29 August 2011

How to ensure successful start-up of a project

For most of us the summer is over, and we are back to work. For many of you this will mean starting up new projects. In a previous blog-spot I talked about which projects you should do in-house (i.e. not hire in external consultants). I will assume that you have a number of this type of projects under consideration and that your role is either being the sponsor or the project manager.

In my experience, the start-up is the most crucial phase of a complex project. This is due to it very much determining the success of the project, and the difficulties in to correcting many of the mistakes that are often made in this phase.  Many times when I am called in to help projects that are ongoing but are facing difficulties, I have to re-start the project in order to get them on the right track again.

The main goal of the start-up phase of a project is to ensure that the project is defined optimally and clearly. If this is difficult, as it often is for complex projects, then a solution can be to do a scoping project that has the goal of developing a clear understanding of the problem at hand. Examples of such scoping exercises that I have carried out include a project that had as the goal to understand why delivery times were so long for a telecom company. The projects gave a number of clear issues leading to long lead times, and solving these issues then became a number of structured and focused follow-up projects.

Ensuring that a project gets a flying start entails carrying out a structured process that requires careful thinking at each step. The order suggested in the process is crucial, as each previous step provides key information and starting points for the next step.  The steps that you as the project sponsor / project leader need to take to ensure that the project gets an optimal start are:
·         Clearly define the background for the project
·         Develop a clear goal for the project and translate this into structured deliverables
·         Clearly state the scope of the project
·         Decide the approach that the project needs to take
·         Find the staff required for carrying out the project


I am constantly amazed at the projects I see where the team members cannot clearly articulate why the project is being carried out. In my experience this often means that the team members also do not truly understand the work that they are carrying out, and are therefore very likely to spend time on wrong activities, or develop inappropriate conclusions from the work that they have carried out. The first step you need to take is therefore to clearly articulate the "why" of the project. This should position the issue in the broader context of the organization (strategy, etc), and ideally give a "burning platform" that will motivate team members, sponsors, etc.

A clearly stated "why" for a project makes it relatively easy to develop the goal of the project.  The goal of the project should be a clear and concise statement of purpose. It establishes what the project will do. Examples of goals in recent projects that I have carried out include:
·         Make the company profitable
·         Develop a clear telecom strategy
·         Develop a strategy for positioning the company in the New Energy market

The goal is a fairly broad statement that says what the project will do, and is used to set expectations and establish a stake in the ground regarding what the project will do and the scope of the project. A common mistake is to state a goal that can only be reached far in the future with input from this project and other projects. This is not helpful, and effort needs to be made to ensure that the goal is relevant for the project at hand.

The deliverables of the project are the concrete things that the project will provide. This should always be a noun, and be something that did not already exist. It can cover a broad range of "things" ranging from insight, a plan, an implemented plan, etc. The deliverables can be seen as how the goals of the project will be met. The agreed deliverables of a recent turn-around project I carried out included a) clear understanding of why the company was losing money, b) concrete actions to turn the company around, c) a new organization structure, and d) a focused and structured plan for the implementation phase.

I have seen very many projects that have gone wrong because the scope was not clearly defined. Typical problems have included projects that have gone off on tangents that were not really relevant and projects that have been drowned in "extra" activities from sponsors and other stakeholders. While goals and deliverables clearly state what a project will do, a clear scoping statement states what the project will not do. This helps the project set and exceed expectations. In the cost-reduction project mentioned in the previous paragraph a clear  scoping statement was that the team would not define detailed work-plans for the initiatives that it defined. This enables the team to push back on requests to do this work, and deliver the results within the agreed time-frame.

Based on the deliverables and the scope the next step is to define the approach. I have seen many projects lose valuable time discussing the overall approach when this could and should have been done before the kick-off. Essentially the approach is defining how the deliverables will be produced and includes an overview of key activities to be carried out, key milestones, inter-dependencies between activities, etc. The best way to develop an approach is to start with the deliverables on the left-hand side of a page and work your way backwards.

The final step in preparing a project is to decide on the required resources and staffing. The starting point for this exercise is the overall approach defined in the previous step. The key things that need to be decided is the total amount of resources required (how many for how long), and the specific types of skills and capabilities needed to make the project a success. Skills and capabilities can be divided into three main types:
·         Problem-solving skills
·         Technical / functional skills
·         Interpersonal skills

The challenge is to find the people who have the right skills and who are available. Availability is always a problem, and a tip is not to be too critical, as skills can often be developed during the project.

Once you have gone through all of these steps, the time has come to start the project with a kick-off for the whole team. Based on the work that has been carried out in this phase developing a successful kick-off meeting is easy. The kick-off meeting will then provide the starting point for a successful project that will result in the agreed deliverables within the agreed time-frame.