It looks like the projects you lead are going well. The project team is moving forward, the reports are showing everything is Green and you’re happy that the business case still holds up to deliver the benefits.
Then at the next project board meeting, your project manager hits you with a delay. A big one. How did no one see this coming? Or did they, and they are keeping information from you?
The Trouble With Surprises
Not all surprises are the nice, birthday-cake-and-little-box-from-Tiffany, type of surprise.
The unpleasant surprises are the ones which put you on the back foot. You’re reacting to a situation that you didn’t see coming, and that takes a while. You have to get to the bottom of what actually happened. You have to design solutions to help you address the issues you’ve uncovered. You have to mobilize the team in a new direction, prioritizing resources and possibly even making some significant changes to the project schedule such as delaying delivery milestones. In a client-based organization, that can have far-reaching effects.
Finding out that a project is in trouble can be embarrassing if it happens in a meeting in front of your client or senior managers. When you’re supposed to know this stuff, not knowing can create a politically sensitive environment that it’s best to avoid.
But if you know something is going to happen (even if it’s bad), you can put plans in place to deal with it before it becomes a real problem. You can prepare a response for that awkward client meeting so you aren’t struggling to come up with answers and justifications without having had the time to think things through in advance.
That’s the crux of risk management.
How To Avoid Surprise
Good risk management is easy to talk about, but harder to embed in your organization. While that’s a strategic solution, if you’re struggling to firefight in your business you need some quick fixes as well as working on a longer term, cultural fix to improve project performance all round.
First, think about the communication channels between you and the rest of the project team. Whether you are in a sponsorship role, or are managing the project in a hands on way, you need to be connected to reliable sources of information.
If you don’t want to be caught out at a meeting, set that expectation with your colleagues. Let them know that it’s unacceptable for you to be briefed on critical information that affects time, cost and quality (or other metrics that are your key success criteria) in front of other people, especially when the impact on the project is negative.
Get round the information vacuum by having a quick catch up for just 10 minutes at some point before the meeting so you can get a heads up on what the team thinks you should know.
Second, work with the team to get better at monitoring the indices that track performance. It’s lazy project management to report everything as Green every week, when you aren’t digging down into the detail to find out if that’s a realistic status.
If the team gets into the habit of coasting along, when an issue crops up they might not be able to see the signs because they aren’t looking for them.
Think about the kinds of things that cause projects to derail at various stages of the project lifecycle. For example:
- An absentee sponsor
- Overstretched delivery resources
- Lack of tangible, clear benefits that the team can support
- Lack of funding, or a budget that hasn’t been signed off yet
- The wrong stakeholders involved in the project
Look back at the past performance of projects, especially those that got into difficulty. What common trends can you spot?
Pull up the lessons learned logs (there are lessons learned reviews on your projects, right?) and take a look at what project teams are flagging as the difficulties they faced. Your PMO can consolidate the lessons learned across multiple projects and help your teams identify trends.
There are probably more things connecting those ‘challenged’ projects than you first expected, and identifying the characteristics they share will help you plan forward to stop those issues happening on future projects. This is incredibly valuable information for your PMO team, as it informs how they will support projects going forward and it helps execs understand what makes it more likely that a project will achieve its forecasted benefits reliably.
The Role of EVM
If you can predict what might cause a project to go off plan, then you can more easily do something about it at a point before it causes issues. We’ve had tools in project management to do this for some time, and while big data, analytics systems and AI are all shoring up our capabilities to do more to predict the performance of projects, Earned Value Management has stood the test of time.
Earned Value is a robust, tried-and-tested way to give execs and project teams the information they need to track project performance and to predict where it’s going in the future. It gives you measures and targets to allow you to monitor in real time, and forecast what kind of performance you need to be hitting if you want to get back on track.
Earned Value and strategic risk management in your enterprise are not quick fixes, but they do give you a solid base of understanding project performance and being able to monitor progress in a way that is far more robust than a project team member making an arbitrary decision that the project is Green this month based on gut feel.
Moving to a mature way of managing project performance takes a culture change as well, but it’s less difficult than you’d expect because the benefits are so tangible and the impact so significant. Once you see how much better you can deliver you won’t want to go back to the old ways!