The 6 Keys To Project Success

This week our new Prime Minister exclaimed that the leader of the Labor party was, by asking the same question and expecting a different answer, demonstrating the triumph of hope over experience.

I chuckled as that’s exactly what I say when I hear any of the following:

  • I’m sure it will be okay.
  • It’s too hard to get a good PM in – we’ll have to wait until it starts to go off the rails.
  • We’ve had so many f**&-ups, it’s time for one to go right.
  • I know they haven’t ever led a project of this magnitude but we need to give them a go.
  • I know the method we’re using isn’t ideal but I’m told it will be ok.

And my all-time favourite:

  • It will be different this time – even though we’re doing everything the same.

In each of these cases, the sponsor/client is hoping that, despite not taking advice based on evidence, it will be okay because it’s too hard to have the conversation, take on the argument or get support for sanity. The result? They become part of the confirmation of the failure rates.

I’ve said before that I’m undertaking scientific research to determine the cause of success, rather than the usual post-project, confirmation-biased reports about what caused failure.

But while that’s going on, I can at least share with you the 7 things that I know are present in every single project that I’ve seen succeed – and I’ve seen great successes and monumental failures in my time.

Within the year, I’ll be able to tell you whether they are causative or just correlative. But in the meantime, if you’d like to improve your chances, here is my secret list of magic ingredients. Please note there is nothing on this list about method, tools, accreditation, etc.

  1. Clarify what success is – what does it look like, sound like, feel like. How will we know we are successful or how will we know when we are headed in the right direction? If you can’t say exactly what success is, you can’t achieve it.
  2. All decisions effecting the project need to be taken against their impact on achieving the desired outcome – not on time, budget and scope. Let the person who wants the outcome make the impactful decisions. The project belongs to the person wanting it – not the project manager. In fact, think of the PM as a tool to get what you want.
  3. Someone with influence at the management level – and the will to use that influence – must care about the project outcome. Find who that person is and what it will take to make them strong supporters. Get them involved and seek out their advice.
  4. Expose assumptions, which are a necessary part of any project but untested assumptions can result in disastrous outcomes. The saying “It ain’t what we know that hurts us; it’s what we know that just ain’t so” has never been truer.
  5. Let people (up, down and sideways) know what is happening, what is likely to happen and why it might happen. If the solution is unknown, then a date for completion is worthless. Instead, use a date for decision about continued investment.
  6. Make it crystal clear who has to do what, when, why, how and the consequences of success and failure. People will pay attention to, and work on, the things that are relevant to them. By defining this from the outset and giving clarity to those around you, you set both individuals and the team up for success. People work for, and with, people – money just isn’t enough.
  7. Only work on targeted activities. This one sounds so obvious but all too often we hear about the side-track taken in an attempt to improve things. That’s not bad in itself but it can be disastrous if the person wanting the outcome isn’t in the loop. They then find out only after the side-track is a dead end and valuable time and resources used, resulting in all hope of delivering as originally planned is lost.

Project management is much more than the right mix of planning, scheduling, tracking and reporting. It is driving, guiding, course correcting, supporting and delivering. If you incorporate these magic ingredients, you could be well on your way to delivering project success again and again.