According to a survey among German project managers and sponsors, as well as observations in daily project life, an inadequate project initialization phase is often devastating the outcome of projects. Two German management consultants Bernd Friedrich and Daniel Schaetzler carried out a study on how to start later and finish sooner. They identified large project time-wasters in the course of their survey. Below is a summary of most root-causes. Avoidance or significant reduction is possible during the project preparation phase.
The Main Problems
Their motivation to examine how to start later and finish sooner results from their experience as managers and consultants. They soon found out that the key to project success obviously lies in the project preparation phase, as well as most of the causes of project failure.
They present the following three issues that seem to be very common:
- No clear objectives combined with minimal management support even after several month into the project life cycle had a tremendous impact on the motivation of the project team.
- Absence of a clear project management approach and no IT support for scheduling, cost, risk and other planning and controlling activities.
- Absence of sufficient resource planning and consequently of course no commitment by responsible providing departments. However, the project had already used up 50% of the budget and 80% of the originally expected duration. It was confusing that the project status was still classified as green-yellow, even though not even a baseline existed as a basis for assessment.
Friedrich and Schaetzler interviewed experienced project managers as well as clients for their top three of the biggest time wasters in projects. According to their survey the following are the biggest contributors to wasted time:
The Foundation How to Start Later and Finish Sooner
Although this statement is intuitively clear to everyone, even today many projects start very unprepared and without:
- A clear goal,
- The right project team, and
- The necessary resources.
Why is that? Although there are many reasons two of them seem to stand out:
- The management is under enormous pressure to act and implement projects quickly. This often leads to doing things for the sake of doing things, and costs a lot of money in the course of the project life cycle.
- The organization is not yet ready for the project. The project manager and his team are engaged far too late and without clear objectives. The project management approach is unclear and only determined during the course of the project. These factors often lead to frustration and project team work overload. In consequence the project team is often demotivated before the project even really kicks off.
Let’s take a closer look at three of the typical time-wasters and discuss ways to eliminate them during the project start-up phase. For more time wasters, see www.sups.pro/zeitfresser (page in German language).
Time Waster: Ambiguous Project Goals and Project Approach
The inadequate definition of the project goals before the start of the project is extremely typical in project management.
Often enough, goals are not based on “SMART” criteria (SMART = Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Time-bound). Everyone knows immediately that unclear targets are worthless. The question is why this is often not the case in reality. Goals are often either not achievable or not measurable and in anyway unrealistic and not achievable targets cause frustration. The typical response is “We cannot do that anyway, everybody knows that”.
For example, a renowned international top management consultancy advises its clients to set project goals at just 200% and build up great pressure. Therefore, everything beyond 50% is already a success for the organization. The reality, however, is that fear builds up before the start of the project. The result is, frustration combined with a loss of client confidence. In the case of very little ambitious goals, however, the team might think: “We have enough time, let’s get other things right first”. The project is put aside – and not given priority anymore.
Solution: The Project Charter
A project charter coordinated with the future project manager and the line management is the prerequisite for a successful project. In addition to specifying the goals and other subjects, the
- Project management approach must be specified,
- Project phases and milestones must be fixed,
- Requirements must be included (and trained where necessary).
Time Waster: Insufficient Risk Management
Unpredictable events throw over the entire project schedule or even jeopardize the project in its entirety. Thereby, about 95% of the risks are predictable timely enough to allow the implementation of a suitable risk response strategy. In some companies they say “Project Management is Risk Management”. The difference between normal line activity and project work is that surely there are far more risks in projects. Projects are by definition unique, create something new and run outside the normal line organization.
Despite its high importance for a project, apparently risk management is among the most neglected activities. Obviously many employees struggle dealing with uncertainties and assumptions. And yet, the process of identifying project risks and creating a conscious way of dealing with them is not that difficult.
Solution: Risk Evaluation
In a brainstorming session, the team evaluates everything that can go wrong in the project along the line. In the next step they estimate the probabilities and the impact on time, cost and scope. At the latest at this point, most of the team members are reluctant to commit to specific values. However, this assessment is the basic condition for focusing attention on the most important risks and appropriates response strategies.
If the risk owners are identified and named in the next step and the value of the risks are considered in the project schedule and cost baselines (deadlines, costs), the basis for a successful project is definitively improved.
Finally, risk monitoring and controlling during the entire project life cycle, and until a specific risk stops existing, increases the project success probability. Monitoring & controlling include in particular the following activities:
- Identification of new risks,
- Updating the probability and impact of risks that still may occur,
- Closing the risks that have occurred or are no longer relevant,
- Monitoring the risk mitigation or other response processes,
- And consequently updating the schedule and the budget.
Time Waster: Insufficient availability of resources
Detailed planning of the required resources to carry out individual work packages is essential to the project success. In the end, a task cannot be fulfilled if the resources are not available. If the resources are not available in sufficient numbers, a task can probably still be carried out, but it will perhaps take much more time. Basically, you can do a specific task with one excavator in 2 months or with 2 excavators in one month. The number of excavator hours remains the same in the end. If the schedule allows two months to complete the task, one excavator should be sufficient in principal. If you only have one month and you are trying with one excavator, you are likely to experience 1 month of delay and related costs. The extra cost will probably exceed the cost of another excavator for a month.
It is important to further ensure that shared resources are available to the project to the agreed extent. In case of conflicts, it is necessary to agree on priorities from the beginning.
To make a project successful, one needs to invest time and money in the project initiation.
During the initiation, the focus should be on the following topics (in addition to the general feasibility of the project goals):
- Clear scope definition (what is part of the project and what is not),
- Definition of SMART targets,
- Commitment of the organization to provide the necessary resources,
- Rough deadline, budget and resource plans,
- Appropriate risk analysis,
- Qualified project manager and project team,
- Appropriate PM methodology and IT support.
If these topics are clearly defined and accepted by all, nothing stands in the way of the success of the project.
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