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How Triage Will Keep Your Projects from Killing You

Projects are enablers. They are investments that your organisation makes to enable the business outcomes that help deliver your vision. Whether those outcomes are improved operational efficiency, a new revenue stream or improving your customer’s experience, projects are the stepping stones to a thriving business.

Unfortunately, far too often projects fail to deliver the promised return on that investment. For the majority of organisations, they fail to provide that enabling step more than half the time. Many projects will languish in an incomplete state while the project team tries to find the time to finish them. Some of the most aspirational don’t get off the ground because it never seems to be the right time for working on aspiration. The most critical projects will often get done under the pressure of deadline but fail to produce particularly innovative or cost-effective results.

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The “business of busyness” will lead us to make bad project investments

Many organisations approach their projects from the perspective that lots of activity will yield accomplishment. If there are a range of things that they want or need to work on they initiate a project for each OR they initiate a major change project that attempts to encompass it all. This fails to deliver effective results because:

  • Capacity is spread too thin
  • Strategic priorities are diluted
  • Inadequate bandwidth for influential leadership

For a number of organisations, the daunting challenge of getting a positive return on their project investment means they don’t undertake them until need – usually crisis – dictates. In today’s dynamic economy, this creates a downward spiral of chasing the market then shoring up profitability with short-term fixes.

While there are likely to be many contributing factors, I believe the fundamental difference between those organisations that do projects well and those that don’t is that they value their project investments.

The first step in making high value project investments is selecting good projects – projects that matter. This means not only selecting the best projects to invest in but eliminating those projects that are not a good investment of your time, energy and capital.

You need to perform triage on your projects.

Triage is an approach borrowed from emergency medicine that literally means to assign degrees of urgency to a large group of patients. This prioritisation process ensures that the greatest number of patients are treated successfully – that the patient group as a whole is served in the best possible way.

In our case, your patients are your projects.

This isn’t to say that all of your projects are sick and need urgent medical attention. It means that to serve your project investment as a whole – to maximise the number of important projects that you successfully complete – you need to assign degrees of urgency to each of your projects. As with any good triage process this means categorising your projects and acting on them accordingly. For our purposes these categories are:

  • The Critical,
  • The Serious, and
  • The Dying

But what criteria do you use to categorise them? After all, there is no medical assessment checklist to use…

For projects, the ultimate evaluation tool is your strategic vision for the organisation. Where do you want to take the business and how are you going to get there? It is your organisation’s overarching business purpose (your “why”) and its key business goals (your “how”).

As discussed in this post, the evaluation criterion is the capacity of your organisation to successfully undertake the amount of project work in your portfolio.

Give Critical projects your undivided attention

Critical projects are those for which there is a strategic imperative. Taking action now will have the greatest impact on your strategic business objectives. Generally, critical projects fall into one of three areas:

  • There is an immediacy required either to arrest a negative situation or to take advantage of a market opportunity.
  • There is an urgent start-up requirement – to deliver the desired outcome in a certain timeframe the project needs to be started now.
  • Game changers – projects, that if successful, will move your business to another level.

Often times they are not the easiest projects to take on or least complex problems to solve, but they are the projects that deserve your organisation’s undivided attention. These should be projects that receive senior management’s committed sponsorship and support.

Prep the Serious projects for a time when you can complete them

Serious projects are those that have the potential to provide a “serious” return for your business. They are aligned with your strategic goals but lack some of the urgency or immediacy of Critical projects. They’re projects that are:

  • Less time sensitive because they are not required to deal with a current situation.
  • A bit more “experimental” so may involve a greater risk that they will not yield a business result.
  • Capable of offering a lower business return than other projects in the portfolio.

These projects should be identified and prepared for execution, but you shouldn’t work on them until you are fully prepared to see them through to a conclusion. They go into the queue behind your Critical projects until such time as they become critical or you free up project capacity within the organisation. Most importantly, until they become a prudent project investment, they remain in a state of readiness.

Kill your Dying projects

Okay, this may sound extreme, but in this regard the business that values its project investments is particularly ruthless. There will be a number of projects in an organisation’s portfolio that are simply not going anywhere – they’re not going to yield a positive return for the level of investment. These projects include:

  • Those that have started but are wasting away because of inattention and organisational apathy.
  • Pet projects that even if successfully delivered, make little difference to the strategic direction.
  • Good ideas that are simply not panning out – experiments that won’t provide operational value.

The natural inclination is to push these to the background and let them slowly die on their own. Unfortunately, they still consume capacity and attention from your staff. Effective project triage means identifying dying projects as early as possible and killing them off before they consume too much time and energy. “Fail fast” is a popular meme in the start-up world that captures this mindset.

By all means, comfort “the family” (the project team) and make sure they know it’s not their fault, but move them on to something that is a better investment of their efforts.

Triage is not an event but a process

Sure, to get your projects on track you need to make an assessment of your portfolio and act on that assessment. However, triage should also be a regular ongoing process. As projects are completed you will free up capacity to work on additional projects. Developmental projects will occasionally fail (in fact, some should) and you need to make this assessment early so that you move on to higher value activities. Some Serious projects will become Critical as start dates approach, windows of opportunity open or markets shift. An ongoing process for assessing the projects that are in your pipeline and adjusting the portfolio based on the current situation will ensure that your project investment remains optimal.

Questions for consideration

  • Do you see your projects as business enablers or simply another business activity?
  • Do you actively seek to maximise the return from your project investments by the way that you chose your projects?
  • Does your organisation know which projects are critical to your business outcomes? Do you?
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