Most organisations struggle to get their project work done. This is due in part to the fact that many prescribed remedies are confusing, disruptive, costly, or ineffective.

Should they invest in the latest project management (PM) tools? Or should they overhaul their internal processes? Would it be best to start with project intake and approvals? Or would a balanced scorecard have a bigger impact? The answer isn’t clear.

While struggling to find a solution, within the organisation, project requests never stop, and all projects continue to all be treated the same. Resources are requested for multiple projects without any visibility into their project capacity. Projects lack proper handoffs from closure to ongoing operational work. And the benefits are never tracked.

With so much human capital and financial capital at stake, it’s no surprise that so many organisations see “project failure” as their most pressing problem.

To make matters worse, most solutions are too advanced. Organisations will spend a lot of money and time on expensive consultants, who will advise the selection and implementation of robust project management software. However, all too often, organisations fail to successfully adopt the commercial tool.

This is because the selected solutions are far too mature and complex for what most organisations require. All too often the relative culture and capability of the organisation are not taken into account when defining improvement plans. While commercial tools offer a lot of functionality and promise the ability to execute a high-rigour project management approach, the constrained resources within the organisation make it impossible to maintain the level of detail required to gain insights from the commercial tool.

Frustrated and defeated, organisations revert to ad-hoc project management practices with even less confidence from the organisation than before.

Most project management problems are resolved with portfolio-level solutions. In my experience, projects are mostly failing because there are too many of them at any given time, with people too thinly spread across the work. 

My recommendation is to begin by establishing a few foundational practices that will work to drive project throughput.

  • Capacity Estimation: Understand what your capacity is to do projects by determining how much time is allocated to doing other things.
  • Record of the Portfolio: Establish a basic but sustainable record of the work being executed, so there is an official list of projects in flight and those waiting in a backlog or funnel.
  • Simple Project Management Processes: Align the rigour of your project management process with what is required, not what is prescribed by some methodology.
  • Impact Assessment: Address the impact of change at the beginning of the project and prepare stakeholders with the right level of communication.

In today’s organisations, the desires of business units for new products and enhancements and the appetites of senior leadership to approve more and more projects for those products and services far outstrip organisational ability to realistically deliver on everything.

  • Most ICT departments lack the resourcing to meet project demand – especially given the fact that day-to-day operational demands frequently trump project work and are not accounted for.
  • Organisations should enable executive decision-makers to make sense of the excess demand and create the ability to prioritise those projects that are of the most-strategic value to the business.
  • Drive accountability to managers who have the authority to shape demand and make trade-off decisions that result in the greatest business value while finding supply-demand equilibrium.

Plan the project work using a deliverable-oriented WBS

A badly built WBS can result in an ongoing list of unfavourable project outcomes including, but not limited to, the following: repeated project re-plans and extensions, unclear work assignments, and scope creep.

Key characteristics of a WBS:

  • Is deliverable oriented, which means that a product, result, or capability was attained or created to complete a process, phase, or project. 
  • Has a hierarchical decomposition of work, meaning that the project is subdivided into smaller and smaller, more manageable steps. The number of levels used to break down the work is proportional to the size of the project.
  • All steps should be clearly understood by the project team.
  • 100% of the work and deliverables that fall within the scope of the project should be captured in the WBS. This requires that work in the lower levels of the WBS should add up to the scope of the highest level.