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7 Steps to Project Success

Best Practice | By Peter Draper | Read time minutes

Tick on a target

The successful completion of a big project should bring big benefits for your company - otherwise, why bother? The prize sought is often increased customer satisfaction, bigger profits, higher share price or some other key performance indicator. Projects often require company staff, experts and suppliers to come together on a temporary basis to carry out a one-off change that will leapfrog the company to greater success. But all too often, the hope of success meets with problems, delays and cost over-runs that cause frustration and stress for everyone concerned. The project that looked so good on the drawing board may somehow fail despite all seemingly reasonable efforts. So, what might be done to improve your project's chances of success?

Here is a seven step procedure that I use to manage successful projects. It guarantees the best chance of achieving maximum project benefits for my clients. This checklist should also be useful to senior company executives, functional chiefs and project managers alike. My procedural checklist keeps profits in mind as follows:

  1. Profit from your project
  2. Rally support
  3. Organise plans, resources, etc
  4. Focus on key benefits
  5. Invoke risk responses in advance
  6. Test your project is working
  7. Switch to the new working practices

Step 1: Profit From Your Project

Think about it. Every part of every organisation needs to generate more benefit than it consumes. So, if your project, even on the drawing board, cannot produce profits for the company, then no amount of management effort further down the line is going to be help. I have seen many examples of proposed projects that have benefit to cost ratios that only barely meet the company investment hurdle rates. These benefits are also sometimes "inflated" using some proposed value of intangible items. If this is the case with your project, then maybe it is time to look deeper and consider other alternatives before you start. As the responsible executive, before you kick-off your project, I suggest you make sure that you have some good answers to the following questions:

  • What is your company's business strategy?
  • How will the outcome of this project add value to that strategy?
  • What alternatives are there to doing this project?
  • What dollar-value is this project outcome? (Get your finance staff to calculate internal rate of return, etc.)
  • Is your project, in fact, mainly designed to avert some impending crisis?
  • What contingency needs to be developed in the unlikely event that your project outcome may benefit from some additional support?

By considering the answers to these questions you should have most of the information required to justify the need, and hence, determine the expected benefits for your project. Select your project carefully.

Step 2: Rally Support

In addition to getting the top-level support from your executive management team, it is critical to rally support and get input from other interested parties too. For example, major customers may need to be consulted, as may representatives of the planned user base too.

These parties interested in the outcome of your project will:

  • Contribute to your list of the benefits and also dis-benefits of the project
  • Possess a wealth of expertise and experience for you to consult and gain valuable advice from
  • Be the main candidates for providing funding or support for your project

The purpose of this step is to develop a clear picture of how your project will come together in more detail. The step is highly consultative and requires answers to the following questions:

  • Has a similar project to this ever been done before? If so can this be used as a model?
  • How could your project outcome be improved for the various interested parties?
  • What legitimate concerns do the other interested parties have regarding your project?
  • Are all parties in agreement with all the assumptions made?
  • Should the order of magnitude costs and expected benefits be modified?
  • What dependencies are there relating to other current projects?

Once these questions have been addressed you must check that the executive management team, major customers and other key parties are all on-board. They need to be aligned as much as possible to enable the required degree of collective ownership. Now you should have a great start to your project and a high degree of confidence that you will get those sought after benefits.

Step 3: Organise Plans, Resources, etc.

A key appointment on your project team is the project manager. He will take full and personal responsibility for achieving the successful outcome of your project using the best methods available. He organises everything. His starting point to getting the best resources, to negotiating the best contracts, to managing your project is to communicate effectively with all the relevant parties concerned. The key is to be communicating "facts" such as requirements and plans. He should be aware that communication is a two-way street and much of the time should be spent getting feedback and seeking information from knowledgeable parties.

The project manager is also an integrator. In particular, he integrates the project team and other interested parties, and he also integrates products and services. Any new product or service resulting from a project will need to be merged with the company infrastructure on "live" date. In building the project plan it is essential to break the work down into manageable units. However, in every area from technology to manufacturing to human resources there is currently an opportunity to leverage off standard models and structures. So ensure the project manager uses industry standards where possible, for example using:

  • Process models (such as the Project Management Institute's project management methodology)
  • Architecture models to enable "pick 'n' mix" type deliverables

It makes sense to consider outsourcing project activities and deliverables unless, say, for security reasons it must be in-house or perhaps it is somehow part of your core business.

Step 4: Focus on Key Benefits

Once the project has been planned, it is important to stay focused on key benefits. The problem is that projects tend to take on lives of their own. You cannot let this happen otherwise all sorts of side tracks may be taken or other features added in. It will probably be necessary to break up the project into smaller, independent sub-projects that are more easily manageable. These sub-projects must be:

  • Small, that is, less than $1m
  • Fast, that is, takes less than 6 months
  • Compact, that is, fewer than 6 people on the team
  • Focused on key benefits and not just deliverables

This is also the time to reconsider carefully again the desired project objective. Do these sub-projects really produce tangible added value in dollar amounts? It may be that considering the additional costs, many of these lesser features may be dropped to achieve project efficiency gains. Remember, jettison non-essentials and focus your project to do ONLY the items that MUST be done to achieve the benefits you really need.

Step 5: Invoke Risk Responses in Advance

During the life of your project the world is not standing still. Competitors are introducing changes, customers' demands are changing, technology is moving forward at near breakneck speed, etc. You cannot keep up with all this on your own. You must empower your project team to anticipate problems and you must tell them how you want them to deal with these issues in advance. Some studies show that up to 90% of project problems can be handled effectively by using proactive risk management similar to that described below. Here are the questions to ask:

  • What problems have been encountered on similar projects in the past?
  • What else can possibly go wrong at each stage of this project?
  • What are the early warning signs of these problems occurring?
  • What is the dollar impact of each possible problem that has been identified?
  • What is the likelihood each problem might occur?
  • What response strategy is best to handle each of these possible problems?

Evading the problem altogether is a good strategy for coping with risks, but alternatively, you might want to use one of the following standard risk responses:

  • Avoidance - eliminating the cause
  • Mitigation - reducing the effect
  • Acceptance - simply accepting the impact
  • Transference - "outsourcing" the problem

Managing project risks means anticipating them to avoid "fire-fighting" responses; and replacing them with prior delegated actions. This way your project outcome and benefits can be protected to a very large degree.

Step 6: Test Your Project is Working

Controlling your project involves testing and checking progress, then making adjustments to bring your project back on course. This means deciding up front what key measurements need to be taken and how often; and then deciding what values for these items make them unacceptable. Examples of such measures are:

  • Work done (pay special attention to "scope creep")
  • Cost variances
  • Activities behind schedule
  • Quality issues

These need to be considered on a "management by exception" basis and the facts need to be reported to interested parties. At the same time adjustments can be made to activities to bring these factors back into line immediately. This way, you can guide your project to a successful outcome. But be careful that watching paperwork alone is not enough. There will be critical times on any project when you must know how to motivate your team to achieve exceptional results.

Step 7: Switch to the New Working Practices

Congratulations! You have reached the final step. You now have to make sure you complete the last step to get those hard earned benefits. This generally requires switching off that out-going system, or re-deploying the department you have just made unnecessary, or simply stopping using that old set of procedures. To get the full project benefits, you need to switch to the new working practices completely. This final act often requires courage and resolve. I have come across many examples, say, of an old system that is never switched off because it is needed for that "special" client, or whole departments that continue in parallel years after a major company merger.

Of course, you should finally celebrate a job well done!

Peter Draper is an executive coach for project managers, globally via phone/email - providing systematic coaching support for already successful people. Further information available from


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