by Rob Cimini
How do projects become troubled? Typically there are two paths – by design and/or by steady decline during project execution. By design means just what it suggests – the project is headed for trouble due to deficiencies in the project management methodology or its application. In a study done by Guttman Development Strategies, 80 percent of respondents indicated that poor project performance was due to a lack of project management skills; research by Gantthead, a major project management firm, found that project managers with inadequate skills were the number one reason for project failures.
In the face of such growing evidence, the need for project managers trained and experienced in proper practices and having the general management skills to effectively apply those practices remains unrecognized in many organizations. But attention to this vital position is the primary means of avoiding what we term the troubled project design factors. And it starts right at project conception.
The Foundation for Project Success – Formal Initiation
Soundly managed projects begin with a rigorous initiation process. Neglecting this process simply sets the stage for oversights to surface later in the project as potentially significant obstacles or, worse yet, revealing an unjustified project. Choosing a Project Manager with solid credentials in good project management practices prior to the start of the initiation process is critical to success at this stage. At a minimum, a comprehensive initiation process should address the following:
Not giving adequate attention to the initiation process can set the stage for the second factor, activity without measurable progress.
Activity or Progress? (Or Short-Circuiting the Planning Process)
Project initiation starts building the foundation for project success by providing the essential inputs for development of a comprehensive project plan. Resistance to developing and approving a formal project plan is often attributed to a lack of time and/or resources. But much like bypassing the initiation process, this approach is simply mistaking action for progress. Without the guidance provided by a well thought-out project plan, reactionary management typically ensues followed by a loss of control while the prospect of attaining the project objectives slips away.
The planning process need not be lengthy or drawn out but it must (1) be commensurate with the complexity of the project and (2) yield a plan that meets the following four criteria:
A planning process that meets these four criteria is one step in establishing credibility in the resulting plan. The second is assuring the necessary content. While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a guide on project plan development, examining plans using the following guidelines can help assure that the necessary project elements have been addressed.
Addressing Project Uncertainties (or Risk Management)
The absence of a formalized treatment of risk in a project plan can have enormous negative impact on the project outcome. Studies have identified that for companies reporting troubled projects, 90 percent are not doing risk management. But the growing competitive climate is driving more companies to adopt this valuable process. And clearly that wave of change is impacting the biopharmaceutical industry as the FDA has embraced these techniques through its initiative for quality risk management and advocating for adoption of the ICH Q9 guideline. But frequently there is reluctance to fully utilize this process in the project management environment.
Although often carrying a negative connotation, the essence of risk management is about preserving opportunity through a proactive management approach. Since ignoring project risks does not make them go away, similar to the fallout from poor project initiation practices, ignored risk events simply surface during the course of project execution and require a reactionary response. But the best intentions of applying risk management will yield disappointing results without proper implementation.
Regarding specifics on implementing risk management, the ICH 9 Guideline referenced above provides a general framework for a risk management process. A more detailed description of the process directed at validation of automated systems is found in the GAMP® 4 Guide. The ISO 14971 standard provides a risk management approach for the medical device industry. For a generalized standard directed at the project environment, the process is described in detail in the Project Management Body of Knowledge published by the Project Management Institute.
Failing to recognize the need to design projects for success is the surest way to land them in trouble. Embarking without an adequate foundation, there is little hope of righting the ship without a major interruption to address the right questions and establish the proper foundation.
Part II of this series on Troubled Projects will deal with the signs of impending project troubles that surface during project execution even with projects that are designed for success.
About the Author
Rob Cimini is a Principal Consultant with Apogee Management Group. Cimini has more than 30 years of experience in diverse manufacturing and research responsibilities. He has a Masters degree in chemical engineering and is a certified project management professional (PMP) through the Project Management Institute. Questions or comments on this article should be directed to email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page last updated: 5 March 2009