The inspiration for this title has come about from recent months which has seen us working with different clients to deliver large scale business improvements. As you would expect, each project is unique because of each organisation’s; culture, the capability of its people, their attitude to risk, the scale of change and the pace at which it is being delivered. The common theme amongst them all, however, is that all of these organisations recognised at the outset that they wanted, and needed, a structured approach to planning, designing and executing their change. Something by their own admission they could not do themselves due to not having sufficient capacity or capability within.

Aside from hiring an experienced Project Manager, the other option of getting some support for such business change projects is to use external consultants. However, if the organisation doesn’t have the internal skills in the first place to undertake the change, then how can they assure themselves that the consultants will get it right for them? How can the organisation be sure that the level of structure and rigour in the approach is appropriate for the nuances of the project and the culture of the organisation?

There are just as many project management methodologies as there are projects and unless you are clear on the level of ‘methodology’ you want in your project, there is a risk that you will get more than you bargained for – and sometimes more is not better! Applying off-the-shelf project management approaches (despite involving experienced consultants) may lead you to over-engineer your business change.

So, our recent activity with our clients has prompted me to share with you some fundamental questions and considerations that will help you get the right mix of structure and rigour for your organisation, and in particular, for a specific business project. I am hoping that this post will help you to keep the consultants honest and ensure that you are getting the appropriate approach for your business change, not just what the consultants consider to be the ‘ideal’ approach.

What are you changing?

The nature of the change itself can hint strongly at the type of project management approach required to successfully deliver it. For example, implementing an ERP system requires a very specific and prescriptive set of tasks and deliverables done in a particular sequence so that the system build and test phase has a feed of clear requirements. However, at the other extreme, a change where the end solution is not known, requires absolute clarity on the problem statement itself so that this problem can be measured, analysed and resolved with an appropriate set of solutions.

A project focussed on integrating a merger may require a more fast paced 100-day action plan to address legal requirements, staff engagement and to safeguard the operational stability; this will then need to be followed with a more considered and planned integration effort to ensure that synergies are realised and optimal ways of working are established. And as a final example, projects that are more technical and commercial in nature may benefit from a more agile approach where deliverables are bite size chunks and plans are constructed for just weeks ahead with the intent of rapid development, feedback and continued iterations after each release.

How do things typically get done in your organisation?

This can be a ‘catch 22’ consideration. Sometimes organisations consciously want a project to be managed in contrast to how things typically get done within the business. These organisations are trying to ensure that the project doesn’t suffer the same pitfalls and hence demand that things are done differently in the project. However, if the approach for the project takes the organisation out of its comfort zone a little too far, then the benefits that were intended can rapidly dilute as the organisation then begins to resist how the project is being managed. Therefore, being tuned into the reality of the culture, and then using your
external consultants to establish helpful practices can be successful if those practices are chosen carefully and applied sensitively.

How big is the change?

Here is what needs to be considered; the scope of change, the number of people that will have to change their ways of working, and the complexity of the problem to be solved for. All these factors will help to establish the appropriate level of planning and reporting for the project. Careful consideration about the complexity of the change will also ensure that the collaboration takes place in relevant ways and that engagement activities are not over-simplified. Depending on the size of the project the various activities will need to be managed in an interdependent way and change impacts will need to be analysed proactively and managed appropriately.

To what extent do you want to improve the project management capability of your people?

A side benefit (and sometimes the main reason) to bring in an external consultant for project management is to improve the capability of people within and to up skill them so that they learn project management best practice. However, for this transfer of skills to succeed, your people need a learning environment. A project that is fraught with tight timescales and a team that is populated with already overworked individuals doesn’t create an environment where those people can learn, absorb and make mistakes. Furthermore, overlaying too rigid a methodology onto a project where the team has very little skill with projects will overwhelm the individuals involved and be detrimental to the project’s success despite the good intention of wanting to apply applying structure and rigour.

The fact that all business changes benefit from a level of structure and rigour cannot really be disputed. However, the level of detail and requirements within the methodology applied can stifle the project, overwhelm the team and create unnecessary work. Not all projects require the rigour imposed by many project approaches, but what is important is to have a level of structure that is relevant for the type of project, the capability of the team and the culture of the organisation. Very often, this can be as simple as adopting the bare minimums but doing so in a disciplined and logical manner. Investing the thinking and planning time at the start of the change process can avoid having to revisit your business change when the project falls short of the mark.

"Why is it that there is never enough time to do it right first time, but always enough time to go back and do it again!?"