If your like me, then you are ALWAYS involved in at least one project at work, or in my case many, sometimes dozens. As an active Interim Executive, I work at the top of organizations as a non-permanent leader driving change or transformation in critical business functions. As you can imagine, many of the transformational activities take the form of large-scale projects, led by myself.
Since starting my career in 1990, I’ve been leading projects of all shapes and sizes, touching a wide array of business functions. I started as a software developer, but early on developed an expertise in leading very large and complex technology and business process change initiatives for some of the world’s largest companies. Typically whatever I was leading was the largest project that particular organization had ever undertaken, which meant I also took over a lot of failing initiatives, assessed if the project could be saved and if so, usually led the turn-around effort.
While many people who perform this type of work often move on to a permanent or more traditional executive position which has less in the way of constant change, my work as an Interim Executive has provided me with the rare experience of always leading one or more projects, with each of my clients, giving me a large body of experience and first-hand view of the factors that contribute to projects that are successful and those that fail.
Interestingly, most projects of any size fail not because of the items that typically come to mind: technology/equipment that cannot accomplish the objectives, inadequate talent or employee skills, or market forces that could not be overcome. Rather, it’s the basics of the project that result in failure, struggle or turmoil. It’s those simple “givens” that “everyone” already understands are go unstated, undefined or unplanned that turn great ideas into costly and painful experiences, and sometimes put the company itself at risk.
The best projects that delivered the highest results were ALWAYS the ones where the fundamentals were clear and well defined to all involved (executives, employees, consultants and partners). The first step of my proven process to success is to define the basics of whatever transformation I am leading. These are:
- What Are We Doing? – This is a basic statement of what the project will be focused on accomplishing at a high level and why it is important. This is often just a few sentences.
- Goals and Objectives – What, specifically, are we trying to accomplish? The best projects have specific goals from the start to clearly paint a picture of success to the team. However, if the details are not well defined in the beginning, it is perfectly fine to start by stating general goals, then working with the primary stakeholder(s) to hone in on specifics in the early stages.
- Scope – What are the bounds of what we will/will not do. You would not believe the amount of time, energy and frustration I’ve seen from teams that were working on the wrong things and never even knew it. Big projects are hard enough, so it’s important to state the areas that should be considered and those that should not. I typically talk about technology/systems, major business processes, products/services and other major areas that should be stated as being in or out of scope.
- Budget – How much are we willing to spend. In the beginning this is often “TBD”, based on what requirements are ultimately defined.
- Team – This defines who will put energy into the project. The project sponsor, primary stakeholder(s) and team leader should each be clearly defined in addition to individual contributors and partners.
- Issues/Questions – Often the start of a project is a somewhat foggy process, especially as the items above are considered in depth and put on paper for the first time. As these items are shared with stakeholders and team members, issues and areas of uncertainty start to arise. By stating these issues purely and capturing them as part of the project, they stay in sight and allow the team to resolve them once the project gets started.
Once the above items are documented, shared and agreed to by the sponsor, stakeholder(s) and project lead (if not the entire team), then execution can begin in earnest. If you are spending time or energy on a project currently and you and your team cannot answer the basic project success questions above, then I would strongly suggest you put the breaks on everything until you can.