BY SIMON KENT • ILLUSTRATION BY PJ LOUGHRAN
DOESN’T MATTER HOW COOL, POPULAR OR EVEN SUCCESSFUL A PROJECT IS—SOMETIMES IT JUST DOESN’T FIT IN THE PROJECT PORTFOLIO.
But trying to eliminate it can seem like a contrary and ill-considered move. Surely a motivated team working toward a shared goal can do no wrong, right?
Enthusiasm alone does not mean a project is delivering on its original goals or is aligned with the organization's strategy. The fast-moving business world can drastically shift between a project's inception and delivery dates, rendering objectives unobtainable or simply no longer worth the resources required. There are also some cases when a certain higher-up may have pushed through a “pet project” that may have not been up to standards in the first place.
The Warning Signs
If companies bother to look, it is indeed possible to tell very early on whether a project is truly of worth to an organization or is merely an “occupational hobby” for the chief executive or project sponsor, says Gavan Burden, managing director of Alexander Hughes Interim Management Ltd., London, England.
IF YOU DRAW A TRIANGLE AND LOOK FOR BENEFITS TO THE BUSINESS, VALUE TO THE SHAREHOLDERS AND EFFECT ON THE BOTTOM LINE, THEN ANYTHING THAT FALLS OUTSIDE THAT TRIANGLE ARE OCCUPATIONAL HOBBIES.
—GAVAN BURDEN, ALEXANDER HUGHES INTERIM MANAGEMENT LTD., LONDON, ENGLAND
“If you draw a triangle and look for benefits to the business, value to the shareholders and effect on the bottom line, then anything that falls outside that triangle are occupational hobbies,” he says.
And here's a scary statistic: Mr. Burden estimates up to 60 percent of projects fall into that category.
To avoid having pet projects drag down the portfolio, companies should instill a process for alerting the right people when a potential “problem child” might be making its way through the system.
“Organizations need to have some way of asking what their thresholds of concern are,” says Augustus Cicala, president, CEO and founder of Project Assistants Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, USA. “They need to ask, ‘What is the base line against which projects are measured and what do we do if a project starts dipping below that line?'”
Failure to ask these questions or set such measures at the start of a project is, he adds, a sure sign the initiative in question is a pet project rather than something of true worth to the organization.
The identification of whether a project delivers or not highlights the relationship between project and portfolio management, Mr. Cicala says. While it's the project manager's responsibility to ensure that projects run on time, to budget and to specification, it falls on the portfolio manager to determine whether the project remains relevant.
“The expert at [the] portfolio level needs to realize when good money is being sent after bad,” Mr. Cicala says. “The project manager may have a duty to report what is happening within the project but they might not understand the market landscape. While they could provide information in order to decide whether a project should continue or not, they are not best placed to make that call themselves.”
Cut Your Losses
Sometimes a project may seem like it's cruising along just fine—until delivery time. Jim McLean, a director at Fujitsu in Adelaide, Australia, recalls reviewing a project to introduce new point-of-sale terminals across hundreds of stores in Australia. Although he found the project to be on schedule and budget, Mr. McLean discovered the pressure to hit rollout targets had resulted in a poor system that hadn't been fully tested.
In a presentation to the project sponsor and upper management, Mr. McLean outlined the original business case and project scope and then discussed the costs incurred to date and projected onwards to completion. The presentation also covered the project approach and where it had gone wrong, the impact on the team and store owners if the project continued, and what could be done to move forward positively.
Instead, the project was killed.
“The rollout was stopped, the project manager removed and the project team informed,” Mr. McLean says. “The project team was relieved at the outcome, and a follow-up with individuals managed their involvement in projects going forward.”
KNOW WHEN TO LET GO
IF THE SIGNS ARE ALL THERE, WHY DO BAD PROJECTS SOMETIMES STICK AROUND?
EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT. “If lots of people are involved, projects can take on a life of their own,” says Tim Burfoot, Teasel Performance Management Ltd. “They become hugely important to those people. The good objective is therefore superseded by an emotional attachment.”
STAKEHOLDER DISSATISFACTION. The failure of one project to hit deadlines or targets can result in another project being established to meet those targets—without anyone stopping to analyze whether those targets or results are actually appropriate to the organization, says Gavan Burden, Alexander Hughes Interim Management Ltd.
SPIN-OFFS AND ALSO-RANS. A project to introduce a new piece of IT in one part of the organization triggers smaller projects to do the same in other areas of the business. “A new accounting system can result in a new human resources system, finance system and so on,” Mr. Burden says. “You have lots of little projects revolving around the one objective of changing the accounts technology. That takes time and ultimately has nothing to do with the actual needs of the business.”
THE BLACK HOLE. Some projects— including some research and development initiatives—are established as cost centers without much thought to the bottom line, says Augustus Cicala, Project Assistants Inc. If not monitored carefully, they can often operate longer than other types of projects without anyone noticing they're not delivering anything of use to the business.
WHO'S GONNA TELL THE BOSS?
So that higher-up in the corner office has a pet project—and it's not going so well.
Someone has to break the news, although it's understandable why one might approach the task with some trepidation.
“The ability to communicate that information is a rare talent,” says Gavan Burden, Alexander Hughes Interim Management Ltd. “It's a crucial thing to be able to do and a good program director can do it. An interim director can also bring the news because they do not have a continuing corporate identity in that business. They're not seeking to feather their own nest so the person who tells the CEO his pet project isn't going to deliver will not see their career end as a result.”
If you're the one assigned to the task, go in armed with the right data to back up the argument from a strategic point of view.
“We have to understand the business perspective and, in a way, look ahead to anticipate and see if anything has changed, which means the project in no longer workable,” says Gabriele Barbato, Pirelli and Telecom Italia.
Mr. McLean's approach may appear clinical or perhaps a little cold, but greater priority must be given to ensuring a project delivers tangible benefits than to making sure everyone feels good about the job they're doing. Indeed, any positive feelings within the project team would be short-lived if the project were allowed to continue to flounder.
But dealing with the personnel and personal issues around project termination is no easy matter.
“Often people are frightened of the future when they think a project is going to be terminated,” says Gabriele Barbato, PMP, a project director from the information and communications technology shared service center operated by Pirelli and Telecom Italia, Napoli, Italy.
People may be resistant to change, but identifying, tracking and presenting metrics that demonstrate the progress (or lack thereof) of the project helps team members understand the full situation. It also reassures them that there is life after this particular piece of work—no matter how it ends.
At the end of the day, the greatest obstacle to avoiding low-value projects being dragged on and on is the idea that activity in itself denotes productivity.
“Very often people are reluctant to let go of projects because the activity of doing the project is a lot more attractive than taking the time to ensure it delivers a business benefit,” says Tim Burfoot, managing director, Teasel Performance Management Ltd., Cambridge, England.
And if project workers feel a need to appear busy, there is yet more pressure for senior-level managers to justify their existence.
“It's a very brave executive who says, ‘I will forgo this project because I know another project in another part of the business will deliver better value,’” he says.
Yet this is precisely the judgment required to ensure resources are used in the most productive way—not squandered on the popular project du jour. PM
Simon Kent is a U.K.-based writer who specializes in IT, training and human resources.
PM NETWORK ❘ SEPTEMBER 2007 ❘ WWW.PMI.ORG