So many of us have often heard that “a failure to plan is a plan to fail,” so we grow confident that successful planning leads to successful project completion.
The old adage isn’t necessarily untrue. Having a plan is crucial. But research shows that the common approaches to project management fail to produce the outcomes that managers expect—and that customers want. Good planning, as it turns out, isn’t necessarily the answer; it’s part of the problem. Not because planning in itself is bad, but by focusing solely on planning, we aren’t looking at the rest of the equation for success.
Independent project management research shows that what differentiates the best project executors from everyone else are just a few strategies and processes:
- Schedule stability
- Having a culture of delivery excellence
- Executive sponsorship
- Skilled leaders
A stable schedule is only the first step in successfully delivering a project. No schedule is perfect. The uncertainty in project is what makes a project a project, rather than say, an assembly line. That uncertainty is what causes variation. However, that variation doesn’t mean your schedule should be changing every day or every week.
A stable schedule takes uncertainty into account so you don’t have to change it every time Murphy strikes. So if your schedule is constantly shifting, take a look at your planning methodology. Managing uncertainty doesn’t mean planning in more detail, it means giving yourself permission to make a schedule that is good enough. Good enough to manage, good enough to take variation into account.
Instead of changing plans, change behaviors. Don’t make your first response to variation changing the plan. Keep your team focused on the path forward. Get the team back on schedule rather than get the schedule back on the team.
The key to schedule stability is not more detailed planning, but intelligent execution – creating and sustaining a culture where moving forward to completion is more important than meeting the details of a plan that was built months ago.
A Culture of Delivery Excellence
So much work passes for accomplishment, but while work is being done the final step of finishing seems elusive. Many team members feel they are spinning their wheels, never seeming to finish anything.
The definition of the word “delivery” is rooted in accomplishment. Delivery is about completion. To build a culture of delivery excellence, you must develop the processes to execute well (to finish!) and establish appropriate governance to reinforce behaviors that drive accomplishment.
Consider what it takes to finish a project:
Collaboration and Problem Solving
Few project managers have a structured process for team collaboration. Collaboration, working together to solve problems, is often left to having some meetings each week. What happens at these meetings is rarely structured, so the meetings turn into status reports and excuse delivery. How does your team work together? Are they focusing on action? Holding each other accountable for results? Working together to solve problems?
Collaboration requires a shared vision of the direction of the project and a clear understanding of the obstacles standing in the way. Only then can the team actively engage with the critical items and resources to remove them.
Making the project visual is by far the simplest way to show the team where they are, where they need to go, and the obstacles in the way. They can then work on moving ahead, instead of living in the past.
Do you know the critical diagnostic and KPIs for your project teams? When one member wins, does the project benefit? Having the right measurements means you know your critical processes and have aligned your team member’s individual performance with the project’s (rather than the individual’s department) objectives.
Remember, what gets measured gets managed. What’s important gets the most attention. If the objective of the project is to complete as quickly as possible within budget, how you translate the day to day activities to that objective will point your team in the right direction and have everyone who is on the project, on the project team.
Are your project teams spending a lot of time fighting fires and solving problems? Reacting rather than looking ahead? These are the classic symptoms of a broken risk management process. Your team should be systematically identifying and resolving risk. Risk management isn’t just for the project manager, the entire team should be raising and resolving risk during the entire project.
One of the biggest complaints of senior managers is that they can’t get a sense of where things are until the wheels have fallen off. Do you have a formal executive governance process that provides a clear view into the full portfolio of projects? A dashboard of the most important risks and actions? Without a governance process, there can be no focus for executives and project teams. You will find it difficult to align project objectives and project outcomes with the overall organizational objectives.
“Culture” is more than what people feel, it’s what they do. As a leader, you can shape behavior. After all, isn’t that the main job of a project manager? Shaping behavior to achieve the project outcome?
It’s no secret that having an executive behind your project will certainly make it easier to deliver. After all, the executives have the organizational authority and resources to make or break your project. I’m amazed that this is even a discussion, because I don’t understand why a project would be undertaken without an executive sponsor.
Have you identified the executive “owner” of your project? Someone owns it; not a committee. Who benefits from the deliverable of the project? Who is harmed if it doesn’t deliver? Get that person on your team. Sell them your project. Involve them or you will have no one to fight for your project.
The best project managers are not the best technicians, they’re the best leaders. How do you know if you have a leader? They have followers! No one is coming to your meetings? Responding to your email? Check your leadership style. If you’re in charge of projects, make sure your project managers have the right skills.
Great Project Teams are Great at Executing
Planning is important, but don’t overlook execution; this is where the leverage is. Execution is a process, as much as planning is a process. Leave it to chance and you’ll leave your results to chance as well.
Learn more about how to improve your project execution by reading some of our eBooks or watching more of our videos. Particularly, our eBook Why do projects succeed or fail? Discover What Really Makes a Difference includes some very practical information you can use right now to improve your project performance.