18 September 2009

The Eighth Deadly Sin

All of you who have read my previous material know that I often speak about the Seven Deadly Sins of complex projects. Through discussions with some of my clients over the summer, I have become aware of what can be seen as the Eighth Deadly Sin. I also must admit that it says something about my long tenure in large consulting companies that this issue was not included in my original list of project problems.

The new "Deadly Sin" was brought forward by a Board member responsible for a group of project managers carrying out transformational projects across a large number of European subsidiaries. He explained that there had been a number of situations where a project lead by one of his managers had worked well and delivered a new, improved process at one of the subsidiaries. There had been a presentation to the SteerCo and with the help of some input from the Board sponsor the SteerCo had agreed to the suggested changes and the high-level implementation plan. However, six months later it turned out that the issues that the new processes were meant to address (late deliveries, low customer satisfaction, etc) had not improved and that the root cause of this was that the new processes had not been implemented. We had a broad discussion of what the reasons for this were, and agreed that one of the core reasons was that there was seldom any structured follow-up of the agreements that had been made at the end of the design phase of the project.

This problem will certainly be included in an updated version of an overview of why projects go wrong (even though "Eight Deadly Sins" does not have the same recognition-factor as "Seven Deadly Sins"). I also have to admit that the main reason that I did not include this in my original list is that the type of blue-chip consultants where I have worked earlier are usually only involved in the early phases of the projects, and are less concerned with the actual implementation. This is, of course, one of the main reasons for using internal project teams with end-to-end responsibilities that includes implementation.

Why are the results of projects not implemented? There are a number of core reasons (some quite valid) for this:

• Very often teams are more optimistic than actually warranted about the real buy-in and acceptance that they have created for their conclusions and recommendations

• Environmental changes may make the agreed changes less attractive than originally believed. An example is if the success of an agreed change to a delivery process is dependent on a new product being launched, but the launch has been delayed

• Priorities within the organization may change. An example could be if the local company has to focus all its free resources on meeting the threat of a new product launch from its main competitor

• The natural inclination of people to give higher priority to the activities that are required for making "today" successful

Issues related to truly getting the required buy-in and acceptance need to be dealt with in earlier stages of the project (see blog entries on interacting with sponsors, dealing with key stakeholders, and getting buy-in for conclusions). The other factors can be successfully dealt with by firstly developing sufficiently detailed implementation plans as part of the overall project deliverables and then putting in place and using a pro-active and structured benefits tracking process. Such a benefits tracking process should follow-up on the overall implementation plan and key milestones, it should measure the fulfillment of agreed targets, and it should include the opportunity to report back on changes in environmental factors and priorities. If the benefit tracking process needs to follow-up on a number of projects (as part of an overall program), then the benefits tracking process should also be multi-layered and focused on exceptions where decisions need to be made rather than giving the same level of detail on all projects.

The advantages of such a benefits tracking system are many, and include:

• There is even more pressure on the project to deliver good work and ensure buy-in as they know the quality of their work will be followed up

• Even if buy-in for the conclusions and recommendations coming out of the project is not 100%, it becomes more difficult not to carry out agreed actions if they are being followed up

• Pro-active follow-up will enable a top-down understanding of environmental developments and changes in priorities, and will allow the development of an agreed "Plan-B"

• The fact that implementation is being followed up makes action much more likely as people will feel the pressure of upcoming milestones and deadlines

Based on the assumption that the project is only successful when the required changes have actually been implemented, ensuring overall buy-in for the results and following up on implementation should be seen as core parts of the overall project. Follow the links if you are interested in more information on project planning or project management training.

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