A project is a unique, transient endeavour, undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits. A project is usually deemed to be a success if it achieves the objectives according to their acceptance criteria, within an agreed timescale and budget. Having the correct culture in a business to facilitate good project management is a definite positive.

The evolution of the project culture starts with the planning of the project, which should follow immediately after the initial culture has been built. The role of a project manager is therefore to:

  • build a team
  • build a plan
  • deliver the project.

It’s important to state at this point that the costs and times you have come up with in the business case (providing you have one!) are not the final costs or times the project will be delivered to. These are estimates. It is the planning process that will determine what can be delivered and when. Often the pre-planning business case can be out by plus or minus 100 per cent, which is why it’s so critical that you make time for planning.

In my experience, so many organisations get this wrong. This is reinforced by the worldwide reviews and reports into project failure. In a review of federally funded projects in the US in 2008, the Government Accountability Office defined 413 projects, totalling US$25.2 billion as poorly planned, poorly managed or both.

Reviewing the top 10 IT projects in Australia, the Victorian Ombudsman found, ‘None of the projects investigated [were] well planned’. The HealthSMART project included in this review was so bad it didn’t even have a business case ‘despite seeking over $300 million in funding’. The e-Borders project in the UK cost the government £830 million and has still not delivered against its original vision. A key reason for this poor performance? Failure to set appropriate benchmarks from which to assess project progress. PWC’s 2016 Global Construction Survey found that most of the 500 major projects worldwide they assessed failed to come within 10 per cent of the time deadlines.

Money and time are consistently wasted because organisations can’t be bothered to put the effort into completing planning properly. As a sponsor, you need to be aware of this issue and make sure you don’t make the same mistake. If your project is using a traditional or waterfall approach, then you must ensure the project manager is given the time they need to get the plan right. For a 12-month project, it can take up to three months to finalise the plan. You’ll have clarity on the benefits, scope, deliverables, quality expectations, communications required, stakeholders affected, initial risk exposure and structures required to get the job done. I can’t overstate how important this is.

A KPMG New Zealand project management survey found that only 33 per cent of organisations achieve the objectives they set out to. You don’t want yours to fall into the same trap. Having a detailed plan — with phases such as design, build, test and implement — that the project manager can manage to will mitigate that risk. It’s then your job to make sure they stick to it.

A couple of years ago I was asked to review a project that was being led by a subject matter expert. When I asked him where the plan was, he touched his head and said, ‘It’s all up here’. That’s not good enough. It certainly wasn’t for that project, which was eventually cancelled at a loss of $1.5 million. All for lack of a plan.

If your project is using an agile approach, then the plan will be much more fluid, with less certainty around time and cost. In Agile Project Management, Jim Highsmith identifies the following core values of agile project management (which mirror the values outlined in the Agile Manifesto):

  • individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • working products over comprehensive documentation
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • responding to change over following a plan.

You can expect more uncertainty at the start, with the project gaining clarity as each sprint (or short cycle) is completed. If you’re looking for these projects to follow established funding phases or to produce lots of documentation, then you’ve chosen the wrong approach. The planning in an agile project concentrates on getting to the end of the first phase (sprint), before assessing and re-planning.

That said, running agile projects isn’t an excuse for removing the project manager.

Spotify is an example of an organisation that doesn’t form traditional project teams, but instead creates autonomous, cross-functional, co-located, self-organising squads to get the work done. Interestingly, the company also measures success by how satisfied customers (internal and external) are.

If you’re not bound by time or cost, or you aren’t fully clear on the customer need, the agile approach is definitely a good way to go. Whichever approach you take, your job is to make sure there’s a plan that’s comprehensive enough to provide you and the stakeholders with confidence around dates and costs and that evolves as the project progresses. Creating an initial plan isn’t enough. You also have to ensure that the plan — owned by the project manager — is updated regularly to reflect the work that’s been done and that has yet to be done. Your job as a sponsor is to keep pushing the project manager to deliver, not to sit back waiting for it to happen.

Many project managers have lost the knowledge of what it takes to create a plan. You cannot tolerate this. Again, their job is to build a team, build a plan and deliver the project. Without building a team you can’t build a good plan. Without building a good plan you can’t deliver the project. It’s that simple.

Having said all that, project planning is not a straight-line process. It is a non-stop juggling and balancing act that requires flexibility, collaboration, attention to detail and a sense of humour! A regularly changing plan is not easy to manage.