7 strategic questions that drive project success & failure
Guest blog by Adam Nathan, CEO of The Bartlett System. The Bartlett System helps organizations focus, align and measure their business strategies. Their strategic dashboard methodology works in compliment to Logic20/20's technology services to deliver surpassing value to organizations. Please visit the complimentary article “Starting a New IT Initiative? Ask these 7 Technical Questions First!” on The Bartlett System's blog here.
Let’s go out on a limb and guess you know this story: after months of work, multiple changes in scope, and heroic team effort your project winds down to completion. Maybe there’s a party in the break room, a dutiful executive thank you, or an obligatory post-mortem.
Some of your team members think the project was a success. Others see it as a disappointment. Each has compelling reasons. But no one truly knows the final verdict. No one.
Why is this? Why isn’t a project’s success or failure clearer, less arbitrary, and as straightforward as the outcome of a baseball game?
Here are 7 questions that can help IT take ownership of the terms of success and failure - while helping the organization as a whole stay focused, aligned and entrepreneurial about a major initiative.
1.How will the success of your effort be measured objectively?
The bad news is that subjectively assessing a project’s success or failure is straightforward. It requires no rigor, and every member of a team can (and will) do it. You don’t need clear goals, a defined return on investment or target measurements. You just need an opinion.
So prior to kick-off, IT is well-advised to work with the business to define what quantifiable measurements will determine success or failure. What measurable speeds, times, financial terms or customer behaviors are the threshold for victory? Baseline these values pre-project, revisit as it develops and assess at completion – or work at the mercy of vague, subjective opinions.
2. When will the project be assessed for success or failure?
Just like measurable targets put teeth into success or failure, so does a hard date on a calendar. Consider fixing a date at the outset of a project for assessing the outcome. Make sure the business – and your team – are aligned on it.
There’s a huge chance the date may not coincide with the end of the project’s work – but there should still be a date for assessment. The project’s not officially over until that day arrives and the ROI verdict is in.
3. If the target business processes had KPIs, can they be measured before kick-off?
Regrettably, the business doesn’t always have clear measurements on the processes it is trying to improve. There may be a known inadequacy to an existing system or process, but the challenge is expressed in general terms: the old software is too slow, the new software will change everything, the customers hate it, it costs too much, etc.
Most of the time, with a little effort, the current state can actually be measured – and should be. Defining the as-is baseline before a project drives rigor and creates clarity in the conversation between the business and IT. For example, a dashboard that tracks key performance questions through a small set of targeted KPIs can become a reference point for everyone, both before and after.
Strongly consider creating a simple dashboard – visible to all and referenced at steady intervals – that shows the KPIs that are driving the effort and will be used to measure results.
4. Could you sell the project on Shark Tank? No, really.
Imagine you’re standing in front of the executive leadership team. You are competing for funds against other initiatives in your organization. The “sharks” are direct, harsh and insightful. How do you frame the total ROI delivered by your team? Would you invest in your own initiative? Would your CEO?
How will you work together with the business to change systems, processes, resources? How will significant changes be integrated into the work life of the organization? Why your project and not someone else’s?
Show them the money. Frame your initiative like an entrepreneur selling a business plan and the investment will follow.
5. How will you dictate the terms of success and failure?
When you introduce measurements and dates to determine success, you frame the rules for success and failure. If your terms aren’t accepted, you’ve learned something key. Otherwise, you’re in the driver’s seat because you’ve established the rules of the game.
In the vacuum of your leadership, your team’s work may well end up being evaluated subjectively. Not incidentally, this is as true for an IT leader as it is for a leader from the business. Everyone benefits from a clear vision of success.
To frame the terms of success is to assert control over the effort.
6. “Just One More Thing…”
Years ago, there was a television detective named Columbo. Columbo’s trademark line was “just one more thing.” Every episode without fail he would head to a door before turning back to his suspect and saying, “Just one more thing.” Invariably, it would be the most important question of the conversation.
So, here’s the Columbo question for the end of your next project kick-off meeting. Before your team heads off, ask them if they have a minute for just one more thing. Ask each team member to write down the three measurable criteria that will determine success for the entire project.
You’ve probably guessed – correctly - that the team’s answers will diverge wildly. When the nervous laughter is over, help the team see the danger of disconnects around this basic question.
Then define your most important criteria and bring the team along.
7. Does IT initiate the meeting to assess a project as a success or failure?
You’ve owned the definition of the terms of success. You’ve aligned your team around the North Star objectives of your effort. You’ve measured your baseline and drawn a line in the sand with the date to assess success or failure.
Now bring it home.
Be the one to schedule the meeting to determine the project outcome. Don’t let the answer to this question drift into vague subjective assessments. Force it to a conclusion.
Whether your work has succeeded or failed, initiating the conversation with the stakeholders and project sponsor to debrief on the outcome establishes you as a leader. You have owned the process from end-to-end. You’ve provided a service to your organization and modeled a best practice.
Logic20/20 and the Bartlett System work together to bring state-of-the-art strategic consulting and digital transformation to their customers. Learn more how our partnership can support exceptional outcomes in your organization.
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