragmatism. It should not be applied to the point of slowing the project when it needs to change course.
“Planning is good, but not if it excludes the opportunity to be able to take chances when they come up.”
In conclusion, the overriding ideas of adaptive project are smart planning and continuous pragmatic decision making. Long projects would serve business stakeholders well by being adaptive according to business changes.