Abhay  Padgaonkar

Article Summary:

Common sense ideas for successful project execution.

Successful Project Execution

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” – John Wooden

Getting things done sounds so simple, doesn’t it? After all, don’t we all do things every day? Then why is it that there is such a high failure rate when it comes to project execution? In their book Execution, Bossidy and Charan describe the fundamental problem as this: “People think of execution as the tactical side of the business, something leaders delegate while they focus on the perceived, “bigger” issues. This idea is completely wrong. Execution is not just tactics: It is a discipline and a system. It has to be built into a company’s strategy, its goals, and its culture. And the leader of the organization must be deeply engaged in it. He cannot delegate its substance.”

The Standish Group research titled “The Chaos Report” showed that a staggering 31.1% of software projects will be canceled before they ever get completed! Further results indicate that 52.7% of projects will cost 189% of their original estimates. Only one out of six projects has a chance of success-defined as on-time and on-budget, with all features and functions as initially specified. This dismal record is not restricted to software projects alone. Business projects are actually likely to fare worse because at least IT projects attempt to follow some project management methodology. Many business projects, on the other hand, follow the infamous SOTP (Seat of the Pants) approach.

Businesses of all sizes and in all industries make huge financial and human investments in projects. Whether it’s a small business rolling out a new version of the product or a huge conglomerate trying to outsource back-office accounting to India, they all feel the pain when a project doesn’t live up to its hype. The direct costs of these setbacks are just the tip of the iceberg. They create serious implications for a company’s stability, customer experience, and employee morale. Most importantly, the leaders lose credibility. And once credibility is lost, it is very difficult to restore it.

Common elements of successful project management
Simply stated, execution is the gap between promises and results. While we don’t live in a perfect world, there are some common elements that ensure success. These include:

  • Active Sponsorship: Making sure that somebody up top will not put a kibosh on a project because it wasn’t his or her idea. Make sure somebody high up believes in and champions the project.
  • Competent Project Personnel: Having not just subject matter experts, but people who know the art and science of working with others to achieve results is critical.
  • Sufficient Resources and Funding: Assigning and funding resources is always a challenge, so keep the expectations realistic.
  • Clear Roles and Responsibilities: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even well-meaning people can trip on each other if their roles are not clear. It should be especially clear who is driving the bus and who is riding it.
  • Proactive Risk Management: Identify the potential risks ahead of time and be prepared to deal with them. As they say, it is better to fix the roof before it starts raining.
  • Change Management: Projects by definition change the status quo. Any time there is a change to the status quo, it creates disruption. Make a plan to manage the change consciously rather than burying your head in the sand.
  • Realistic Project Plan: Miracles do happen, so hope for the best, but prepare for the worst!
  • Vigilant Tracking: Identify what can be measured during the progression of the project and track it methodically. What gets measured gets done.
  • Timely Issue Resolution: Issues will arise, so deal with them before they grow out of control. Remember the old saying: a stitch in time saves nine.

Yes, these elements sound like common sense. But as we all know, common sense is not that common. Many times, basic things are not necessarily easy in today’s “just-do-it” corporate culture. Very few project teams consistently pay attention to all the critical elements above. Little wonder, then, that instead of you managing the project, the project starts managing you.

Raising your EQ
Joseph Juran, the quality guru, defined a project as a problem scheduled for solution. Companies undertake projects because they are dissatisfied enough with the status quo. They invest time, money, and scarce resources to solve problems or capitalize on opportunities. It is only when a project achieves the stated objectives that this investment pays off. When a project is launched without a plan, however, the risk level rises sharply. It is far too common to see a hasty agreement being reached and a project being launched to meet an unrealistic deadline. You can’t plan something that is not agreed on and you can’t start executing if there is no plan. When you don’t have the time to do it right, you inevitably have to re-invest (sometimes many times) in doing it over. If you want to protect the investment and avoid the “Ready-Fire-Aim” syndrome, however, there are three simple steps you should follow:

  1. Agreement: Make sure that there is a consensus among all key stakeholders. This can be thought of as a contracting stage in a project. Confirm and clarify assumptions and expectations regarding project scope, constraints, deliverables, dependencies, impacts, timing, and funding. If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.
  2. Planning: A goal without a plan is just a wish. Without a detailed project plan, it is impossible to see how all the pieces will fit together. He who fails to plan, plans to fail. A carelessly planned project takes three times longer to complete than expected; a carefully planned project takes only twice as long!
  3. Execution: This is where the rubber meets the road: Tracking progress, reporting status, controlling change, managing issues. If the project appears to be going well, something is about to go wrong! As Shakespeare said, “The will is infinite and the execution confined.”

In Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, which is about turning IBM around from the brink of bankruptcy, Lou Gerstner writes: “Execution is the critical part of a successful strategy. Getting it done, getting it done right, getting it done better than the next person is far more important than dreaming up new visions of the future.”

Many companies look to hire and promote people with high IQ. But to get the organization to focus on what it takes to win, it is equally important to improve the ability to get things done better and faster by having people with the street smarts to negotiate scope, balance time, contain costs, control quality, inspire the project team, communicate effectively, and take prudent risks. IQ alone is not enough for “getting it done.” Along with IQ, organizations must have a high Execution Quotient (EQ).

Abhay Padgaonkar, a management consultant, author, and speaker, is the founder and president of Innovative Solutions Consulting, LLC, which provides advice on formulating strategy and turning it into meaningful actions and measurable results for major clients such as American Express. For more information, visit Innovative Solutions.org.

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