For a housing provider who has awarded a contract to a new supplier, embarking on a new project is like a perfect honeymoon where everything seems wonderfully rosy. But so many projects end up not delivering the goods, being late and/or going over budget, leaving users irate and the project team needing therapy. How can projects stay on track and deliver, as promised? Here are nine key success factors that in my experience as a consultant help customers and suppliers get their projects over the line.
Obtaining commitment from senior management is crucial for successful projects, whether it’s a five-user system or a large digital transformation. Without their recognition of the project’s priority, securing necessary resources and timely decisions may be difficult and, if another priority comes along, your project could be demoted.
This commitment ideally starts from when the idea for the project is given the green light and as project manager, you may come on the scene later than this, but do all you can to ensure your executives are on board.
Agile or waterfall?
For smaller projects with a well-defined scope, known solutions and short timescales, you may choose to follow the ‘waterfall’ approach; plan, build, test and implement in sequence.
With a more complicated project, it’s often better to opt for ‘agile’ delivery to avoid investing too much time and money to deliver something that turns out to be not quite what was needed.
In its truest form, agile means no overall defined scope, just a series of broad objectives, delivered in short sprints, with continuous user feedback. This is a significant cultural change to the old waterfall approach and may be too much for some organisations, but even if the scope is more fixed, you can choose to pilot small elements first to see if you’re on the right track, and change tack as required.
Realistic project plan
Suppliers should propose a realistic project plan based on their previous experience, and as a customer it’s your job to ensure you have enough internal resources to deliver, such as a project manager, data consultant and module leads, and experienced staff who are then backfilled. Seek advice from people who have implemented the system before, and make sure you include contingencies as well as taking account of pinch-points such as year-ends and school holidays.
Establish a structured project governance framework, including a project board for decision-making, a project initiation document (defining scope, objectives, approach, constraints and assumptions, business case, roles, approach to managing risks, project controls and so on), and a competent project team. Suppliers should send someone senior to project board-meetings and appoint a competent project manager on their side, and ensure that the project manager is available and flexible when the customer needs them.
Good advice and critical friends
Tackling a new project alone will be easier and cheaper if you seek advice from those who have done this before, throughout the project. This can be informal through contacting colleagues in similar organisations who have been through the same process and survived. Some suppliers have web-based forums for sharing advice or you can hire an expert for advice on an ad-hoc basis.
From the supplier’s side, it’s important to offer tailored advice on the solution’s capabilities and how to set it up, especially if the customer is doing some or all of the build and configuration. Don’t paralyse them with choice by telling them it can be set up in five different ways; listen to them describe their business processes and give them a steer on which way might suit them best, explaining with pros and cons clearly.
Clearly define the project objectives, whether it’s a straightforward replacement of part of a system or a broader digital transformation. If it’s a replacement, focus on ensuring that the core functionality works in the new system, according to your business processes.
If taking advantage of new functionalities or delivering services differently, think about how staff and customers will handle change and get the balance right between ambition and realism. You may want to replace ‘like for like’ first, let it bed in, then move on to adding value, such as improved mobile working or customer self-service.
Suppliers should transparently communicate the maturity of their solutions and the potential risks of adopting newer elements, and encourage other customers on similar journeys to talk openly to each other.
Test and test again
Any new system requires thorough testing. You can’t totally eliminate risks to the business when you go live, but do all you can to minimise them. Acknowledge that young or continuously-improved solutions may have more bugs compared with more mature products.
You might take one version, test it, identify the bugs that are ‘showstopper’ issues for you in particular (because other customers might have different priorities), and then agree on taking an upgrade to fix those issues, with full re-testing. Your planning should reflect this.
Be pragmatic about which issues really are showstoppers versus ones you can live with; if you want to go live with no problems at all, you’ll never go live at all. Suppliers should work with you to deliver a prompt turn-around on any problems that need fixing.
Define what benefits you can realistically expect to achieve and make a plan for realising them. You should have baseline measures so you’ll know if you’ve succeeded. For example, how do you double the number of online transactions if you don’t know how many were being done before? It’s important to define owners for those benefits so they can ensure the best chance of success, especially because many will not be realised at go-live but after the project itself is finished.
Finally, don’t forget to create a communications plan that lays out how, when and to whom you’ll communicate. Keep stakeholders consulted, involved or informed as appropriate. Provide concise and relevant updates, even if there’s no significant news; if you haven’t communicated for, say, six months, it may be time for a brief message to say the project is still on track and to remind people when it’s going live or when training will be done.
I have found that, by paying attention to all the factors outlined above, you can stay on track to deliver projects that all stakeholders will deem a success.
Scott Crowley is a director of Scott Crowley Consulting.