04 September 2009

Helping a Project Team Develop Meaningful Conclusions

In a recent post I outlined eight signs that are leading indicators for a project that can be expected not to reach its goals and targets in a timely manner. This post will highlight how best to deal with the last of these signs, a situation where it is difficult to pin the team down on any meaningful conclusions.

Why is this a problem? A key assumption is that the project is meant to develop conclusions and recommendations. There may be projects that have been given a responsibility for "collecting all information". However, in my opinion such a project would be very wasteful. There may be projects that have been asked to only collect data and analyze data about a given issues. In my opinion this is a wrong way to set up a project, as it is impossible to carry out any meaningful analysis without having a goal and a set of hypotheses leading to conclusions.

Assuming that the core reason for the project is to develop conclusions about a key issue, then it is naturally a problem if the project team does not seem interested in doing so. In addition, this is often a fairly scary problem, as it will typically come to light late in the process (sometimes not until the final presentation). This problem therefore can, make most, if not all, of the effort and resources that have been invested in the project a waste.

What is my advice to you, as the project sponsor, to avoid this problem? The most important input from your side is at the beginning of the project. You need to start the project off with clearly defined goals, and deliverables that are very explicit regarding the type of conclusions and recommendations that you expect. You will also need to follow up on the project regularly (default is weekly) to ensure that the project is sticking to its plan and going in the right direction (i.e. will it be able to deliver the required conclusions and recommendations).

When I am helping my clients make complex projects successful I ensure that regular meetings take place with the project team (and sponsor). These regular meetings serve a number of purposes, but should also be used to ensure that the project team is working with hypotheses. Doing so will enable me to test whether proving the hypotheses will bring the team closer to its final goals. In addition, and even more importantly, working with hypotheses enables the project team to work much more effectively and efficiently. Finally, I always strongly suggest that the team is forced to test its conclusions in a Blue Team. This is a meeting with experts who are not directly involved in the project where key ideas and potential conclusions are tested, and the participants are asked for input on key issues and complications.

The previous suggestions are only helpful if the project is starting up or is fairly early in the process. What can you do if you are at the end of the project, and the team does not seem to be close to developing any conclusions? I am often called in to help in this type of situation, and it requires some fairly intense input to correct. The first step is to sit down with the team and go through the overall process of the project. I usually start with a review of the key starting points for the project, and then discuss and agree the goals and deliverables that were given to the project. These should be presented as clearly leading to conclusions and recommendations.

I then go through the work that the team has carried out and find the key data points that have come out of their analytics. These data are discussed with the team with the goal of agreeing what they mean. This is then developed into (preliminary) conclusions. These conclusions then need to be stress-tested. Are they robust? Are they well-supported? If the answer is "yes", the team can start thinking about the communications phase. If the answer is "no", the team and the sponsor need to check how much time is available, and agree the very specific activities that will make the conclusions more robust. The work that the project team carries out in this phase must be followed up very intensely to ensure that every moment is spent on work to make the conclusions more robust.

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