It isn't long before even the best project plan is rendered obsolete by new realities. And in an environment of shared resources and common strategic goals, the impact can spread like a virus. To succeed, organizations must apply collaborative tools and practices that go beyond planning and bring enterprise-wide project execution to the forefront.
In a famous FedEx TV commercial, a lowly shipping clerk is on the phone getting the parameters of a critical project — namely, sending a very important package overnight to an impatient customer. After each instruction, he confidently responds, "I can do that! I can do that!" Then he hangs up the phone with a horrified look and asks himself, "How am I gonna do that?"
Projects are the currency of getting things done in today's enterprise. For most workers, the work day is no longer spent in isolation. Rather, it is spent in the service of multiple projects involving groups of people and resources. With their complexities, interdependencies, resource constraints and time limits, projects are costlier, riskier and more mission-critical than ever before. So the question "How am I gonna do that?" is one that project managers now ask all day long (and it's not a joke).
Until now, the software industry's response to that question has been to create a wide range of tools that focus on project planning. These tools allow project managers and their teams to develop and produce complete and attractive project plans and schedules. Of course, proper planning at the beginning of a project is very important, but as any project manager will attest, it's the end of the project that really counts.
Typically, over 80 percent of a project's life cycle is spent in execution, and it is this execution that determines a project's success or failure. Things rarely go wrong in the planning stages of a project; they go wrong while the work is being done. Project requirements may change unexpectedly. Budgets may be cut. People get sick or change jobs. The impact of these changes must be quickly analyzed and communicated to project stakeholders. Decisions need to be made, change reports written, project plans updated and distributed. In most projects, it is not long before even the best plan is rendered obsolete by events on the ground.
These challenges are further complicated by the very nature of the resources necessary to complete a project. Most enterprise projects are no longer staffed by dedicated teams; these projects are now part of a larger, interdependent portfolio of projects with shared resources and common strategic goals. Managers create mix-and-match project teams by pulling resources from different internal departments or external sources. Each of these resources, in turn, may be tasked with multiple projects that have few team members in common.
The ability to manage projects to completion in such a complex and changing environment is the hallmark of a world class project-oriented enterprise. To achieve this, new practices and tools are needed. The enterprise must look beyond simple project planning and begin thinking in terms of project execution — the completion of projects, not just the planning of them.
In the world of project execution, the role of the project manager evolves from managing a project schedule to directing both internal and external resources, coordinating events, and coping with change. That role is multiplied many times in the context of an enterprise-wide project portfolio, making it necessary to shift focus from simple dates-and-deliverables to the measurement and management of real-time project performance, while coordinating each project's impact on the strategic big picture.
In the modern enterprise, a project is a series of semi-chaotic events that must be properly tracked, understood and administered over time in order to achieve its stated goals.Thus, project execution is about managing the entire project lifecycle, from planning, to implementation, to completion and hand-off. For the project manager and the senior level executive alike, project execution means closing the loop on every project, every day.
A collaborative project execution application can make this process a reality in organizations of all sizes by allowing project teams to successfully tackle multiple concurrent projects. Projects are no longer constrained by static plans produced and updated only by project managers.
A project execution approach also frees project leaders from the mundane work of updating project plans, collecting progress information and reformatting information into status reports. Project plans can be collaboratively built and updated by the project team, often by reusing collateral, deliverables and templates from previous projects.
Adopting a project execution model involves the implementation of several critical initiatives within the enterprise, including Visibility, Alignment, Speed of Execution, Standards and Reuse. Let's explore the concept of project execution and show how each of a project execution system's component initiatives works toward the objective of managing the entire life cycle of projects.
Everything's A Project
The impetus behind the transition from project management to project execution is easy to find — it is the laundry list of business challenges that just about every executive can recite: increased competition; globalization; the uncertain economy; doing more with less; performance pressure from the boardroom; impatient shareholders. With virtually every task within the enterprise now part of a project, it's only natural that management is scrutinizing how its enterprise-wide project portfolio is being handled, in order to find ways to improve efficiency and overall performance.
Traditionally, project management has been part science and part art, practiced best by highly-trained professional project managers in industries with structured and comprehensive project processes such as Construction and Aerospace. The role of the professional project manager in these scenarios often includes the application of experience (the art) and sophisticated models and heuristics (the science) to plan the project, combined with an extraordinary attention to detail and ability to manage rapid change. While this highly-structured approach continues to work well in certain scenarios, the successful introduction of these concepts to the mainstream enterprise is problematic. In many cases, processes are not well defined, and project managers are drawn from the organization at large, wth little formal training in either the art or the science described above.
Despite these problems, project management in some form has indeed become a reality in companies across the business spectrum. However, limitations of training or expertise have caused many of these companies to focus on the simplest form of project management — project planning. Software tools that make this possible are relatively inexpensive and easy to use, and the resulting project plans are certainly preferable to no plans at all.
However, this focus on planning project schedules and timelines gives little attention to the most important phase of a project — getting it done. While most of the current software available to project managers provides sophisticated tools to help create project schedules, it does not provide long-term support to the extended project team when it comes to executing the schedule.
In reality, it is this execution phase that determines a project's success or failure. The Standish Group recently estimated that American corporations spend more than $275 billion each year on approximately 200,000 projects. Of these projects, the Standish Group goes on to estimate, more than 46 percent are behind budget and 28 percent are either cancelled or fail outright. In certain market segments, such as IT, these problems are even more pronounced. According to Gartner, 51 percent of all IT projects exceed budget by more than 200 percent. Results like that are not caused simply by poor planning; they are the result of poor execution throughout the project's life cycle.
Moving from Planning to Execution
Even the best-planned project schedules are essentially paper representations of when and how the project manager "hopes" to complete a project. When it comes time to execute the plan, the project leaves the printed page and becomes an untidy reality that can easily spin out of control due to technical issues, illness, project scope "creep," personnel changes and budget reduction. All these things can be planned for but never fully managed until they happen. Once these events occur, the project manager must be alerted immediately, and then react quickly and decisively to keep the project on track. In addition, the project manager must have a proactive toolset that allows ongoing monitoring of a wide range of project parameters (budget, schedule status, resource status, etc.) in order to spot problems before they become crises. A project execution system addresses both these challenges.
When an organization shifts focus from planning to execution, it becomes able to evaluate more effectively how each project "fits" into the portfolio as a whole, and to assess the impact of the entire project portfolio on key strategic goals. A project execution system plays a critical role in this process, providing a centralized information resource which delivers value to each constituent in the project and portfolio lifecycle — from the core team implementer to the project manager, portfolio manager and senior executives.
In fact, the true promise of the project execution model is in allowing project managers to move from simply managing a plan into the higher-level role of project "director," focusing on high-level requirements, strategy, goals and process. A project execution system frees project leaders from the mundane work of updating project plans, collecting progress information and reformatting information into status reports. Project plans can now be collaboratively built and maintained by the project team, often by reusing knowledge, deliverables and templates from previous projects.
Visibility and Transparency
With projects crossing so many horizontal and vertical lines within the enterprise, the question of who sees what is of critical importance. Visibility and transparency equal awareness, and awareness is one of the keys to effective project execution.
Customers, both internal and external, now insist on being intimately involved in projects. Senior management wants real-time status for all projects. Project managers need to know how actual results are tracking in relation to the plan, to identify issues that need resolution, and to see what is in the critical path. Team members need to know what is expected of them, which tasks are dependent on their work, and what unplanned events need their attention.
A project execution system provides different levels of visibility for each type of stakeholder. Internal employees may be able to view team rosters, issue lists, and schedules for most projects, while customers may only be allowed to view high-level status and final deliverables, with the ability to submit new requirements, issues and change orders.
For each project, essential information is published within the enterprise. People at every level are presented with appropriate information to effectively make project portfolio decisions that optimize the portfolio's value. At the project team level, this includes contact information and roles for the project team, the project mission, related enterprise goals, relationship to other projects, current status, risks, completed deliverables, high-level open issues, and business decision requests. Project status benchmarks include graphical indicators of how well the project is tracking according to schedule, scope, and budget objectives. This project status information is published centrally, with the objective of keeping all stakeholders and dependent project teams informed.
At the management level, visibility is provided to the entire portfolio, with emphasis on project interdependencies. Management also receives specific information in order to make decisions about reallocating budget and resources, adjusting schedules, and the performance of project teams.
While visibility and transparency are vital to the higher levels of the enterprise, the front line project management and project team must not feel that their every move is being observed. People understand that they are performing work for the project and for the organization that employs them, but there is also a basic human need for privacy and personal space — as well as the need for room to do their job without constant input on the work in progress.
The project execution system should avoid the "fishbowl effect" and create an environment where deliverables are worked on in private by the team, then "published" at pre-determined milestones. Online discussions are private to the team. It is important to capture and archive the information in the discussions and make the information searchable for the future, but risk-taking and the exploration of "out of the box" ideas are best facilitated by limiting the visibility of such discussion groups outside the team.
Working on the Right Projects
Once the infrastructure is in place to provide the correct level of project visibility, several powerful alignments can take place within the enterprise. These include:
Aligning projects with enterprise goals
Aligning all the project stakeholders
Coordinating and synchronizing interdependent projects
In order to maximize the ROI on a project portfolio, it is critical that each project be aligned with the enterprise strategy and goals — not only when the project is planned, but also throughout the project's semi-chaotic life cycle. For example, enterprise-level projects are highly interdependent on people, equipment and work. People often work on multiple projects at the same time. New projects cannot begin until resources are released from current projects. Product development projects or IT projects may be dependent on the completion of platform or infrastructure projects.
Since projects compete for limited budget, people, equipment and other resources, executive management must choose the most valuable projects to undertake while constantly considering the performance, value, and alignment to top-level goals of all projects that are underway. The challenge is to allocate resources to the most valuable projects, and to quickly kill projects with unacceptable ROI. To address this issue, the project execution system must provide the means to deliver comprehensive, real-time information about every project in the enterprise portfolio.
A Centralized Project Repository
The value of a centralized project repository is similar to that of a centralized enterprise resource planning application. The organization realizes a significant ROI due to the reduction of "paper pushing," the increased speed of decision making, the reduction of team members' idle time, and overall project efficiency.
This repository, containing all enterprise project data, unites all project stakeholders by keeping everyone aligned in terms of status and information. Real time information is always available to assess the performance of the portfolio and perform the analysis needed to make changes.
The central repository fosters communication across the enterprise, encourages reuse of project collateral, and provides an automatic archive of all project information. When people are allocated to multiple projects, their actual assigned workload can be reconciled against the weekly time allotted and over-allocations can be automatically flagged. Project tasks and milestones can be linked with those of other projects. As project team members update task completions, publish deliverables and raise issues, the information is immediately available to the executives, portfolio managers, project managers, and the Project Management Office (PMO) staff. Email alerts are automatically sent when dates are slipping or when other problems arise. At the executive level, a central repository allows many projects to be analyzed in real time in order to maximize the value of the enterprise portfolio.
Speed of Execution
Product and service companies always face enormous time-based competition issues. The project execution system reflects this urgency, and translates it throughout the enterprise down to the lowest level internal projects. With continual measurement, visibility and alignment, projects are more likely to be completed on schedule, and the value of each project to the organization is enhanced.
Squeezing Out Delays
Increased project speed is one of the major values provided by the project execution system. Reducing time-to-market for products and services provides an immediate and obvious return on investment. In addition, accelerating internal enterprise projects increases the value of those projects, limits project risks, and produces higher quality results. Project managers report a staggering amount of time lost due to inefficiencies and delays while people wait for decisions to be made, changes to be approved and documents to be reviewed. By using the system to accelerate communication and workflow while doing such activities as requirements gathering, planning, decision making, change management and issue resolution, more time can be devoted to performing high quality work toward achieving the project's objectives.
Online Tracking Databases
Project teams are very good at generating and maintaining a variety of lists: tracking issues, bugs, unplanned action items, risks, decisions, requirements, features, as-is processes, to-be processes, etc. These lists generally take the form of spreadsheets in a shared folder. Thus, only one person at a time can modify a list. The lists are difficult to filter and analyze in context with each other. But because the lists are a vital part of the project, they are in constant use. As a result, access to these lists can often become a bottleneck for a project team.
The system addresses this problem by providing online tracking databases, which are an extremely powerful and simple way to track all aspects of a project. Tracking databases are used for managing action items, issues, decisions, requirements, features, bugs, goals, risks and many other items.
Because they exist online, new customized tracking databases can quickly be created by individual project teams to solve tracking problems unique to their project. Documents and other project objects can be linked to a database form, and items can be routed to team members for approval using workflow and email notifications.
As tracking databases replace the traditional spreadsheet list, access bottlenecks disappear, accuracy is enhanced, workflow is improved, and project speed increases.
Standards and Reuse
Many companies are now creating PMOs to assist individual project managers with best practices, knowledge and experience. Frequently, PMOs are also responsible for providing and enforcing enterprise project standards. These standards may include project proposal processes, multiphase project lifecycle, and standardized deliverables. Additionally, the PMO is generally tasked with providing templates for project plans, tracking forms, deliverables, etc.
The project execution system greatly simplifies putting such standards in place. Over time, a business can build a library of methodologies and best practices for various types of projects. These methodologies typically include standard project phases, required deliverables, project schedule templates, and commonly used tracking databases for such things as goals, requirements, features, issues, action items, decision requests, decisions, etc. The Project Execution system uses email-based workflow to route these items to the proper people for review, comment, analysis, decision, or completion.
As each project is completed successfully, the project execution system uses it to create a set of templates for reuse by future projects.
If an organization hopes to achieve its goals and succeed, project management that focuses only on planning simply is not enough. Once a project begins, assuming that everything will go according to plan is a very dangerous strategy. It is much safer to assume that change — at some level — will inevitably affect the plan. And, despite the unforeseen issues, increases in scope, slashes in budget and reassignment of resources, the project's delivery constraints will most likely remain unchanged.
With such inevitability looming, how then does a project manager and project team have a real shot at success? The answer lies in going beyond planning to a system that effectively deals with the entire project life cycle, and all its inherent unpredictability; a system that provides maximum collaboration, access, visibility and decision support at all levels of the enterprise. In short, an enterprise project execution system.
Roger Bly is vice president of research and development for Project.net, which he founded in 1999 to develop project collaboration applications now used by more than 100,000 people worldwide. Prior to Project.net, Bly spearheaded the development and adoption of product lifecycle management, project portfolio management, and Web-based collaboration applications at Rockwell International's Semiconductor division, and later served as senior manager in charge of strategic information technology planning and project management for its spin-off, Conexant Systems.