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Quick Guide to Project Success

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This article provides a practical quick guide to increasing project success in your organisation. It cannot attempt to provide all the answers, but more food for thought for areas that may need addressing. Most organisations run projects and common problems include; missed deadline, delivery of partial scope, going over budget, missing user or client requirements, delivering poor quality or partial benefits. This is a major source of frustration for most organisations.

In some cases, the culture is such that it is almost assumed that any project, particularly internal projects as opposed to client work, will be late. There are many reasons for poor project performance and we cannot attempt to address or solve all of these in this single article. However from our experience, there is a handful of key drivers we see frequently across all types of organisations. Please bear in mind the terminology used is generic and the suggestions do not apply to all projects but here is our quick guide to increasing project management maturity and, therefore, project success.


A cartoon of someone sat down at a desk and others stood around him.Project management is not about creating sophisticated processes. Sophistication leads to complexity. Complexity leads to reduced compliance and people working around these defined processes using their own informal networks…“Bob, can you just OK this project it’s a waste of time to prepare all the documentation for the Portfolio Review Board”. Project management should provide benefits, direct tangible benefits to all concerned. Those running projects should be bought into the project methodology, tools and document templates. Is your project methodology followed or fought?


A cartoon of 3 heads with boxes underneath them.Most organisations attempt to undertake more projects than they have the capacity, particularly in terms of internal resource. People are expected to do their day job AND participate in projects. It is assumed the organisation can just absorb the extra work required to complete a project. Getting people to work efficiently and effectively is a whole separate topic and maintaining data that compares resource availability to planned work can be very time-consuming. We often talk about “the spreadsheet moment” when a new client starts to explain how they are trying to get the arms around resource management. They have created a fantastically colourful spreadsheet listing people and work which becomes an  industry in itself trying to maintain. Microsoft Project Server and the cloud version, Microsoft Project Online are solutions for this, but that’s a topic outside of this article.

Fundamentally we need some structure in the selection process. If we all formally agree this is an important project at the start and we agree the required level of resources, it has a much greater chance of success. Ideally corporate strategy (do you have one?) should drive project selection. Which projects will help us achieve our corporate strategy the most? Which projects are required for legal reasons and which projects are “enablers”, i.e. their completion will enable other projects to succeed? Let’s identify this single list of proposed projects (do you have a Project Register?) and compare them.

I have seen some very impressive project selection scoring mechanisms but fundamentally for me, any scoring should just be a guide. An entity…ideally, something titled the Portfolio Management Board (PMB) or similar should review proposed projects, their scoring (created independently, ideally by a PMO) and then make a business decision to approve (or not) the project through to the detailed planning phase. This is a key point; we should have clear Stage Gates with appropriate governance that allows projects to move through each Stage Gate. The PMB (as an example) should include line managers who, if they agree to the project, will also agree to commit their resources to the project, bringing some stability for Project Managers.


A multi-coloured triangle with circles on each of it's points.Projects are never given enough time to plan. Project Managers themselves tend to jump in and start working on the project without taking the time to confirm the scope, resources, timescales, required benefits, risks, stakeholders. The NUMBER ONE reason for project failure is scope creep or lack of scope definition. Nail the scope. Defining detailed scope should be part of the planning phase as this will provide final numbers on resources, budget, and timescales to take back to the PMB at the Implementation Start Stage Gate or similarly defined key decision point.

A common theme with many Project Managers is their poor scheduling skills, i.e. ability to build a decent project plan. This is not about writing a “to do” list. This is about taking the agreed scope of work and building a logically linked coherent schedule that explains the journey of the project. Many Project Managers will build a plan as part of project approval but then cast it aside once the project is underway. This is not good project management. Let’s build a solid plan based on what we know and track actual progress against this plan so we always know where we are compared to where we thought we were going to be…and the resulting impact.

The first step in building a detailed schedule is to build an initial high-level plan using sticky notes.

Progress Cycle

Arrows going round in a circle.Projects are often run in a fairly chaotic way. We need structure. The Project Manager must establish a progress cycle; a weekly or fortnightly review of progress to date and an issue of work for the subsequent week or fortnight. Every task on a project must have an owner and a deadline; otherwise, I’m going to assume it’s not going to happen.

The Progress Meeting is, therefore, a very focused team meeting. It is not a talking shop or an opportunity to engage in discussions with stakeholders, but a meeting that happens like clockwork, typically on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon. The Project Manager should then issue a Project Status Report (or Highlight Report) following that meeting that provides an honest assessment of where we are for key stakeholders


Two arrows, one facing up and one facing down going round in a circle.Inevitably at some point through the project, someone will change their mind. “Can you just add this to your scope?” “Can we make this slightly differently?” The Project Manager might let small changes just slip through. Large changes, however, need careful management. The problem for most Project Managers is that the person asking for the change is often their line manager or client so it’s difficult to say “no”. In fact, it’s not up to the PM to say “yes” or “no” but to evaluate the proposed change and the consequences.

The phrase I often suggest to Project Managers to say is “let me assess the impact of this PROPOSED change and let you know the consequences”. Yes, we can make this change, but will extend the project by x days and cost y more, do you want to proceed? Let’s make an informed decision about that proposed change rather than just doing it because that’s what the senior manager fancied doing that day.

There should, therefore, be a clear defined change control process. Any proposed change should be reviewed and approved or rejected by the appropriate level of governance. For example, this small change can be approved by the Project Sponsor. This larger change needs approval by the PMB.


A pound sign.There must be a reason why we are doing this project in the first place. It is hopefully to achieve some benefit. Hopefully the benefit out ways the true cost of doing the project! Have you really considered the amount of internal resource required to complete this project or are you just capturing external (Capex) spend? So many organisations do not link the cost of internal resources to projects, these people must be free, but apparently they are paid a salary so that can’t be true.

Is the benefits case clearly stated as part of project selection in your organisation? Does the Business Case document hold water? Once the project is underway the Project Manager and Sponsor must regularly refer back to the original business case, are we still on track to gain this benefit? Make sure your live projects are reviewed for benefits and the benefits case is kept in the mind of all team members. This is why we are doing this project after all!

Equally once a project completes who is going to measure benefits going forward? Most projects do not deliver all their benefits on day one of project completion so it is important that some entity takes ownership of monitoring benefits for the completing project. Did it deliver as we hoped? Although the Sponsor should continue to own the business case and, therefore, the benefits tracking (the benefits realisation) it could be useful to delegate this to the PMO.


A warning triangle sign.Risk management is something that is often not considered at all or just seen as a tick box exercise. There is genuine value in completing decent risk management for any project. A risk is something that might go wrong (as opposed to an issue which is something that has already gone wrong).

Project teams should pro-actively think about risks, how significant they are, and what they can actually do about them before they happen. Often a Project Manager will ignore risk management and then if a risk does materialise they put it down to “just one of those things”, “not my fault”, and it gives them a reason for being late, over budget, or delivering reduced scope.

We need to be much smarter. Risk management involves mitigation activity and contingency planning, both of which creates more work for the project team in the short term. This is why risk management tends to be very poor, as people have enough to do and really don’t want to create more work for themselves. Of course, the little extra work today could save heaps of work in the future, but people often don’t look that far.

Make sure your projects engage in some practical risk management. There is a tendency for the most enthusiastic to get carried away with risk identification and use their imaginations to suggest all sorts of potential catastrophes. Keep it real and practical.

Project Roles

Two cartoon heads with no faces on.Is it clear who is actually taking on the role of Project Manager for every project in your organisation? Is is clear who is taking on the role of Sponsor? Do the Team Members know they are part of a project team or are they just being asked to complete a piece of work with no awareness of the wider implications?

List your projects and give them clear ownership. If you have a project that does not have a Project Manager or worse a project where several people think they might be the Project manager then it’s very likely to go wrong.

The Sponsor, often a senior manager, must also realise that the role of Project Sponsor is different to day to day management. There is a tendency for some Sponsors to almost wash their hands of the project whilst others virtually push the Project Manager out of the way and try and run the project themselves.

Does your organisation have clearly defined role descriptions for Sponsor and Project Manager? Only those that have been through appropriate training should be given these roles. Typically someone is given a project as they are a subject matter expert (SME). They know about this part of the business, this technology, this service, or this client, so they get the project. They might be a great SME but are they going to be a great Project Manager? Unlikely if they have not received good training, methodology guidance and support through the project.

In this article I’ve highlighted some areas that hopefully provide some food for though. It is not an exhaustive list and we can certainly discuss all these areas in much more detail. To summarise, I’ll leave you with some key questions. If you are looking to increase project success then you should have reasonable answers to these questions…

  • Do you know how many projects your organisation is attempting to run at this moment?
  • Those given the role of Sponsor and Project Manager – have they been given any training in how to perform these roles?
  • Does your organisation have a clear process for approving projects?
  • Does your organisation have a practical, useful project methodology that can be applied consistency across all projects? Does this methodology flex to suit the scale of each project?
  • Do you have a PMO and does it do more than just collate reports?
  • Are projects well planned so you know how much resource & budget they will need and this resource & budget is ring-fenced for the project?
  • Do projects provide honest & timely updates on their status?
  • Are risks & issues escalated or swept under the carpet until they blow up?
  • Do you know how many resources you need to manage all live projects being undertaken over the next 3 months?


We work with clients across all industries helping them improve project management maturity. The solution typically involves a range of initiatives often starting with defining a practical project methodology, training people in this methodology (& practical project management techniques), creating a project management community, building on the skills and role of the PMO and potentially leveraging solutions such as Microsoft SharePoint or Microsoft Project Server to help manage the data.

We can provide as much, or as little, guidance & support on all of these topics as you require. Many of our services are offered as a fixed price package and all our services can be tailored to suit your particular situation.

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