IDEAS AND TOOLS
Making Change Projects Succeed
Mendzela explains why change projects often fail to meet expectations,
and outlines how to achieve rapid and successful results.
Projects - Control v Passion
article was first published in the Chartered Accountants Journal of New
Zealand and is under copyright. If you use or quote from this material
please attribute it to the author and publisher.)
have always juggled time and resources to achieve objectives, maximise
outputs and minimise inputs. But intuition and experience aren't always
enough to get it right, and scheduling can become a complicated
nightmare. This is particularly true for one-off, cross-functional
It's not surprising that project management has expanded from
specialised industries to become a best practice management tool.
Today, sophisticated computer tools are cheaply available too. Yet
project outcomes still vary from outstanding to disappointing. Why? Can
we do better?
Perhaps we can, with some new thinking. Some projects fail
little project management. But others fail through too much project
management, of the wrong kind.
Origins and History
Project management began with "building" - large-scale manufacturing
and construction. The objective was usually known - a finished result
of a specified quality. Avoiding time and cost overruns was however not
easy, particularly in complicated projects. Key resources were often in
demand for other projects or cost money even when idle, so accurate
scheduling was vital. Project management - formal planning and control
of time, cost and quality - evolved to meet these needs.
When computers arrived, they were big and expensive too.
and production were large projects in themselves. The techniques of
project management were soon transferred from hardware to software.
Large-scale software development projects became commonplace.
But limitations to traditional project management began to
many software projects (25% by some estimates) never reached completion
at all, and many others produced a result that was no longer relevant
by the time it was ready. Similar results emerged in manufacturing too
- development times failed to meet market needs, or technically
successful projects were uneconomic in the real world. What was going
Traditional project management developed in a relatively
dominated by technicians, supervisors and administrators. Control was
the key requirement and centralised planning was the dominant
Today the focus of most businesses has moved from product to
Convergent methodologies centred on control do not cope well with the
ambiguities and rapidly changing circumstances of the real world. The
limitations of project management methodologies become most apparent in
"people" projects such as restructuring - measurable objectives can be
ticked off but destruction of intangible value is hidden. More project
management of the conventional sort - tighter specification, "change
control" procedures and added levels of oversight - isn't the answer.
Two Kinds of Projects
Traditional project management is most useful where:
The skills required to manage such projects are specialist
method, analysis, discipline and control. It is relatively easy to
establish project sponsorship and management, assign responsibility and
apply accountability. Risks can be identified and controlled. Managing
the project parameters of quality, time and cost becomes mainly a
science. Skilled professionals are available, internally or externally.
- there are no complex linkages
with other change projects
- the required outcome can be
objectively and measurably specified
- the outcome and the
environment are stable during the project
- linkages with other projects
are few and simple
- resources can be simply
specified and applied
- the timeframe is reasonable
in relation to the task
But what if these conditions - as so often today - just don't
Then, project management - of another kind - becomes even more
valuable. Where outcome, environment, linkages and resources are
uncertain and time is pressing, different skills are required:
Success in a rapid dynamic project requires art as well as
passion as much as control. These talents are hard to find,
particularly when traditional project management skills and disciplines
are still needed too. A checklist of do's and don'ts can help.
- dynamically shaping and
re-shaping the required outcome demands a strategic overview and a
- managing the interaction
between an evolving project and a changing external reality demands
intuition and political skill
obtaining and managing resources - particularly a varied team of people
- demands high leadership and management skills
- working with uncertainty
under time pressure demands a risk-taking, entrepreneurial and
Rapid Dynamic Projects: Do's
Assign project sponsorship thoughtfully. Many good line managers make
poor project sponsors. The sponsor (who must be internal) should
Choose the project manager with equal care. Someone from
existing box" is unlikely to make real change happen. Look for the
qualities listed above. If an internal person is chosen, consider
external support and mentoring.
- be outcome-focused
- understand key issues across
the project and beyond
- have the "clout" to support
the project effectively
- be comfortable with a high
degree of delegation.
- tolerate uncertainty and
- enjoy change
Create a vision and culture for the project. Project team
pioneers - much will be asked of them. To succeed, they must be full
partners in the enterprise. Keep the team informed and involved. Invite
their views and consider these thoughtfully. If goalposts move, know
why and share this knowledge.
Focus project management on the fourth parameter - scope.
necessary result, not the planned one. Be prepared to re-think the
project as circumstances change. Weigh the risks of changing scope
against the risks of not doing so. Use deadlines as a driver for
achievement, not a straightjacket; see the project budget as an
investment, not a cost.
Keep the team small. Every additional person involved with
adds a communication and management overhead. Use the project sponsor
and manager to maintain liaison with other parts of the business. Make
the project the top (ideally the only) priority for other team members.
Balance the team:
Manage dynamically. Monitor changes in risk probabilities and
not just absolute values. Have several management strategies for each
risk. Scan the environment for new issues. When crises develop, stress
finding a way forward over detailed planning.
- use internal people (for
- include external people (for
- ensure a range of technical
areas is represented
- mix personality types
- blend experience and youth
Manage economically. Generally, 20% of the system will
deliver 80% of
the result. Avoid clumsy steering committees, lengthy routine reports
and long meetings. Keep the project focused on achieving milestones,
not on protecting its rear.
Evaluate the project once it's over, regardless of the
did we do right? What went wrong, and why? And - most important of all
- what would we do differently "next time"?
Rapid Dynamic Projects: Don'ts
Don't compromise on the people. Projects where a mediocre result may
not matter too much can be used as training grounds or as a place to
"park" surplus staff. Mission-critical projects need people who can
make it happen. Search widely and select carefully.
focus unduly on technical excellence or knowledge. Sponsor and manager
need a broad focus. Core team members should be creative generalists
who can link their skills and experience to other disciplines and the
wider world. Short-term technical needs can be met with part-time or
rely on methodology. Any methodology is mainly a checklist to help the
experienced professional achieve completeness and order. Once off the
edge of the map, compass and common sense must take over. Elaborate
monitoring and reporting mechanisms are expensive and often provide
false comfort when things are going wrong.
expect software to manage the project for you. On a dynamic project, an
elaborate project plan won't help very much. If the project manager is
unfamiliar with the software, it may even be a handicap at critical
throw the old disciplines overboard. Managing the traditional project
parameters of quality, time and cost - doing things right - is useful.
But defer reporting and analysis when necessary. Doing the right things
at the right time is what will make the project successful.
In today's environment, the new kind of project management often has
more to offer than the old one. Businesses that apply it operate in
recognisably different ways. To produce superior results that often
look like luck or accident to outsiders, they:
As traditional organisational structures and management
less relevant, project management will continue to grow in importance.
But matching the tools to the job is vital. Too often, the old kind of
project management is applied when the new kind is needed.
Bureaucratic, hierarchical organisations feel comfortable with
control-oriented methodologies that focus on technical issues. The
discovery that - despite the acres of reports produced - the project
has lost its way often comes too late. Everyone can provide an
explanation, but no-one has delivered a result.
- see time as a key competitive
- invest in trying things out,
not writing plans
- plan backwards from an
outcome, not forward from the status quo
- have a passionate, can-do,
- expect their executives to
demonstrate leadership, not management
The simple message for organisations undertaking rapid
dynamic projects is:
- focus on outcomes
- choose the right people
- trust the team to achieve
- manage flexibly
- be prepared to repeatedly
may feel unfamiliar. And it is risky; projects can fail. But the
awesome return that a successful project delivers - passion plus
control - is worth the risk. The greatest risk of all is to fail to