Staging a project--are you setting your project up for success?

B. Elenbaas, PMP, Project Manager, IBM Canada

Introduction

It’s been said the potential for success of a project is determined on the very first day. While perhaps slightly overstated when placed in the 24-hour timeframe, the launch or staging of a project and near-immediate establishment of a project environment supportive of the dynamics of a large-scale project initiative will often determine whether or not a project has the potential for success. Stated different, a project launched poorly in an environment non-conducive to supporting it will invariably fail, despite the subsequent and perhaps heroic efforts of project management and project team personnel. Ineffective project start-up continues to be one of the main root causes of project failure.

Yet, despite general recognition of the importance of project startup to successful project execution, project managers are often provided only a very small “window” in terms of time and resources for what is essentially the “foundation building” of the project. The PMBOK® Guide in fact defines more processes for the Initiation and Planning Process Groups than it does for all other process groups combined, substantiating the importance and magnitude of the project staging effort. As a result, project start-up can often be quite chaotic, with the project manager somewhat frantically trying to formally define the project, establish (and execute) project management process, procure skilled resources, establish key contacts and relationships, etc., often in the context of little formal authority, understanding and (at times) even support by senior management. In recognition of such constraints, and a pragmatic realization not all desired activities may be performed to completion prior to commencement of project plan execution, what key things should a project manager focus finite time, resources and energy on?

Following is a discussion of 10 areas considered key to launching a project successfully and establishing a supportive project “infrastructure” to position a project for success. It is based on anecdotal and quantitative evidence obtained from both published and experiential sources, the results of which consistently point to the following areas as critical factors to setting up a project for success.

Project Set-Up—Ten Critical Success Factors

The following discussion of 10 items considered key to successfully staging a project are not presented in the context of identifying areas that had never before been considered, nor is it suggesting the value of each has heretofore been ignored or undervalued. The intended value of the factors presented here is to provide a suggested “checklist” for project managers who have “assumed the reins” of a new project initiative, a daunting position at times when coupled with size, complexity and inexperience. When presented with a seemingly overwhelming list of to do’s and (typically) very significant time constraints, what are the top priority items for a project manager to invest time and effort to achieve maximum return over the project’s duration? Consider the following, presented in no order of significance.

Project Champion

Identifying the project sponsor (typically the executive who’s budget is funding the project) is usually straightforward. This formal role on the project organization chart however is quite different from the extremely vital role played by the project champion. Not to downplay the role of the sponsor (without whom the project itself would not be), the project champion role can be leveraged by the project manager to have a profound affect on the project and the performance of the project team on a week-by-week basis. The extent to which the Champion can be leveraged is a function of how well the person is viewed by team and organization (in terms of knowledge, project vision, influence, and integrity) as well as how the project champion is positioned on the project. So although developing and nurturing the project champion and project champion role is an activity performed by the project manager for the duration of the project, identifying and positioning the project champion during project start-up is critical. This person will often be your most important ally. Therefore, identifying the project champion early warrants a project manager’s attention.

What factors should be considered in identifying the project champion? Consider the following “qualification” criteria:

Individual is well respected in the organization, and has developed good working relationships with many if not all key business people involved in the project.

Is closely aligned with the goals, objectives and scope of the project. (If there are issues with any one of these, address them to your satisfaction before making your final decision.)

Has general understanding and appreciation of the complexities and challenges of the work to be performed on the project.

Has passion for the project and what it will achieve, and possesses the necessary charisma to distill this passion in others.

Will be available to the project in more than just a passive commitment. Preferably this individual works out of the same physical location as the project manager and the core of the project team (obviously the logistics of each project will require project-specific considerations).

Will receive support from the project sponsor (if the two are not one and the same person).

Understands the role’s significance and is willing to “carry the torch,” even through difficult moments.

From the project management perspective, ideally the Project Sponsor and Project Champion roles would be filled by the same individual. However in my experience rarely has this been the case, and when it has (i.e., when the project manager has positioned the project sponsor as the project champion), it has not worked well, primarily as a result of the champion not meeting the criteria specified above. Too often the project sponsor’s availability to the project and project manager is very limited. Further, the project sponsor often has only a limited understanding of the detailed work being performed, and is not sufficiently visible to the team to maintain any positive messages of passion, motivation, or momentum he or she may attempt to instill in the team from time to time. Therefore the resource best suited for this role is often a key business person on the project who lacks the Power of Position (formal authority in the organization) and the Power of Money (budgetary authority) to effectively perform this role on his or her own. Thus, the need for the project manager to position the Project Champion as early as possible.

Steering Committee

Virtually every project’s organization chart will include a box at the top titled “Steering Committee.” Most have a pretty good understanding of what the steering committee function is, and what activities need to be performed at steering committee meetings. Yet far too frequently I witness projects that have only a notional steering committee—a steering committee in name only—invariably resulting in a project that meanders, takes wrong turns, and bogs down to a virtual standstill. Best case, it is completed late, significantly over budget, and represents only a subset of the original scope. Worst case, the project does a “crash and burn.” Why? The project lacks the healthy communication, active decision-making, information dispensation, issue resolution, cohesive direction setting, which is only attained through a healthy steering committee/management forum.

Typically what things are we looking for in trying to “steer” toward the establishment of an affective Steering Committee on a project we’re managing? A project manager will want to influence the development of a steering committee that has the following characteristics:

Attended by the project sponsor and at least some key business people who play an active role on the project (try very hard to eliminate redundancy and “status” members)

Attended and fully-participated by the Project Champion

Representation from all critical business functions affected by the project

Project manager controls a portion of the agenda (preferably chairs the meeting)

Used for issue/change/decision management (Major issues and changes need to be understood and supported by the project’s key stakeholders)

Not a public relations exercise! (if one is required, create a separate forum)

A forum where open, honest and frank discussion can occur (don’t take this one lightly—real issues need to be addressed at the Steering Committee. Project stakeholders need to understand the real picture to make the right decisions for the project. The real picture is not always pretty.)

Scheduled frequently (not necessarily every week, but more than monthly).

The Steering Committee should be a very powerful mechanism in maintaining alignment of the project team and stakeholders (never an easy accomplishment). A well-functioning Steering Committee with the aforementioned characteristics should also facilitate the execution of project management controlling processes (overall change control (scope, schedule, cost, quality), risk, performance reporting), as well as being a forum for addressing significant project issues. Project execution can be accelerated tremendously. On the other hand, a dysfunctional Steering Committee not only fails to expedite but also actually creates its own drag to the project. It results in more work for the project manager in terms of aligning the project executive, team and stakeholders. And it often undermines the execution of project management processes. There are many aspects to the project’s Steering Committee, which requires the attention of the project manager in project start-up.

The Project Deliverable Acceptance Process

Defining the appropriate quality management process for your project is one thing. Implementing the process and involving the right people is another. Incorporating the client’s wishes, particularly when the performing organization is an external contractor, can pose additional challenges. However, understanding and formalizing who is truly responsible for what on the project is crucial, and needs to be understood very early on the project to ensure the project work commences appropriately.

The end-to-end project acceptance process is something the project manager needs to manage carefully. Frequently recommendations will be made (or stipulations imposed) on the project to include the approval from key business people who are not completely aligned with the project and its goals, or worse, actually have conflicting goals. The project manager’s challenge is to identify these situations early and correct them, either by ensuring such individuals become aligned with the project, or see to it their involvement is eliminated (preferable) or severely marginalized.

Of course minimizing a key business person from the project may be an extremely difficult thing to do. Many dynamics may be at play here which require delicate stickhandling—formal authority issues, internal politics, ambition, power and pride to name a few. At times it may pose the first real test of the project manager’s developing relationship with the project sponsor and/or key executives who he/she will probably need to procure support from in order to affect this “adjustment.” The temptation to procrastinate or “make the best of the situation” instead of addressing the issue head-on is often further exacerbated by the fact the negative impact this individually will ultimately have to the project may not be felt for months on the project. “Perhaps by then it will fix itself!” may be the reasoning. Invariably it won’t! The only difference will be the cost to the project in terms of time and money (not to mention possible moral hits) may be exponentially greater than if it were dealt with initially.

Not only is it absolutely necessary to address situations where individuals misaligned to the project are placed in positions of influence for accepting the project’s deliverables, understanding who the “unofficial” approvers in the process are is also vital. Formal approvers will often look to a key SME (subject matter expert) to make the decision for them. Understanding who the SMEs are and ensuring their appropriate involvement in the project will be important in achieving their “buy-in” of the project’s product. The project manager may also be uniquely positioned to positively influence the involvement of other key resources in the process that would benefit the project but may not have the political clout or position to be recognized as a formal approver.

Finally, formalization of each level of the acceptance “hierarchy” should be made and presented by the project manager to the steering committee for formal approval. Presenting this early can save the project from unnecessary delays and extensive rework as a result of seeking direction from incorrect sources. It also provides much needed (at times) leverage for the project manager to ensure key business resources “step up” and provide the leadership, direction, and project support which senior management has committed to providing.

The Project Driver

Virtually every project management book defines the three constraints on a project—Time, Cost and Scope. We talk about the need to management all three, and warn against the triple-constrained scenario. Yet, frequently project managers have not discussed these constraints with their project sponsor and steering committee in a formal manner. By failing to do so, the project manager not only misses an opportunity for the project’s key stakeholders to clearly articulate what the key drivers on the project are, there is also the missed opportunity in terms of alignment of the project executive (which would have a positive influence on the entire project team alignment). This can lead to difficult situations later on in the project—key business people constantly pursuing the inclusion of none-core functionality on a extremely tight date-driven project, or risky new features on a mission-critical application requiring a comprehensive quality assurance process. Having the project sponsor clearly establish up-front what the main driver(s) of the project are (including the priority of each), the project manager has effectively positioned himself so as not to be perceived as “the bad guy.” Even more, the project manager may then want to facilitate discussions with various project stakeholders and “constituencies” on specific implications to the project. Issues can be raised and addressed early, if not to everyone’s satisfaction, hopefully to everyone’s acceptance. Expectations have been effectively managed.

Another benefit derived from establishing the project drivers immediately and proactively addressing the implications is discovering the fact the project drivers communicated to the team are not the real drivers. This can be quite a surprise to the project manager who has put forth a lot of effort to align himself with the project sponsor, only to find out the project sponsor has fooled him (either purposely or inadvertently). Rule #1 however is, actions speak louder than words. Rule #2? Better to find this out early than later. Your credibility may be on the line.

Project Repository

A well-structured, secured, and easily accessible project document and information repository is important for information distribution amongst the team. Whether it’s a passive directory structure on a server, a more sophisticated document management system, or a workflow-enabled, enterprise project management application, the ability to locate project management, project deliverable, and project-related documents by those who need it is vital to project execution.

The Project Plan

Despite a plethora of project planning and scheduling tools, the maturity of these tools, availability of training in the use of these tools, and the body of knowledge around project plan development and estimating, many of the project plans developed and used for establishing resource, financial, and timeline requirements are deficient, and often significantly so. For example, project plans are frequently developed with minimal if any contingency (to schedule, hours, and cost), and often without any correlation to the probability distributions intrinsic to the project’s constituent tasks and activities. The basis used to determine the many work effort estimates, particularly for the project’s “technical” work component, is often not documented. Also, the overall project management effort that will be required on the project is often significantly underestimated, often as a result of minimal consideration to the actual WBS and/or project environment for the project at hand. Risk mitigation tasks are often excluded, even in instances where risk assessment and planning has been performed. And often the technical work required to successful produce the project output is only partially represented by the tasks in the project plan.

The lack of diligence to good project plan development on many projects would suggest the project plan has only minimal value. Yet the project typically represents a significant commitment by an organization in terms of strategic direction, resources and (of course) money. The timelines represented in the project plans also have profound significance on most projects. Many important decisions at a senior level will be predicated on the plan. And of course the success of the project manager and team will be largely based on the results of the project relative to the project team. Simply stated, the project plan is not trivial.

Although typically under extreme time constraints when developing the project plan, the project manager must ensure the quality of the plan is not compromised. To do so, the project manager may seek additional project management resources to assist in project start-up to ensure appropriate attention to project plan details is made. For example, utilizing experienced project managers with scheduling tool proficiency to facilitate project planning sessions with SMEs (subject matter experts) to build the various components of the project schedule (WBS, work effort, resource, and time estimates) can assist the project manager tremendously. Not only does it free up “cycles,” which can be used on some of the other important staging activities discussed in this paper, but it may allow for a more objective project plan review afterwards. Other project plan activities that may be supported by external project management resources (often with specific expertise) include risk, quality and communication management planning and control process set-up. (Many project-based organizations have established project offices as a permanent organizational entity with responsibility for the project management competency in the organization. Often this includes the provisioning of project managers with the skilled resources to perform the project management support activities mentioned here.)

Baselining the Project

Every project scheduling tool today supports the creation of a baseline project schedule to establish the original project plan and then to track against it. The baseline is easily established in the tool by the simple hit of a button. So what’s the big deal?

Establishing the baseline in a scheduling application and establishing the baseline notionally to your key project stakeholders are two completely different yet complementary activities. Of course the latter is much more challenging and important, yet is often overlooked or under emphasized by project managers. What exactly do we mean?

The project plan, and particularly the most visible component of the project plan, the project schedule (and even more specifically, the Gantt Chart), represents more than just timelines and milestones. It is the articulation of the project’s scope, objectives, and expected deliverables, along with an estimate of the work required to achieve it. It should include a comprehensive specification of the resources needed to complete the work, as well as an estimated when? and how much? for each. Further, the project plan comes “bundled” with a set of assumptions and constraints that must be recognized. The project schedule summarizes the plan’s estimate of the work, work effort, resources, and timelines required to produce the project’s deliverables, and should represent an appropriate balance of the project’s four constraints (time, cost, scope, and quality). The project plan is a bundled set of dynamics to which change will (not might) be imposed. It will be the basis for monitoring and controlling. It forms the project’s touchstone. Key project stakeholders all need to commit to it. For all of these reasons and more, they need to “learn it, know it, understand it, and live it.” It is our responsibility as project managers to ensure this happens on our project.

How does a project manager go about baselining the project? Project baselining is not accomplished by simply distributing a copy of the project plan (and supporting documentation) to each project stakeholder. The only means by which a project manager can hope to establish the project baseline with all his or her key stakeholders and with any degree of confidence is by actively walking each of them through all key aspects of the plan. Typically this cannot be done in just one session with everyone present. For various logistical, organizational and political reasons many individual sessions may be required. However, this should not deter the project manager—the project manager today has many technology “enablers” at his or her disposal such as videoconferencing, conference calls and even videotaping to overcome the logistical challenges. Segmenting the stakeholder audience for various project plan review sessions may in fact be advantageous at times. However, although the level of detail may vary somewhat from session to session depending on the audience, the project plan presented must be consistent.

Executing on this project staging initiative can help you to avoid many pitfalls. An inadequately baselined project is often the root cause of the following troubled project symptoms—poorly executed change management, inadequate resourcing, lack of commitment by project resources who are assigned, an abundance of serious project issues, quality management problems, and project sponsor dissatisfaction. Each of these items alone can kill a good project, so any good project manager will view this seriously.

Selling of Project Management Processes

The need to implement a project management framework for a newly initiated project is of course important. The validity of project management concepts and disciplines is not in question, and project managers recognize the need for appropriate application of a project management framework on the new project. However, often project managers consider this activity as primarily consisting of the development of comprehensive process descriptions to be followed on the project (such as change management, issue management, status reporting etc.). The work will be considered complete when the documentation is approved and copies are appropriately distributed.

However, despite the progress made by the project management profession in promoting project management concepts, disciplines, and processes, ‘invoking’ project management in many organizations still requires the solicitation of what good project management actually means to a project in terms of the application of process and discipline. Simply surveying project managers from different organizations on how well they were able to execute change management on their last project will confirm the challenge we in the profession still have in this area.

The need to apply real project management discipline on projects needs the support of more than just the project manager and the day-to-day project team. If the project sponsor, project executives, and key business people cannot support project management discipline, not only does it contribute to project manager migraines, but also project execution will undoubtedly suffer at some point. As well, the perceived value of project management is challenged when poorly executed project management processes result in poor project performance.

Exhibit I. Key Project Facility Factors

Key Project Facility

Time spent with the project sponsor, steering committee and other key business people on the extended project team on the what, whys and wherefores of project management, with the intention of obtaining concurrence and commitment is time well spent. For example, understanding the need to manage change on projects (which includes assessing all project changes in terms of impact to resource requirements, schedule and scope besides just cost) is to the benefit of the entire project initiative—it’s purpose is not strictly to allow the delivery organization (e.g., a contractor) to add to project milestone dates or costs. Similar discussions and clarifications regarding other aspects of project management can even provide an excellent educational service to senior executives—many support project management in principle (either because they’ve read or been told it’s the right thing to do) without possessing a great deal of understanding what it really means to a project. Selling project management, if executed appropriately, is an activity which can pay off in huge dividends during the project as the entire project team witness the key project stakeholders following and supporting the project management “process” with more than just lip service.

The Project Facility

The fact the environment in which the project work will be performed (generally referred to here as the project facility) will strongly shape the project (either negative or positive) is not a new thought. De Marco and Lidster spoke to this at length in Peopleware. Microsoft has spent a lot of time and money on this, and has very successfully applied their notion of a “dynamic working environment” to their software development facilities. Yet far too often, multimillion-dollar “bet the company”-type strategic projects are expected to be successfully executed in some of the most sterile, unproductive environments imaginable. Even worse, many times serious attention is not given to changing the deficient project facility until the project is in trouble, to the shame of the project manager.

Rather than expound the importance of setting up a proper facility for the project team (by simply re-iterating already-established facts), a check list of key project environment factors has been provided, which project managers should give serious attention and consideration to during project set-up (see Exhibit I). Although it will never be quantified (and possibly not even qualified), successfully establishing a dynamic project environment for your project team can make the difference between project success and failure.

Project Kick-Off

Finally, commencing a project formally through a well-planned Project Kick-Off Meeting is crucial to getting a good start to the project and building esprit de corps among the entire project team. The objectives of the meeting are many and varied:

Level-set entire team on project vision, goals, objectives and scope

Clarify scope ambiguity issues where appropriate

Review all significant items in the project plan

Explanation and selling of project management processes to be used

Understand the project’s responsibility matrix (state candidly who’s responsible for what)

Anticipate and clarify potential project issues where possible (but avoid potentially contentious discussions)

Break down walls between various functional areas involved in the project

Answer questions (don’t rush this!)

Team building (first step in the process of molding a group of people into a team)

Seek team member commitment to project success

Encourage open communication by example.

Many techniques can be used to ensure the Project Kick-Off is an extremely positive event contributing to project team development—forming of team charters, mission statements, free project paraphernalia, a team social event. Whatever approach you take, recognize the need to start the project right.

Summary

The project start-up effort for project managers on significantly sized projects can be complex and extremely intense. There also is recognition project managers have many issues to address besides the items presented in this paper which cannot be ignored and/or will be a major source of distraction. However, if the utilization of a proven project start-up checklist supports more project managers laying a better project foundation during initial staging of a project, more projects will have a real chance at success. Secondly, recognition of just how crucial the project initiation phase is to ultimate project success hopefully will result in a higher degree of emphasis placed on good project planning. In the end both projects and the project management profession will benefit.

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.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA

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