Project Gone Astray? How to Get Back on Track
Jordan Kuperschmid | email@example.com | 908.347.5610
Rochelle Edens | firstname.lastname@example.org | 312.583.6825
Liz Hydock | email@example.com | 908.337.6955
How a bowl of candy, a stodgy office and a baseball game saved three transformations
Despite a worthy goal and efficient planning, every transformational project has the potential to drift off course. Good governance and strong leadership provide important protections, but even veteran managers oversee only two or three major transformations over the entire course of a career — leaving an organization ill-equipped to identify underlying causes or to plan a workable recovery when a project runs aground.
As independent consultants, by contrast, Navigant specialists have been integral to dozens of successful operational changes and IT transformations. The pairing of experience and objectivity places us in a uniquely valuable position to pinpoint a failing project’s weaknesses, assess their impact, and take corrective action. These are the insights we’ll be sharing here, beginning with a look at the methodology we utilize to check the health of a project.
Incorporating routine checks is key to identifying vulnerabilities and may prevent the issues that can threaten a project‘s success. It is not uncommon for troubling symptoms to arise within a year of a project’s initiation or may even get off track at the start.
To provide a meaningful diagnosis of a troubled initiative, the project should be examined like a patient being evaluated by a good physician: with no preconceived notions as to cause and a perspective that allows a comprehensive view. Analysis begins with understanding the project’s defining elements, including a review of the charter, an evaluation of governance structure, and a mapping of communication routes. Tethered to these elements are the features of a project that may reveal fault lines, such as: the resources available, the commitment of senior management, the clear definition of deliverables, and the effectiveness of the system in place for measures and metrics.
As described in our previous Advantage article on Change Management, the interpersonal component of a health-check is not to be underestimated. Gathering accurate, useful insights depends not only on a keen observational eye but on having a talent for building rapport with people. To be credible and effective, the party assessing a project must strike a delicate balance between independence and collaboration.
From the observations of an unbiased eye flow the themes that will point the way to recovery. However, an important step is often overlooked before the findings are prioritized and shaped into an action plan: recommendations should first be vetted by a trusted sponsor and/or an expert on the subject matter. Collaboration, respect, and credibility all merge in this approach.
Leading problems and sample solutions
Transformational projects can stall at any juncture due to a range of external factors, shortcomings in internal processes or technology, cultural barriers, or flaws in leadership. With the benefit of having consulted on more than 50 such projects, Navigant has identified eight leading causes for a project to falter:
» Unclear expectations and responsibilities
» Poor process / lack of controls / lack of discipline to follow the process
» Lack of commitment and follow-through by senior executives
» Lack of skills and expertise
» Poor vendor performance
» Poor requirements
» Poor change management and communication
» Changing strategic environment or no long-term strategy
Acknowledging that any of these issues can cripple a well-intentioned initiative, we’re examining here three problems commonly at the root of troubled projects, and characterizing Navigant’s approach to recovery. These are the shortcomings most frequently cited by Navigant consultants who were asked, for the purposes of this article, to identify the areas historically shown to have the greatest negative impact on failed or failing client projects. Each is presented below alongside characteristic warning signs and a brief description of how Navigant assessed and addressed problematic issues at the core of a client project. Within Sample Treatments, see how a bowl of candy, a stodgy office, and a baseball game helped save three projects gone astray.
1. Unclear expectations and responsibilities
Lack of responsible/accountable team members; Gaps in skill sets; Deficient business support; Long assessment and design phases yielding minimal results; Frequent and significant surprises; Team turnover or Disengagement
Clear communication — and well-defined channels of communication — is paramount to good project governance. Once the mission of a project is established, conveying expectations unambiguously, inspirationally, and repeatedly is critical to engaging employees. Understanding project objectives and how they align with the company’s overall strategic goals empowers each team member, whose sense of commitment and responsibility grows under the guidance of an accessible leader. Communication requires a strategy; documented roles and responsibilities must be formally communicated and embedded in the performance management system. As economic, competitive, and regulatory climates change, strategic objectives may require periodic adjustments.
A bowl of candy, a pack of name stickers, and a flip chart were placed at four geographically disbursed transaction centers. The chart was titled “We want to know how you are feeling” and divided in two: one side with a happy face and the other with a frown face. Staff were asked to vote with the stickers and invited to enjoy some candy. Weekly, photos of all four charts were assembled and displayed. The exercise opened a dialogue that led to people asking one another, “Why are you a frowny face?” It became clear that team members were confused about relative responsibilities, and frustration was building.
A large life insurer had a major software implementation project suffering from delays, rework, team member turnover and budget pressures. Through interaction with the project team members, the core cause was identified as a lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities at the planning stage. “Borrowed” staff were still reporting into their line supervisors, unwilling to take direction from their temporary project bosses. As a remedy, cross-functional team roles were clarified and a firm timeline was established for deliverables. Ownership and accountability were assigned to each deliverable. Performance measures and reporting lines were enhanced. As the project re-engaged, the responsibilities and accountabilities of each team member were clear.
2. Lack of commitment and follow-through by senior executives
Poor project visibility and sponsor engagement; Increased divisiveness between leadership and dissenting team members; Dwindling participation at stakeholder status meetings; Perception that the initiative is not a high priority; Lack of timely decisions from sponsors; Fading team morale
The drivers of project success — budget, communication and morale — emanate from senior leadership. Without leadership support, which includes active engagement and timely decision-making, the purpose and momentum of an initiative is quickly lost.
A newly indoctrinated team leader felt his office in the formal executive wing was stodgy and lonely. Instead of remaining behind his desk, he regularly roamed the halls, engaging with team members and sitting in their offices to meet. His visibility and engagement reassured the team that leadership cared and that their efforts were appreciated.
Navigant was engaged by a major financial institution to review a project that was months behind schedule and well over budget. An assessment revealed that senior management participated in project initiation but then abdicated the oversight role to a project management team and turned their attention elsewhere. The lack of senior support was proving to be detrimental, as the project managers were working without the authority to make decisions and without the support of stakeholders to be impacted by the change. To re-start the stalled project, an active steering committee of senior executives was implemented and more frequent leader-led town halls were conducted. Team building activities were introduced to encourage senior leadership participation, visibility and support. Team achievements were publicly displayed and celebrated.
3. Poor vendor performance
Vendor not able to deliver on commitments; Gaps in required functionality over the course of a project; Ambiguous statement of work and service level agreement; Vendor resource turnover
Working seamlessly with a vendor is vital. Successful integration entails recognizing the vendor as an extension of your organization and, simultaneously, as a separate entity with its own motivations. Navigant may review a client’s due diligence process to determine if a thorough examination of the vendor was successfully conducted and whether it included approvals related to both business and to IT. In addition to an assessment of the vendor project plan and schedule, the SOW (statement of work) and SLA (service level agreement) are reviewed for ambiguities that could be at the root of delays or other trouble. Any problems identified are presented to senior management and may require renegotiations or project adjustments. A formal vendor management plan is the foundation for governing the relationship and achieving the desired results.
The vendor location was quite distant. Conference calls and emails were the primary means of communication. The teams were taking a long time to finish the forming, storming, norming and performing cycle. The client invested in periodically bringing the entire vendor team out to its site. Meeting days frequently concluded with a social activity, where vendor staff and in-house staff could meet and bond over a baseball game. Soon it became apparent that the client and vendor were fully aligned. The vendor proactively asked for help where they were not strong (PMO and Testing), and the client answered by lending first-rate resources to help close the gap.
Navigant was engaged to correct the course of a project with a key vendor reliance that was falling behind schedule. A review of the team organization reinforced the concept that the vendor was a business partner and critical to the success of the project, also affirmed in this Vendor Management Advantage article. A contract review and interviews revealed the vendor had based estimates on a high-level SOW and that the vendor realized−once entrenched in detailed requirements−that it had over committed. A mitigating approach to split the implementation into two phases was developed. Vendor contracts were updated to reflect the modified schedule.
Don’t allow time to pass without assessing the health of a project. Routine monitoring ensures that a team’s work remains true to stated goals even as the business environment evolves and as interim milestones are achieved. Formal governance structuring and open channels of communication are critical to the well-being of a transformational project from the point of initiation through to successful completion. But when a project does show signs of trouble, it’s critical to identify the causes behind the symptoms and to prescribe the appropriate corrective actions. With the benefit of an informed approach, the trouble a project potentially faces can be foreseen and its impact mitigated — if not eluded altogether.