Two Ways to Plan for Success

Project planning is not the most headline-grabbing business function; that is until the project in question goes wrong! The media is rightly willing to share the wastage from a big public-sector IT failure or an overspent infrastructure project, but our everyday project management successes are not often so newsworthy.

Recently the Know+Do team have been working with clients on project plans and we've seen the positive impact good project management can have. Clients have needed many different things from their projects, i.e. to launch a new product, establish a new division, change the way decisions are made, move offices, improve systems. But all had limited resources to use, limited time to achieve them and goals to measure their success. To help, we’ve developed a project template with a checklist of questions to ensure the fundamentals elements of a project are considered by our clients.

Every business must plan projects, whatever the sector or its scale of operation. To that end, there are numerous courses in project management (just think Managing Successful Projects or PRINCE2), countless books, numerous websites have been written, there are even professional associations to champion the skill. If it is so popular, so essential and so common, what exactly is project management? I like this definition:

"It is the coordination of a number of essential activities which are being performed by other people" [1]

As this simple definition explains, project management is connected to ensuring activities are completed by people. I would add though, that a project involves doing something new or different and therefore it creates a change. Change is a disruptive force, for good or ill, however large or small, but it always creates an impact, i.e. it moves established patterns, alters expectations or requires responding to a new context. Adding change to the definition highlights for me the two critical success factors that ALL projects must consider:

  1. The human participation in a project
  2. The purpose of the project

We have a wide choice of project planning methodologies sharing the rules, systems, processes, flow-charts, spreadsheets, reports that can be used in projects. Where such approaches can be derailed, or an enormous success is in how those leading a project consider the two elements of human participation and project purpose.

The complexity comes because these two factors are constantly changing, they are dynamic influences on a project and that can determine a project's success (or failure). They cannot be fed into a flow-chart to define their input-output and then left. A plan must allow flexibility for them to work well within a project and how well this is done is often down to the skills/experience of project leaders.

To increase the success potential of a project plan, a project leader can approach each factor in the following ways:

1.      People: Humans design, and then deliver on, a project plan and this normally happens in the context of teamwork. We've shared several tools to create great teams on this blog that any project manager can use. To generate great teams, a key factor in any project is how communication is considered, facilitated and utilised for success. People who lead projects are often busy, multi-tasking many factors, and communication can be one of the elements easily overlooked as a project develops.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review found that studies show a successful communications plan must be prepared and then at least tripled in scale/size to be effective. Whilst we all have limited resource, to communicate well we ensure clients start by drawing up specific communication plan for the project. Many things could be part of this but as a minimum, it is could include:

  • Checking that the team members understand the key terminology in, and factors around, the project
  • Clarifying the type/range of information the project team needs access to complete their work
  • Determining the responsibilities of the project personnel and how they are being held to account

2.      Purpose: Are those involved in delivering a project plan clear about the aim/objectives of the project? This may sound obvious, but it needs to be clarified at the start and for each person joining a project. For example, if a team is asked to repaint the reception of your building in some welcoming and calm colours, what might happen? Well, literally anything as that is such a vague aim for the project. In such a scenario, defining why the reception is being redecorated, what context it is part of (such as rebrand or change of strategy for the business), what colours might be wanted, when to undertake it and who is to be involved, are just some of the details needed in the planning process.

Keeping the purpose from a project team sounds counter-intuitive, and it is, but too often I have seen this approach taken. Those in ‘management’ protect the wider workforce from the full purpose of a project and gate-keep knowledge. A confident leader will translate information appropriately, explain the purpose and use it to motivate, measure and manage a project’s progress.

There is no checklist that would suit every project, but the tools above provide a point of reference for project leaders to minimise risks of failure and maximise the opportunity for success.

If you need more help in planning a project, we can share our very useful project planning template. If you want a copy, contact me on 0161 2804567 / and we can discuss your project management needs.

[1] Taken from: Posner, K. & Applegarth, M. (2008) Project Management Pocketbook. 2nd Edition