Benefits realization management and strategic project success analysis of UK, USA, and Brazil

Carlos Eduardo Martins Serra, MSc, PMP

This article is based on further analysis over the results of research performed at the University of Warwick and as a participant of the PMI Survey Program, which had a paper awarded with the 2012 Postgraduate Student Award by the British Association for Project Management (Serra & Kunc, 2015; Serra & Kunc, 2013; Serra, 2012). It starts with an overview about some of the key Benefits Realization Management (or Benefits Management) practices. Then, based on the analysis of 331 questionnaires that were responded by project management practitioners in Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, it discusses the way these practices influence project success as well as the success perspectives influenced by these practices. It then identifies some of the current gaps that can compromise project success from a strategic perspective. At the end, it presents new findings regarding the relationship between these practices and levels of project management qualification and different project types.

Introduction

During the last decade, surveys have revealed a common perception of dissatisfaction regarding project success and a consequent strong need for improvement in success rates (Serra, 2012). PMI (2014) reports general low maturity in benefits realization across about 83% of organizations, what inevitably links to the failure of projects in general, including strategic initiatives. It consequently generates negative impacts on the execution of business strategies. Starting from this current issue that is faced by organizations all around the world and based on a thorough literature review, this paper provides an introductory overview about some of the key Benefits Management practices and briefly identifies the accountability for these sets of activities within an organization.

After having set the scenario and introduced the concept of Benefits Realization Management, it discusses the way these practices influence project success as well as the success perspectives that are influenced by these practices, based on the analysis of survey results. Since the research identified a higher influence of these practices over success factors associated to the creation of value to the business rather than over criteria associated to project management performance, it stresses the relevance of these practices to strategic project success and effective strategy execution.

Then, it identifies some of the current gaps that can compromise project success from a strategic perspective. At the end, it reveals a new finding, based on the analysis of the association between the utilization of these practices and the levels of project management experience, education, and certifications across the three countries analyzed. Even more important, it presents another new finding associating these practices to specific types of projects, which raises an important topic for future research and debate about the current association of some practices to, perhaps, some specific types of projects only.

Key Benefits Management Practices

What do we call benefits?

There are several slightly different definitions for benefits such as “an outcome of actions and behaviors that provide utility, value. or a positive change to the intended recipient” (PMI, 2013) and “the quantifiable and measurable improvement resulting from completion of deliverables that is perceived as positive by a stakeholder. It will normally have a tangible value, expressed in monetary terms that will justify the investment” (APM, 2014). Most definitions describe benefits as improvements, which are measurable and quantifiable and normally expressed in financial terms so they can justify any investment that may be required from the business.

What are “benefits” expected to add to the business?

The pathway that should be crossed by an organization from a current to a desired future status involves a series of changes. Each change is expected to produce benefits. The combination of all benefits produced by all the change driven by the business strategy will fill the value gap, moving the business from the current to the desired value, as illustrated by Exhibit 1.

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Exhibit 1: Filling the value GAP, adapted from Serra & Kunc (2015)

This is when project management comes into place, since it is widely recognized as the best set of practices to manage change. So, it can support the management of the journey from current to desired value, by ensuring effective delivery of project outputs, outcomes, and benefits. As illustrated in Exhibit 2, this journey starts by having projects delivering outputs; these create outcomes, which prepare operations to realize benefits.

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Exhibit 2: Journey from current to desired business value, adapted from Serra & Kunc (2015).

What does “Benefits Realization” mean?

Since the word realization has different meanings, it is important to have clearly defined what is expected from “benefits realization.” According to English dictionaries (Oxford University Press, 2015; Cambridge University Press, 2015; Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2015), the verb “to realize” has some different meanings such as: a) become aware of something; b) cause something to happen; and c) make money by selling something, among other meanings. But, what should one expect from benefits realization? Informal discussions with practitioners and subject matter experts suggest that realization is a process to make benefits happen, to make the relevant stakeholders fully aware of their status throughout the entire process of benefits realization, and to help ensure benefits creating strategic and measurable value to the business.

How can the benefits realization be managed?

As described in previous work (Serra & Kunc, 2013), “‘Benefits Realization Management’ (Bradley, 2010; OGC, 2007), ‘Project Benefits Management’ (Melton, et al., 2008), and ‘Benefits Management’ (Jenner, 2010) are terms pertaining to the management of a set of processes needed to help ensure programs, projects, and portfolios deliver and embed into the current day-to-day business, all requirements of business strategies in order to perform a meaningful and sustainable creation of value.”

Therefore, as illustrated by Exhibit 3, benefits realization management crosses the boundaries of the program and project delivery process, by starting way before and closing only after complete realization of the expected benefits and embedment of changes into day-to-day business. It is also important to notice benefits realization happening mostly after project or even program closure, having its emphasis then out of the traditional focus on benefits realization that is usually part of the scope of programs and projects.

Authors such as Jenner (2012), Bradley (2010), and Melton et al. (2008) group benefits management practices in different ways. For the purpose of this specific research, in a way to enable the analysis of these practices based on of their specific objectives across the benefits realization life cycle, they were grouped into four different groups, as presented in Exhibit 3: Planning Benefits, Reviewing and Measuring Benefits, Realizing Benefits, and Applying a Benefits Management Strategy.

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Exhibit 3: Benefits realization life cycle and groups of practices, adapted from (Glynne & Stubbs, 2014).

Another way to understand the journey from the current value to the desired future value is by analyzing the complex interdependencies between the different elements of a benefits realization process. The theoretical benefits chain based on steps and techniques suggested by authors (Thorp, 2007; Ward & Daniel, 2006; Bradley, 2010) and by practitioners’ guides (OGC, 2007; Chittenden & Bon, 2006; Jenner, 2012) that is exemplified in Exhibit 4 can give us a better idea about the configuration of the relationship between the several different steps to be walked through from the project outputs until reaching the achievement of strategic objectives.

We start from the bottom right with project outputs, which enable business changes. These changes create desired outcomes, which prepare operations to realize intermediate benefits that can be also generated straight away from the project outputs. The intermediate benefits, in turn, realize end benefits. These end benefits finally help to achieve strategic objectives. Nevertheless, we need to be aware that some elements, for example. the desired outcomes, can also create dis-benefits which have a negative impact and have to be managed accordingly. On another route, starting from the bottom left, business changes can also cause side effects and consequences, which can generate dis-benefits, but can also realize further intermediate benefits.

Apart from the main routes that are associated to a specific project or program, benefits generated by other work streams such as programs or projects can also interfere or contribute to the achievement of a strategic objective. For example, outputs from other projects can realize intermediate benefits that, in turn, realize the same end benefits generated by our project outputs. In parallel, it is important to have in mind that these steps cross the project and program boundaries, getting into the day-to-day business operations. Therefore, regular business operations can realize another set of intermediate benefits, which, in turn, realize the same set of end benefits previously discussed. In addition, these same strategic objectives can also be achieved with help from other end benefits that come from another benefits chain.

The very simple example in Exhibit 4 can give us an idea about how complex all these relationships can be in a real organizational environment.

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Exhibit 4: Chain of benefits (Serra & Kunc, 2015).

To manage such complexity, several different Benefits Realization Management practices, tools, and techniques are utilized and recommended by organizations, professional associations, authors, and academics. To enable a comparative analysis, the research identified a set of twelve key practices that are common across most of the different academic and professional references analyzed and are expected to be clearly understood by a project management practitioner (Serra & Kunc, 2015). The twelve practices were then split between the following groups:

First Group of Practices: Planning Benefits

This group of practices identifies and defines the benefits that are required for the achievement of strategic objectives. It starts at the very beginning of the change process. It includes: BM1 - Each initiative has its expected outcomes clearly defined; BM2 - Project outcomes create a measurable value to the organization; BM3 - Project outcomes support the achievement of clearly defined strategic objectives; and BM4 - A business case describing the expected outputs, outcomes, and benefits is approved at the beginning of the project.

Second Group of Practices: Reviewing and Measuring Benefits

This group of practices reviews and measures benefits throughout and after the delivery process. This is done to help ensure the delivery and the embedment of the required benefits into the regular business operations. It reassesses the business needs and reviews the benefits delivery plans. Then, it supports smooth and effective communication of the results from benefits reviews to delivery teams, to operations, to governance boards, and to key stakeholders. It includes: BM5 - Project outputs and outcomes are frequently reviewed and realigned to the current expectations; BM6 - Project reviews are frequently communicated to the stakeholders, as well as their needs are frequently reassessed; and BM7 - Project outcomes adhere to the expected outcomes planned in the business case.

Third Group of Practices: Realizing Benefits

This group of practices helps ensure the realization of the expected benefits, which are continuously refreshed by periodic measurement and review. It crosses the boundaries of project, program, and portfolio management, to help ensure the realization of benefits by regular business operations. It includes: BM8 - Project's scope includes activities aiming to ensure the integration of project outputs to the regular business routine; BM9 - Project outcomes are monitored by the organization after project closure in order to help ensure the achievement of all benefits expected in the business case; and BM10 - The organization works in a pre-planned and regular way to integrate project outputs into the business routine from the first delivery to the project's closure.

Fourth Group of Practices: Applying a Benefits Management Strategy

This group of practices makes sure there is a Benefits Management Strategy in place, preferably at the organizational level. It defines and interlinks activities that are associated to all the other practices and assigns responsibilities to each one. Then, it helps ensure that there are no gaps, barriers, or miscommunication between departments, business functions, or even between different stages of the strategy execution. It includes: BM11 - Benefits Realization Management strategy defines the standard procedures for the whole organization; and BM12 - Benefits management strategy for project under analysis.

Which tools can be employed to support benefits management?

The benefits realization process is supported by a series of tools (Jenner, 2012; Bradley, 2010; Melton, Iles-Smith, & Yates, 2008; Ward & Daniel, 2006), such as:

  • Benefits maps or dependency networks: help to understand the relationship between different elements of the benefits realization process within an organization.
  • Benefits profiles or identification sheets: describe benefits, as well as several associated elements such as measures, associated KPIs, dependencies, monetary value, and any other relevant information about each benefit.
  • Business cases: can be easily suggested as the most relevant tool for benefits realization management, since the comparison between the benefits planned in the business cases to the actually achieved ones is the single practice with the highest influence over the perception of project strategic success (Serra & Kunc, 2015).
  • Benefits realization plans: are extremely important to assign timeframes, processes, ways of measurement, and accountability for the realization of each benefit.
  • Benefits realization control sheets and health checks: are ways of tracking the benefits realization and of assessing the effectiveness of the benefits realization process.
  • Portfolio dashboards: are another way of tracking benefits, but usually from a steering perspective.
  • IT systems: provide different features to support benefits realization management, from the early steps of benefits planning until the last stages, including tracking and reporting features.

Accountability Within an Organization

Which are the key roles involved in benefits management within an organization?

In addition to processes and tools, “people” is the third element needed for the effective utilization of benefits management practices. In other words, a set of roles is usually accountable for each and every part of the benefits realization life cycle, which we can split into the following three main groups (Serra, 2012):

Program and Project Governance

It is responsible for executive leadership, strategic alignment, prioritization, and support. A typical role in this group is a project sponsor, but also includes other roles representing the organization's interests, such as CEO’ management board; business change manager; governance board; project, program, and portfolio boards; steering group; and sponsoring group.

Program and Project Management

It is responsible for delivering the required outputs, satisfying the stakeholders’ needs, being aware of their projects’ success criteria, and maintaining the alignment between the project and the expectations. A typical role in this group is a program or project team member, which includes, for example, program and project managers, project analysts, project schedulers, and project risk managers, among others.

Benefits Owner

It is responsible for receiving project outputs and realizing the required benefits. A typical role in this group is a project client, which is usually a business manager or a process owner.

Research Methodology

In order to support the analysis of the relationship between Benefits Management and project success, questionnaires asked about the utilization of the twelve key Benefits Realization Management practices in a recently concluded project and about the final or overall perception of project success, in general terms. It then asked about the perception of success in seven different dimensions or success criteria (Serra & Kunc, 2015). The following two groups of success dimensions were identified by the literature review (Patanakul & Shenhar, 2012; Ika, 2009; Zwikael & Smyrk, 2012; Camilleri, 2011):

  • Project management performance: schedule goals, required outputs, and budget goals
  • Creation of value to the business: adherence to the business case, expected outcomes, uoutcomes, and return on investment.

An assessment by different perspectives enables a better understanding of success (McLeod, et al., 2012), therefore all perceptions were assessed by the three perspectives that are involved with the benefits realization process, which are client, sponsor, and project team, an approach similar to the one adopted by previous research (Zwikael & Smyrk, 2012). The questionnaires also asked a series of questions about characteristics of the project and of the respondent.

In total, there were 331 responses to quantitative questionnaires by project management practitioners and 40 qualitative responses by project governance professionals, most from Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which were the target countries (Serra & Kunc, 2015). Then, through an exhaustive process of statistical analysis, a series of techniques were employed to understand associations between variables and to build a set of predictive models.

Influence Over Project Success

How can benefits management influence project success?

Based on the analysis of a few regression models, Benefits Management practices were able to explain 16% of the overall perception of project success across the entire population of the research (Serra, 2012; Serra & Kunc, 2013). Despite that, further stratified analysis revealed these practices as having statistically significant influence only on the Brazilian sample (Serra & Kunc, 2015).

How can benefits management influence project strategic success?

Although the twelve practices have low influence over the overall perception, project success can actually be assessed by different dimensions or criteria. But how much influence does each dimension have over the overall perception of success? For example, if a project is considered as a great success in terms of return on investment, can we say that it is also considered a great success in general terms?

Overall perception of success versus strategic dimensions of project success

By analyzing how much each of these seven dimensions is relevant to the overall perception of success, surprisingly only two criteria, schedule and outputs, were found as having influence over the overall perception of success (Serra & Kunc, 2015). These two criteria are associated to project management performance. Outputs presented relevant influence mostly in the UK and Brazil and schedule presented some influence mostly in Brazil and the U.S. (Serra & Kunc, 2015).

Therefore, 86.1% of the projects in the sample were considered successful (Serra & Kunc, 2013), mostly by influence of the successful delivery of outputs required from the project (Serra & Kunc, 2015) and to some extent by the achievement of schedule goals. Budget goals, the third element of project management performance, are not influential, but this was, to some extent, expected based on previous research (Serra & Kunc, 2015) and on qualitative data gathered by the same research.

Although the strategic relevance should be the determinant factor for the relevance of projects (Kendall & Rollins, 2003; Thorp, 2007; Jenner, 2010), the four criteria associated to the creation of value to the business do not have any influence over the overall or final perception of success, which was somewhat expected since the project management performance had already been suggested as the most employed project success criteria by previous research (Bryde, 2005).

Since strategic success does not influence the overall perception of success, any influence benefits realization practices have over strategic success has probably been overshadowed during the analysis of the overall perception. An alternative way to analyze the influence of these practices over strategic success would be by investigating their influence over each of the seven dimensions of success.

Benefits Management influence over different dimensions of project success

The twelve practices demonstrated ability to influence up to 26% of the perceptions of success in terms of achieving the schedule goals, delivering the required outputs, and achieving the budget goals, which are success criteria associated to project management performance (Serra & Kunc, 2015). The same twelve practices demonstrated ability to influence from 37 to 49% of the perceptions of success in terms of managing undesired outcomes, achieving return on investment, delivering the expected outcomes, and delivering the requirements of the approved business cases, which are all success criteria associated to the generation of strategic value to the business (Serra & Kunc, 2015).

Therefore, those twelve practices have high influence over success criteria associated to generation of strategic value to the business. Conversely, they have lower influence over success criteria associated to project management performance. Since the overall perception of success is mostly based on project management performance and these practices have lower influence over these perspectives, their influence over the final or overall perception of success is certainly low.

In order to measure the influence of these practices over a more balanced overall perception of success, a variable that represents success as a whole was created by combining all the dimensions of project management performance and creation of value to the business into one evenly weighted new variable, which represents success from all of the seven perspectives. At this time, Benefits Realization Management practices could predict an impressive 44% of the new variable composed by a combination of the seven success dimensions (Serra, 2012; Serra & Kunc, 2013). Later refinement has identified the ability to predict between 41.5% and 46.7% across the three countries, what is a very consistent result (Serra & Kunc, 2015). These results evidence the effectiveness of those practices in supporting the creation of strategic value. They also as well as evidence the still low relevance that organizations and professionals give to the creation of strategic value to the business.

Additional Findings: Project Types and Levels of Qualification

In addition to findings previously published elsewhere (Serra & Kunc, 2015; Serra & Kunc, 2013; Serra, 2012), further analysis revealed aspects of the association between the utilization of the benefits management practices and different levels of professional qualification and project types. These aspects support the understanding of variances between countries revealed by the Kruskal-Wallis test for the levels of utilization of three out of the twelve practices (Serra & Kunc, 2015): BM2 - value clearly measurable; BM3 - strategic objectives clearly defined; and BM7 - actual outcomes adhering to the ones planned in the business case. The Brazilian firstly sample presented a higher level of utilisztion of the three practices, followed by the North American, and secondly, by the British samples.

Different approaches may be needed by different project types

An analysis of project classifications provided by the literature (Kendall & Rollins, 2003; Jenner, 2010; Gray & Larson, 2006; Levine, 2005) suggests the existence of four different project types:

  • Strategic initiatives: to enable new capabilities such as development of new products, processes, or technologies;
  • Operational initiatives: to maintain/improve an existing routine, being related to products or processes that already exist;
  • Compliance initiatives: to comply with an emergent need such as regulatory changes, technological changes, natural disasters, trade unions’ pressures, etc.;
  • External projects: to satisfy external customers by delivering outputs to customers outside of the organization and then generating financial income or other benefits.

A Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was computed to assess the relationship between the three practices and the four project types. Surprisingly, it evidenced some correlation only between the project type operational initiatives and the practice BM7 - actual outcomes adhered to the business case, r = 0.17, n = 331, p = 0.002. In addition, while the three practices are all correlated to each other, the four project types are not correlated to each other.

The correlation between operational initiatives and BM7 - actual outcomes adhering to business cases combined with the correlation between the three practices can help us to speculate a reason for the variation found between the three countries, since we can assume that Brazil – which was the country having the higher proportion of operational initiatives among the three – has its higher utilization of the three practices partially driven by this association. On the other hand, the British sample had the lowest levels of utilization of the three practices, possibly driven by their lowest proportion of operational initiatives among the three countries.

In addition to providing a logical reason for the variation found between countries, these results may shed new light over the understanding of these practices, suggesting that business cases are currently more associated to the evaluation of operational initiatives than to the other three project types.

Project Management experience, level of education, and certifications

As presented in Exhibit 5, different levels of project management education were found across the three countries, which may have influenced the levels of utilization of benefits management practices in each stratum. Higher levels of academic study and formal training found in the Brazilian sample may have positively influenced the utilization of the three practices by the Brazilian practitioners, while the high levels of certification and years’ experience in the American and British samples may have had arguably low positive influence over the utilization of the same three practices. Since this study has not tested these relationships in more depth, further research is needed to support a better understanding of any existing association between the qualification of the respondents and the utilization of the three Benefits Realization Management practices.

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Exhibit 5: Project management education and experience by country.

Barriers to the Adoption of Benefits Realization Management by Organizations

What are the major gaps and barriers that organizations are currently facing to managing benefits?

Apart from the main findings, the research identified a series of gaps and barriers to the effective utilization of Benefits Realization Management practices by organizations. Some of the issues identified by Serra & Kunc (2013) are listed below:

  • The culture of assessing success based on the delivery or performance, not by the project long-term results and its contribution to the overall business strategy.
  • The lack of benefits realization strategies on the corporate level, which contributes to a lack of processes for managing benefits realization after program and project close-out.
  • The lack of integration between processes and departments or functions. For example, portfolio management, operations management, project governance, and change management.
  • The lack of specific processes for managing benefits when an organization is delivering products/services to its external customers.
  • The low levels of competence and qualification for the production of business cases and for the identification and measurement of benefits.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Benefits are strategic and measurable improvements that are expected to add value to the business. Benefits realization is about causing benefits to happen, becoming fully aware of their achievement, and consequently, making profit or generating value. Benefits realization can be managed by having benefits planned, reviewed and measured, and then realized, all these under a Benefits Realization Management strategy. These practices can be supported by several tools, such as business cases, benefits maps, benefit description sheets, and information systems, among others. There are three key roles involved in benefits management within an organization which are: clients (benefit owners), sponsors, and project and program teams.

Benefits Realization Management directly influences success rates, with greater emphasis on dimensions associated to the creation of value to the business, which are success criteria still overshadowed by the evaluation of success by project management performance (Bryde, 2005). However, the assessment of project success by different dimensions that include the delivery of value (Kerzner, 2011) to the stakeholders, aiming the achievement of wider business objectives in alignment to the business strategies, constitutes a more comprehensive (Cooke-Davies, 2002) and realistic approach. Therefore, organizations are recommended to review and, perhaps, update their approach regarding strategy execution. By shifting the understanding of project success to a more strategic perspective and then adopting Benefits Realization Management, organizations will help ensure the delivery of what is really valuable to their businesses and aligned to their strategies.

Nevertheless, despite of the awareness regarding the need for improvement, organizations may face a series of cultural and procedural gaps and barriers that can jeopardize the effective implementation of Benefits Realization Management practices. Some of the major gaps and barriers currently faced by organizations to managing benefits are suggested to happen due to the lack of companywide Benefits Realization Management strategies, to a low alignment and integration between different areas of the business, and to the lack of support from the steering levels. The lack of a common strategy that includes language, processes, and policies regarding Benefits Realization Management imposes strong barriers throughout the company to the successful adoption of practices that could significantly enhance efficiency and effectiveness on the creation of strategic value to the business.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2015, Carlos Eduardo Martins Serra, MSc, PMP
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK

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