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Kill or cure: finding the right blend of art and science to ensure a successful project recovery

Contrary to common practise, project recovery is not about stopping everything to undertake a review and restructure, rather, it requires the right blend of corrective-action and current focus to maintain momentum, but can only be initiated once it has buy-in from key stakeholders.

LOC Consulting’s Peter Osborne argues that a tactical approach to a recovery is critical as it maintains momentum while avoiding unbundling and potentially killing the project being recovered.

Project failures, delays and delivery of the wrong outcomes continue to hit the headlines on a regular basis. In addition to the considerable waste of time and money, the long-term impact of a failing project puts an organisation’s brand, reputation and even its future viability at risk.

The reasons for failure are manifold but typically amount to early warning signs being missed or not acted upon, or corrective actions failing to properly understand the root causes that put a project at risk. What’s more, corrective actions can exacerbate problems because they incur extra cost, time and risk at precisely the point it can be least afforded. An ongoing alignment of the outcomes to the business-case is fundamental.

Performing a review (or ‘project healthcheck’) in a structured manner and taking the right corrective actions at the right time can help ensure all the elements of a project are kept on track. Yet in the same way that most people only go to the doctor when they feel ill, the majority of organisations only perform a review if they believe that something is fundamentally wrong.

Ultimately, stakeholders are spurred into action when it becomes clear a project is out of control, with key dates agreed in the delivery schedule being missed on a regular basis and costs starting to spiral. But the tendency for stakeholders to halt a failing project mid-flow for review and restructure or to take drastic corrective-actions is exactly the wrong approach. All momentum and focus is lost because stakeholders find there’s been little progress and the delivery team quickly become disillusioned.

Once a team becomes de-motivated, it is very hard to win that back. This is why it is critical to ensure a failing project is not unbundled to the extent that it fails catastrophically. While it might seem counter intuitive, it is often possible to retain certain problem areas not seen as recovery-priorities and address them at a later stage, which means that short-term objectives are achieved, project momentum is sustained and successful outcomes are delivered long term.

Re-baselining for change

The primary driver for a project recovery is when the benefits that are going to accrue from a delivery no longer align to those agreed in the original business case. This scenario can arise from any number of factors, such as failing to generate the anticipated financial or operational improvements, failing to deliver with a specific organisational structure, changes to the organisational priorities, structure or failing to deliver within the budget or timelines agreed.

Yet the oft-quoted Gartner and Standish Group statistic that between 60-80 per cent of IT-led programmes continue to fail is slightly misleading. Although it’s true that a large number do fail catastrophically, many others labelled as such actually still deliver a range of potentially positive outcomes – from a sub-set of the original benefits, to benefits not defined in the original business case. Here, it is change that presents the greatest challenge to whether a project is deemed as a success or a failure.

Given that all organisations experience change at some point during the course of a project, it is very rare that the outcomes delivered will ever match exactly those specified and agreed at the outset. Change comes about either as a result of macro factors such as a material change in the business or market in which an organisation operates, or micro factors within the organisation itself. The latter could be a change in stakeholder or sponsorship, or an organisational restructuring due to merger & acquisition or share issue for example. Regardless of origin, the potential impact of change must be factored in and the business case relevant.

Recovery is therefore about restructuring a project to deliver the benefits that the organisation originally may have wanted. It  means drawing a line in the sand and being specific on what the objectives are, whether or not these can be delivered with the resources already in place, or re-stating the benefits so that when it is delivered, expectations are met. Effectively, this entails re-baselining the project, whereby all key participants agree on a revised description of the objectives and performance requirements, aligned benefits and commit to execute it accordingly.

Striking a balance

One of the first actions of a recovery is to implement a scope-freeze, assess the top-down prioritised list of deliverables, obtain consensus on which of these are the most critical and agree the high-level delivery schedule. In parallel, it is vital to define the critical resources needed to achieve the revised delivery-schedule and ensure these resources are retained. Using this approach, ‘scope creep’ is eliminated and project teams are able to focus on fixing critical issues first and delivering key components on time. Not only does this result in immediate improvements (i.e. quick-wins), it also builds stakeholder confidence in the project team and ensures that momentum is maintained.

Re-baselining for recovery is also important in respect of budget allocation. Because an organisation will have already invested time and money in the project prior to embarking on a recovery, it must decide whether it wants to spend more in order to achieve a specific set of outcomes, or forego certain ‘nice-to-have’ elements so that it can hit a necessary go-live date. Effectively, you are optimising across the time, cost and functionality components.

When time is of the essence, foregoing the ‘nice-to-haves’ is the most effective route to achieving a turnaround. Alternatively, if a specific set of outcomes is non-negotiable, stakeholders must be willing to accept that there will be an additional cost associated with the recovery, while all project members should be aware of what the true cost of the delivery is.

Honest communication and active engagement with stakeholders and the project team is therefore fundamental to striking the right balance between time, cost and expected business benefits while moving towards a successful recovery. Likewise, if a new team is brought in as part of the restructuring, good internal communication is vital to ensure buy-in from existing members. The best approach is to call people together and tell them what you are doing and provide them with the means to raise concerns.

Stepping boldly from recovery to delivery

If a seamless transition to recovery is to be achieved, it is important to quickly remove ‘non-believers’. Experience shows that there’s little to be gained in wasting valuable time trying to convince people who are determined to remain unconvinced. Indeed, it is possible to identify these people quite quickly when performing a project healthcheck (review) and then act ruthlessly. But the main thing is to take bold decisions, which is possible if sponsors and stakeholders have bought fully into the recovery and the revised expectations.

The number of people that are removed under the initial phase of a recovery will vary but the critical factor is to maintain stability while acting swiftly and decisively. As such, only those causing the most pain should be removed immediately. Here, people management comes to the fore, as in most cases, project members will have the right skill sets but not necessarily the right mindset or team ethic for a recovery.

If approached in an open and honest way, then amicable outcomes can be achieved for all parties during the restructuring of a project. Naturally, this process is challenging, but any initial doubts will soon be dispelled as a project team’s motivation always goes up when the right people have been removed. Again, this falls under the re-baselining of the project, together with the planning, redefining the deliverables, setting the roadmap and restating the business benefits.

Continuity and delivery culture

A final consideration is the priority of a recovery against the wider strategic priorities of the organisation, as this dictates how easy or difficult it will be to obtain specialist resources who may be assigned to other ongoing projects. A similar consideration applies with regards to how the sponsor of the recovery is perceived within the organisation. Both of these factors dictate the dependencies of a recovery from the outset and must be known in order to be able to plan for the best outcome for the least cost and a seamless transition from recovery to delivery.

Certainly, continuity and a delivery culture are essential. There will always be elements of a project that need to be removed, but to do so immediately risks unbundling the project to the extent that it is killed. Removing problem areas in a tactical way allows ‘fixing on the fly’, which is where the true value-add to a recovery comes into play and why recovery has become a combination of science and art.

The science is in the methodology and includes the process of reviewing the delivery and restructuring the governance, the leadership and the team. The art is in being able to identify which parts of the constituent elements of a project to keep, what not to keep and what to take out and when.

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