May 7, 2024

Why Don’t All Projects Go to Plan?

Whether we are looking at the news, or receiving a business update, we hear constant talk of issues with projects – delays to airport projects, cancellation of rail projects, overspend on infrastructure, bugs in new software.

Within the finance services sector, in our daily lives, we are, I am sure, all uncomfortably familiar with projects running over time and budget and failing to deliver on the objectives set for them in the business plan and the approval decision. So, what can we do to avoid unwelcome surprises in our projects?

Strategy and Planning

It should be obvious that planning is key, but how rigorously do we check that our project plans are aligned with our strategy? And even if the business objectives for our technology intentions match, how well does the duration of the implementation correspond with our strategy horizon – the art of great comedy is timing and how often have we seen significant discrepancy between actual go-live and the date that was foreseen when the plan and the decisions were made?

Time to Market

Actual project duration often drifts, and for perfectly valid reasons – capacity constraints, financial calendar, and of course, BAU. But since we may have already had that experience, do we always reflect it in our plans next time around?

Our planning needs to take practical and realistic issues into consideration – how often have we seen that any slippage in a project planned to deliver end of June, inevitably falls into autumn? If we have a project plan that says we should go live by the end of the year, why do Christmas and year-end somehow take us by surprise? The resulting challenge is to really stress-test and reality-check the business case, from a time as well as a financial perspective, to manage expectations as to when those undoubted business benefits will really be delivered.

Prioritisation

One of the most memorable questions I heard from a CEO was in an annual planning meeting when they said, “In the history of this company, we have never delivered on more than 20 projects in any one year, so why do we spend this meeting every year considering a list of 40?”.

It’s quite easy to imagine the awkward silence that followed. However, that question is not just valid in the annual planning round, the answers, even when successfully reduced to 20 rather than 40, need to be reviewed on a regular basis and once again, with elapsed time and intervening project changes taken into account.

Decision-making

Sometimes, we must be ruthless in evaluating projects and not get carried away with the emotional attachment to sunk costs. Just like a credit decision, a quick “no” is often more desirable and better received than a delayed “maybe”. Some of the bravest business decisions are to kill failing projects in a timely fashion, rather than to throw good money after bad, not to mention capacity, motivation and goodwill.

And on the subject of decision-making, the decision-makers themselves need to take a critical look at the time they take to make a decision – insert adage about procrastination here ...

Measurement

To be fair to the decision-makers, perhaps it is worth considering the evidence provided to them as a basis for their decisions.

Is it truthful?

Is it realistic?

Is it comprehensive, or is it selective?

Any project plan and every business case will contain assumptions, and the assumptions require just as much verification and validation as the line items and results themselves, if not more. A significant flaw or gap in the assumptions can undermine everything that follows thereafter.

Data

A fresh business case will be built on fresh data and rightly so. However, as the project progresses, the data will age and will need to be refreshed. With that refreshment process come deviations and deviations will take us into contingencies. What proportion of the business case is taken up with contingencies, implying uncertainty, and what is the relationship between the level of uncertainty and the duration of the project? How certain is it possible to be if a project plan anticipates a roll-out of five years? (And don’t forget to add the investigation, selection and decision-making processes to those five years, when challenging the original business case and its assumptions!)

Communication

We often hear about the removal of, or better still, the absence of barriers between business and IT. If that is really true, then we will be sharing freely the priorities and progress with our technology-related activities. The volume of communication is probably less important than the frequency, clarity and consistency.

There must be constant reminders about how the technology is delivering on and enabling business requirements. Some of the topics, regulatory for example, may be a little dry, so it is worth making clear the constant juggling of “important” topics versus “urgent” for the business as a whole. It would be a surprise to find any projects that were neither important nor urgent and it is inconceivable these days that a financial services business is not dependent on technology.

Behaviour

In a world of services increasingly dominated by automation, agile development, the deployment of microservices and, of course, artificial intelligence, leadership behaviours in response to all of these factors are more critical than ever.

We are told almost daily that successful business cultures allow space for experimentation and that mistakes are permissible as long as we learn from them, that we should “fail fast”.

But how does leadership respond when confronted with a failure? How confident does a team feel to deliver uncomfortable truths and how much is project management busy with managing the message, to be able to say what a stakeholder wishes to hear? And at what stage of the project is that happening?

Project Recovery

Even with the march of AI, the human factor remains, and within any business, there are personal consequences for being the messenger, especially when speaking truth to power.

Just as leaders must be forgiven for displaying a human response to an undesirable piece of news, so the teams reporting to them are only behaving as humans in managing that message, sometimes to the extent that the truth is obscured.

And despite the fact that all the humans involved know that the longer the obfuscation continues, the more serious the ultimate consequences become. At such times, an independent opinion can help cut through the personal politics and effect a turnaround sooner rather than later, and at any stage of the project.

Does any of this ring any bells with you?

For further information, contact:

Simon Harris, Consulting Director, Finativ
email: simon.harris@finativ.co.uk

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