A couple of years ago I was asked to participate in a business improvement initiative by one of my contractor clients. The initiative was intended to create better process and structure around their project management systems with a particular focus on project controls. After an initial kick-off meeting which included the executive sponsor, the improvement team met several more times before the momentum faded and the initiative eventually died.

A number of things struck me about this experience.

Businessman drawing a new project

Most prominently, for a project delivery organisation they took a decidedly un-project-like approach to this business improvement project. There was no clear objective that would represent a successful result. There was only a vague purpose to the endeavour – to get better “because that is what our clients expect of us.” There was no accountability framework in place – no time, cost or deliverable expectations on either an interim or overall basis. The members of the improvement team were all senior managers of the various functions that needed to come together to make the initiative successful, but were all clearly too busy to devote any meaningful time to productive participation. Finally, the senior executive that sponsored the initiative lost interest in the work very quickly – no confirmation of status, queries on progress or sense of overarching connection to a successful result.

In reflecting on this experience, the business improvement initiatives I had been involved with in my corporate life and the change management that is inherent to the capital project work that I undertake in my current practice, common themes present themselves. The most important commonality is that all of these initiatives were borne of a business need – they almost invariably respond to a disruptive influence on business performance. In my case, these influences have included greater customer demands and expectations, shifting market conditions and response to profitability crises. In a broader context, these influences can be expanded to include disruptive competition, technological obsolescence, globalisation and market volatility. The only given about these disruptive influences is that the uncertainty and complexity which spawned them is growing at an ever-increasing rate.

This means that the improvement, innovation or change projects required to adapt to disruption influences are going to increasingly become the norm if businesses are to maintain profitability and market relevancy. In other words, Projects are the new normal.

This also means that becoming good at doing projects is fast becoming one of the requisite survival skills of 21st century businesses. Being great at projects is likely to be one of the key differentiators for the businesses that thrive. Unfortunately, too often business improvement and change management initiatives fail. A range of studies over the last decade have consistently put this failure rate at about 2 out of every 3. In fact, I advocate a mindset where failure is acceptable – it challenges us to explore the extreme idea and the outside-the-box solution as well as know where the blind alleys lie. However, most of these projects fail not because they were an experiment whose hypothesis was disproven, but because they were poorly executed as a project. Some of the key reasons cited in the literature bear a striking resemblance to my experience above:

  1. Lack of clarity of purpose and objectives
  2. Ineffective leadership
  3. Inadequate allocation of time and resources
  4. Unclear or uninspiring vision for the change
  5. Loss of enthusiasm and momentum within the team
  6. No approach for responding to the dynamic nature of projects – anticipating the constraints and course-correcting after setbacks
  7. Inability to consolidate and imbed the innovation, change or improvement into the mainstream business approach

As a result, most improvement, innovation and change initiatives deliver a very poor return on the investment of time, energy and money. In many ways, the first two of these commodities is more precious than the third. It is no wonder that many executives are reluctant to make this investment given the lack of evidence on the likelihood of success.

For the leaders that recognise the imperative to adapt to the disruptive influences in the current business climate, there is an antidote to the problems that commonly afflict improvement initiatives. Applying a project mindset to business improvement gives executives a platform to better engage and motivate their teams to create business value. Engaged and motivated teams allow more effective leverage of leadership activity, generate more creative ideas, better collaborate to develop ideas into actionable approaches, and maintain a more resilient commitment to delivering and implementing a result.

So where do you start?

There is a progression to move from the ineffective world of business improvement to a place where your projects drive the business value you deliver:

  • Triage. The first step is to gain control over your current projects, as many are likely to exist in response to immediate business needs. “Triage” may sound overly dramatic but if your projects are killing you, stabilising your existing business projects is a crucial first step. This allows you to become an improving business.
  • Upskill. Once project performance is stabilised, you now begin to improve your project skills because projects are your job. Most of the skills referred to here are not traditional project management skills. Those traditional techniques have historically delivered performance results that are only slightly better than traditional change management processes. The key skills to be developed focus on building a performance culture within the team that generates autonomy and yields a clear sense of purpose. As you build these skills, you will begin to transform into an innovating business.
  • Bandwidth. With a skilful and effective project approach established, you can expand the bandwidth of your improvement projects. As your projects begin to unleash more of your team’s capability in a self-directed manner and relieve the business’s leadership of many of the non-value adding activities, you create time for “new”. You give leaders the ability to initiate projects that are not simply in response to disruptive influences but create the disruption that the market and your competitors are responding to. When you move into this phase then you are developing a flourishing business.

A project approach to improvement is a means to creating the environment for more successful improvement results and higher returns on your internal investment. It is a way to engage the potential of your entire organisation so that there is much greater leverage on your leadership. Most importantly, it is the key to nimbly addressing the ever-changing business landscape that exists today. It is this final point that makes projects the new normal.

Questions for consideration:

  • How many of your improvement initiatives succeed?
  • Overall do your improvement, change or innovation projects deliver a positive return to your business?
  • How effectively do your staff or your teams engage with the initiatives that you put in place?

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share them in the comments section below.

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