Project Management Success - 6 Key Enablers

Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group
Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group

Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group

A man, a plan, a canal.  Panama.

A great palindrome; and building the Panama Canal was a great project.  Jungles, swamps, mountains, malaria, yellow fever, political and social unrest...all part of a centuries-long dream to connect the Pacific to the Atlantic…and also the result of effective project management.

You probably have learned there are three main components to any project: scope, time and resources. Master this magic triangle and you will be a project management rock star!  However, lack of these is not really the reason that projects succeed or fail.

The initial Panama Canal project plan did not fully account for the time and effort needed.  The exact path to take, the necessary obstacles to clear, the availability of resources and the final costs were not fully understood and each contributed to the challenges.  The fact is, thousands of men died in the construction of the canal.  The path was adjusted, the methods were improved and the costs were revisited.  In the end, it was not the three sides of the triangle that won the day, but six key enablers that led to the success of the Panama Canal, and to success in today’s IT projects.

  Energy is what powers a team to strive together towards a goal and to push through the inevitable obstacles that come up​  

The six key enablers for IT projects are clear goals, stakeholder buy-in, energized teams, project transparency, individual responsibility and leadership.  The three project fundamentals of scope, time and resources will generally take care of themselves if the project team and supporting organization practice these six key enablers.

Clear goals. If you do not know what you are trying to achieve, it can be very difficult to achieve it.  Clearly articulated goals provide team alignment, set unambiguous customer expectations and reduce unnecessary work.  Lack of goal clarity is the number one cause of rework in a project.  An undefined finish line is a major factor in dissatisfaction with project results, shifting deliverables and cost overruns.  Do not confuse having clear goals being the same as goals never changing.  In any project the goal may shift over time, but that is a desirable outcome and will lead to greater satisfaction if it shifts for the right reasons.  To be avoided is a project team stumbling around in the dark, hoping to bump into a goal, happy to grasp hold of anything beyond murky uncertainty.

Stakeholder buy-in.  A project executed without an owner on board is at best a boondoggle and at worst a disastrous waste of resources and time.  Who cares if your project is successful, or if it fails?  That is your stake-holder.  It is essential every project has the stakeholder identified and buys into the project, the desired outcomes and the activities it will take to get there.  A well-aligned stakeholder provides better clarity on your goals, more support when problems occur and a source of solutions and alternatives when you need to solve a problem.  Stakeholders who have not bought into the project need to be aligned quickly, else the project will almost certainly fail.  Time invested early on in stakeholder buy-in is time well spent.

Energized teams. High achievers dread coming to work when everyone around them lacks energy.  They want an environment of like-minded individuals who want to work together, to see the project be successful and are all pulling in the same direction.  Energy is not the same as excitement.  Excitement is good for a while, like a sugar rush or the unboxing of a new gadget, but it soon fades.  Energy is self-perpetuating.  Energy is additive.  If a team lacks energy there is no drive behind getting the work done and the project becomes more difficult for everybody.  Leaders must invest in creating an environment where the energy can naturally flow, and not set up barriers that get in the way of project success.

Project transparency. Few things frustrate leadership more than not knowing what is going on with an important project.  Lack of transparency feels like something is going wrong.  It is fun to be transparent with good news.  Bad news you want to hide until you get a chance to fix it.  Fight that natural instinct; embrace the bad. Use the fact that the team is facing problems to create a dialogue around the issues.  This can lead to a better understanding of the scope, and better estimation of the costs and realistic expectation of time to deliver.  Being transparent, and the closely related corollary of being honest, always results in better outcomes.

Individual responsibility. A leader is accountable for any failure of the team.  But each team member is responsible for their actions.  Individual responsibility is about doing the best work you can do in alignment with the goals of the team.  It is not about doing your best individual work that does not help the team be successful, for example, writing great code but not documenting how it works.  A responsible individual is focused on making the team great, not on making themselves look great.

Leadership. A successful project must have leadership.  This does not mean every project must have a formal leader, but rather that the leadership function must exist within the team.  Some teams can function effectively with a collective leadership…always doing the right work, pulling in the same direction, resolving conflicts together, knowing when to ask for help, and so on.  Most teams need a guiding force that provides these capabilities, as well as providing a vision for how the team operates, how it interacts with the greater organization and how to navigate changes in processes, tools or goals.  A leader must provide the right touch inwardly to let the team operate effectively, while providing the outward messaging to be sure the team has the necessary resources, visibility and support required for success. 

Not every project is the Panama Canal, however, every project must embrace these core attributes for success. Practice these six key enablers and you will be part of a winning team.

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