How good are you at starting a project?

by Ron Rosenhead

I came across an interesting report published by the National Audit Office (NAO) – which exists to provide independent opinion and evidence to assist Parliament and hold government to account.

I was surprised as I had not seen this report before. It is called 'Initiating successful projects' and was first published in December 2011.

In the executive summary the report says:

One clear lesson we have learned from the evidence base which our back catalogue provides is that the quality of project initiation is highly predictive of project success. We are therefore re-focusing our studies earlier in the project life cycle to better assess the quality of, and to influence successful, project initiation. (Summary Page 4)

The summary suggests focusing on a “….few key elements which in our experience affect project delivery.” These elements are:

Purpose – having clarity on the overall priorities and desired outcomes;

Affordability – understanding what delivery will cost and not being over-optimistic;

Pre-commitment – having robust internal assessment and challenge to establish if the project is feasible;

Project set-up – the detailed specification, procurement, contract and incentive design; and

Delivery and variation management – maintaining delivery pressure throughout the life of the contract and flexibility to recover the integrity of the project in light of unanticipated events or significant variations from the original plan.

The report goes on to suggest:

“….our examination of central government projects repeatedly shows that too few projects bring all of these factors together well.”

The report gives examples of good projects – where the identification process has contributed to success and sadly, examples where this has not happened.

Now some of you reading this will say well this is OK, these are public sector projects and it is nearly five years old.

However, I do have to say there are problems in this area outside the public sector and time has not improved the situation very much. My journeys into companies (publicly quoted or private), charities or clients generally suggest the identification stage is not done as well as it could be.

  • Not enough effort is made into checking whether the business case works

  • Scope is not clear and while initial capital costs are identified (often with over optimistic estimates) post project running costs are frequently ignored

  • The initial specification keeps changing and there are no processes set up for managing variations or where they exist they are not used to their maximum effect

Why not take a look at the report? It is brief and to the point. It asks various questions against the five elements shown above.

My question to you: how good was the identification stage of the project you are working on at the moment and how good is it within your own organisation? I will leave you to look at the actions you need to take to address your answers (or not!)


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