Is your improvement project failing? Depending upon which study you reference, roughly two thirds of projects fail to produce their promised outcomes. Such failures result in a tremendous waste of resources and even more unfortunately - lost opportunities to seize advantage over competitors. Looking deeper, we often find failure is almost preordained. Projects are pushed out of the chute armed with confusing directives and inadequate resources. Once a team is assigned to address an opportunity, invariably the first task is to translate leadership intentions into a realistic deliverable. Such translations can be overly challenging to make. In the name of expediency, project teams are routinely asked to run out on the ice before strapping on their ice cleats. Without stable footing, epitomized by a well-defined mission and clear field instructions, they lack the foundational necessities to hit the ground running.
In working with project teams, there are five steps to help any team navigate the early days of the project and put them on steady footing as they move forward. When executed predictably, these steps build a foundation for success. Equally as important, the detailed perspective outlined through these simple steps paints a more complete vision of the project’s outcomes, which occasionally persuades leaders to halt or pause the forward motion. Not every opportunity that glitters is gold. Regardless, these five steps help identify the critical components of a project and ensure they are delivered collaboratively for the greatest possible benefit. The steps are as follows and are ideally executed in the order presented
1. Take an early stab at building a future state solution – Before the ink dries on the opportunity’s directive, assemble the working team and collectively draw up an initial view of the project’s end state. What does success look like? What are the processes that will generate value? Who are the performers? What are their roles and responsibilities? What are the outputs? Don’t worry if the current information isn’t enough to fully build out the future. Make assumptions when necessary. For this exercise, the intent is not to design the perfect solution, but to shine a flashlight into the dark and begin thinking about how the future looks. The output of this activity might never see the light of day, but it still acts to kick-start the project and delivers several significant benefits. First off, it gets the team engaged immediately out of the gate. It stirs the creative juices and starts the team working together. It forces them to pick a starting point. In doing so, it surfaces questions and information gaps that require further research – and it does so at a point early enough in the process that deficiencies are less likely to derail the project’s delivery. Finally, and arguably most importantly, this initial solution is an idealistic view of the end state - unfettered by political games, organizational constraints, budgets or deadlines. In the team’s mind, this brainstorm is their baseline view – a rough draft to add to, edit, or erase as new details are incorporated.
2. Identify Processes/Departments impacted by the project. Once the initial solution is framed, sit down and identify the processes/departments/teams that it impacts. Who has to be onboard to deliver the end state? What do they need to contribute? As an example, imagine a new product being launched. In this situation, the marketing team would likely be engaged to create the new product’s packaging, to determine market pricing, to plan launch promotions, and to develop the brand concept. In order to ensure these activities receive the appropriate amount of attention and don’t get lost, a good idea is to develop a master list of activities by team/department. Not only does this exercise definitively outline the scope of the work, it identifies the outputs needed from the impacted teams. Again, this list may not be static. As things move forward, activities may be added or deleted as the end state evolves. For this step, the benefit is in clarifying the roles each of the parties play in delivering the eventual end state and helping to ensure nothing is forgotten as the project moves towards completion.
3. Define the customer experience/impact. While the customer should always be top of mind when a project first comes to light, sitting down after the project is launched to reassess how the project impacts the customer is always beneficial. Often times, aspects of the customer’s existence are viewed in singularity (i.e. purchasing the product). Customers in most cases possess a far more extensive relationship with product/service providers. How will the product be serviced? Delivered? And discarded? By viewing the full customer experience across the product’s lifecycle, the potential impacts can be identified and addressed to provide the optimal customer experience and ensure the organization is delivering on brand promises.
4. Create/confirm the business case. As the solution design is refined through the first three steps, return to the original business case. This is a good point to confirm its validity. For a moment, push the restart button and seek to identify all the significant benefits and costs resulting from the projects execution and eventual transition into a business as usual environment. In step 2 the processes/departments/teams impacted by the project were identified. Review this list and make sure the associated benefits and costs from each team are included in the business case. This is a critical step that is often skipped. After the initial business case is crafted, it is rarely reexamined as new information is accumulated. But doing so ignores an important checkpoint. Does it still make sense to complete the project? If not, resources should be reallocated to opportunities promising superior returns.
5. Review the findings from the prior steps with the leadership team. With the completion of the four prior steps, the project team is ready to review their findings with the leadership team/sponsors of the project. This critical step ensures the team’s current design is still aligned with leadership intentions and that it incorporates all the facets of their planning discussion. Let’s face it - project teams are rarely provided the direction and specifics necessary to be successful from any initial discussions of the project. By reviewing the output of these steps with the strategists behind the project’s creation, the project team receives a confirmation on their design, a commitment from the leadership and a forum to obtain answers on outstanding project questions. Particularly for larger and more complex projects, success may well be elusive without a commitment from the leadership team.
In a changing world, there is no way to guarantee any project will be successful. Things simply change that can disrupt the assumptions upon which a project is predicated. An increase in the price of oil, a new government regulation, the emergence of a new technology – any one of these elements could derail the most carefully scripted plans. However, the biggest risk to capturing an opportunity is the inability of an organization to execute. This risk is drastically reduced when a team is engaged, supported, and locked onto a shared goal. By following these five steps, a team vastly improves their ability to understand the successful end state and to gain the support of the organization.
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