On a recent webinar with Johanna Rothman (author of loads of books on project management, program management, portfolio management and, I suspect, other things beginning with “P” that need managing!), she made the point that it’s not important how many projects you start. What’s important is how many you finish and that they deliver business value.
If you only score points for finished projects, let’s figure out how to get more points on the board!
Why projects fail?
There are all kinds of reasons, of course, but at a high level you could probably fit them into three categories;
- They are the wrong projects which means
You lose exec sponsorship
The project becomes “obsolete”
There’s no convincing “hand off” to the business at the end
Basically, the project doesn’t deliver business value
- You get your resourcing wrong, which means
You get multi-tasking (really kills productivity)
You end up killing your key resources with overwork
You’re trying to deliver too many things… and fail. Let’s say it again…. FAIL.
- Your processes and governance are weak, which means
Project implementation is patchy
You can’t see problems until they bite you
You can’t make good decisions to correct problems
You aren’t able to “kill” bad projects
Occasionally a project will fail because of simple poor execution, but my gut tells me that most of those failures actually have their roots in the three categories above. For example, “scope creep” can be viewed as an execution failure, but really it’s about lack of clarity around what the project is about and about poor governance.
So, if these are the root-causes of failure…
What can we do to fix it?
In Johanna’s webinar, she talks about “portfolio management” being at the heart of fixing a lot of this. In her world, this means that
1) You have to pick the right projects. Do that, and a LOT of the other problems go away. Regular readers will know that I like the Analytic Hierarchy Process for this. It lets you build a clear consensus between your key stakeholders around what your goals are and then use those goals-come-criteria to select projects in a rigorous and data-driven way. That’s why we use it in our project prioritization module.
2) You have to use your resources effectively and efficiently. That means being focused on teams getting things done, not overloading the organization, etc. Now, of course, that means saying “no” or “not now” to some projects (see point 1), but balancing the workload to the resources you actually have (as opposed to some notional capacity that might, or might not, really be available) lets you get a lot more done in less time with the same resources. This is a theme also echoed by Mike Hannan (another renowned author, speaker and consultant-to-the-PM-stars) in his recent webinar. When two luminaries say the same thing, I’d suggest it’s something to think about… deeply. Mike’s and Johanna’s webinars go into more detail. There aren’t many tools out there that really let you do this easily, although Mortfoliolooks like a game-changer (automating this process - using iterative optimization algorithms - and optimizing your delivery schedule around your available capacity).
3) Reviewing the portfolio periodically matters. Of course you need good implementation methods, etc., but reviewing the portfolio, the resources and The Plan regularly (monthly, if possible) will allow you to make quick adjustments. This should be part of the normal governance process, but unfortunately, most PPM tools don’t help much so few PMOs actually put this into place. PPM tools typically provide project status updates (even rolled up to the portfolio level), but then turning that into action is usually quite difficult. HOW should we tweak the project schedule? Do we need to reallocate resources? Should we drop project A? These are hard questions that PPM systems typically don’t help you answer. Again, this is where portfolio investment tools like AHP and automated scheduling really help. They allow you to take data from your PPM system and figure out what to actually do with it.
Okay, so I’ve really condensed a lot of what Johanna said (you can hear the whole webinar here) and mixed in some of my own thoughts, but at it’s heart, her message is simple: Investing in active portfolio management is not optional if you want to finish more projects that add more business value.