Project Launch – Why Is It So Difficult?
“Tell me how you launch your project and I will tell you how you will complete it.”
All Project Management Methods (or Business Processes) include descriptions of Activities/Operations for the ideal project launch as well as advice on how to start a project smoothly. PRINCE2 even has two dedicated Processes for this; Project Preparation and Project Initiation.
Project Preparation aims at determining the profitability of the project as well as the business case for the project. Project Initiation wants to create a solid foundation for the project; it is the project managers’s task to define change and quality management procedures, develop communications plans after consulting the management commitee and to create project plans serving as a basis for project execution and controlling. Ideally, the execution of all these tasks is monitored, checked and approved by management.
So much for theory.
Project Launch Put In Practice
In reality, things look a bit different very often. Organizations are driven by customer demands and market requirements. From the IT departments’ point of view these are the groups of people that need to have certain requirements implemented as quickly as possible. I will now try to illustrate this with the help of two examples:
Example 1 – Introduction of software for business process management at a health care company
The fatal thing about this project launch was the fact that the project manager as well as the client were confronted with accomplished facts. The software to be introduced had already been selected, as had the service provider. The contract had been signed. But there were some things that had not been agreed on:
- technical processes to be developed, to which the software needed to be adjusted
- details on the type of cooperation with the service provider
- the scope of the project – which was transformed from a local implementation project to a global software roll-out within the first two months
The supplying departments were overstrained. It turned out that the software manufacturer/service provider didn’t have the necessary resources to perform the services. The project manager was confronted with the fact that he had to begin the project for the third time. In addition, there was quarrel with parts of the management caused, among others, by the following problems:
- Crucial members of the project management team were excluded from a number of important decisions, e.g. selection of software and service provider)
- Details about the collaboration with the service provider were neither defined nor agreed on
- The buyer resisted a systematic approach in the beginning
Example 2 – Development project at an automotive supplier
The challenge with this project was to balance the goals and requirements of an entire consortium. The project manager didn’t feel the need to create a central project plan in order to establish project controlling with subsequent progress monitoring; only time recording data of the individual partners served as source for progress monitoring. Work packages were not analyzed with regards to progress. In addition, no management commitee was created in order to include the different parties. All this resulted in the following problems:
- No meaningful progress monitoring/control was possible
- Persons required for decision-making and problem-solving were not available due to unclear roles and responsibilities
In both projects the starting line had already been crossed, problems that showed themselves during the course of the projects originated in mistakes made at the beginning. Eventually the past catches up on us as they say. I am pretty sure many of you could name examples of their own of when mistakes made at the beginning caused trouble later.
What to do? Based on 20 years of experience in project management I want to name the 3 most important things for project managers (or buyers) to consider at the beginning of a project:
- Clarification of the assignment/task
- Clarification of responsibilities, internal and of external partners
- Creating a project vision
Clarification of the Assignment/Task
This is an essential part of project planning. As project manager I need to understand the expectations of my client or purchaser respectively. Is there a detailed description of the product (specification) or are there just vague ideas to be implemented? If the former is the case I can create a detailed specification including acceptance criteria. If there are only vague ideas the client and me must agree on a way to create a detailed specification. I may have to budget the necessary time within the planning stage of the project to do exactly that. Omitting this step may result in disappointed clients and endless discussions about the product in question.
Clarification of Responsibilities, Internal and of External Partners
An essential element of project success is the clarification and definition of roles and responsibilities. This applies to the internal project team as well as for external service providers. It is of utmost importance for the project manager and his or her work to clarify the authority he or she has. He or she can define responsibilities, e.g. which decisions to make alone, how much leeway with regards to budget there is and in which cases the management commitee must be consulted.
Mind you, the management commitee is of major importance for project success. PRINCE2, for example, describes the purchaser/project sponsor as ultimative responsible for the project. Due to his discretionary competence the purchaser is responsible for project success, not the project manager. Instead, the responsibility for day-to-day business lies with the project manager, i.e. planning, delegating, monitoring and controlling. The project manager cannot make fundamental decisions, only management can.
Creating a Project Vision
The following quote may sound corny but it holds a great amount of truth, also for project management:
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.¹
This is an essential prerequisite for modern project management; having a vision of the project result. We want motivated project contributors, not working robots. Thus, it is an essential task for the management to pick them up where they are, to show them the big picture. A project vision serves as a common frame of reference for the project. It may be taxing and time-consuming to create such a project vision for each project, but it is worth it.
Especially with IT projects initiated by departments acting under pressure of success and time constraints, we often make the mistake of taking the second step before the first one. However, it is much more difficult and laborious to correct mistakes made at the beginning of a project during the course of it. This is why organizations need to learn to regard the project launch, i.e. the first steps and decisions within the project, as important as the rest of it. And to pay as much attention to it as to the actual product creation.
 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-44)
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