How to Start Later and Finish Sooner

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 many projects. This is confirmed by a study conducted by the two German management consultants Bernd Friedrich and Daniel Schaetzler. In the course of this survey, the largest project time-wasters were identified, most of which could have been avoided or significantly reduced in the project initiation phase.

Their motivation to examine this phase of a project and its impact on the success of the project result comes from their experience as managers and consultants.

Again and again they came across projects that should never exist the way they did. Even so external partners often had been consulted, these projects were in remarkably poor conditions.

They present the following three issues that seem to be very common:

  1. 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.
  2. Absence of a clear project management approach and no IT support for scheduling, cost, risk and other planning and controlling activities.
  3. 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 most confusing that the project was still reported as green-yellow, as there was no baseline against which the actual project progress could have been measured.

They asked experienced project managers as well as clients for their top three of the biggest time wasters in projects.

The result according to a survey on time wasters in projects (source: http://sups.pro, 2017) is summarized hereafter:

Biggest Project Time Wasters

Biggest Project Time Wasters

The Foundation for a Successful Project is Laid at the Beginning of the Project

Although this statement is intuitively clear to everyone, even today many projects start very unprepared: without a clear goal, without the right project manager without the necessary internal resources.

One wonders why? Although there are many reasons, in their experience two of them stand out:

  1. The management is under enormous pressure to handle and implement topics quickly. This often leads to pure actionism, and this costs a lot of money in the course of the project life cycle.
  2. The organization is not yet ready for the project. There are no clear objectives and conditions, and neither a suitable project manager nor a project team with sufficient know-how and capacities are availed to the project. The project management approach and IT support are still unclear and will only be determined during the course of the project. These factors often lead to frustration and work overload in the project team. However, the worst consequence is that the project team is demotivated already before the project 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 – sorry, page in German…)

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). Although it is intuitively clear to everyone that goals should be well-defined, the question arises as to why this is not consistently implemented in practice. Rather than consistently giving “SMART” targets, unrealistic or non-specific goals are defined. They are either not achievable or not measurable and in anyway 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. If than half of the 200% is done, this is still “good”. The reality, however, is that fear builds up before the start of the project and, in the end, 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.

The solution: A 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, the project management approach must also be specified. The project phase and milestones must be fixed and requirements in regards to scheduling, reporting, risk management, scope etc. must be collected and agreed in advance 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. Friedrich and Schaetzler are convinced that, with the exception of approx. 5% of the so-called “Unknown Unknowns”, all risks of a project can be identified in advance. In a big company they both used to work for, 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 something 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. In their experience 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:

In a brainstorming session, the team develops what can go wrong in the project along line. In the next step, the probabilities and the impacts on time, cost and scope are evaluated. 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 for defining corresponding 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, ensures that the success probability of a project increases and remains stable over the life cycle of the project. These 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.

Conclusion

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),
  • Clear definition of SMART targets,
  • Clear 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.

Are you in a similar situation? See here how to get help…

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