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Three things every project needs
by Robert Hillard

It’s wrong to think that all a project needs is a scope, budget and timeframe. The three things that separate the best projects from the rest are: insight (into the future), simplification (of the business today) and inspiration (through new capabilities).

Even a cursory glance at the news shows how fast things are changing. The rate of change for business and government is greater than at any time in the working lives of the current generation of leaders. Disruption in some form is hitting everything from retail through to healthcare and it doesn’t seem to matter whether it is the private or public sector.

The improvement over recent decades in project and programme management capabilities mean that scope, budget and timeframes are now ingrained into almost every team. Most organisations have a portfolio of these projects from which you can deduce their ambitions for the year or few years ahead. Unfortunately in many cases, the sum of the parts isn’t as transformational as the changing times we live in really requires.

Organisations need to look again at their projects and make sure they move beyond scope, budget and timeframe to insight, simplification and inspiration.

1. Insight into the future
Any project that assumes that the context in which it is operating at commencement is the same as at implementation is doomed to be behind before it ever sees the light of day. Even three months in today’s business world is enough time for fundamental changes in the relationship with suppliers, competitive landscape, customer expectations and the working environment.

Too many project teams make the assumption that what is true now, or even in the immediate future, is true forever. They also underestimate their project’s ongoing impact on the organisation way into the future.

It is hard to make predictions for the business and technology environment a decade or more out. Projects should, however, at least identify different scenarios, some of which will be uncomfortable. Scenarios, and their impacts, allow those that follow to make sense of the portfolio of projects and better build out a transformation narrative.

For example: urban infrastructure projects can describe a smart cities future; retail fitout projects should navigate the plethora of predictions on changing customer behaviour and supply chain system projects need to anticipate radical new business platforms that remove whole layers from the business architecture.

Some changes are nearly universally anticipated and should form part of every scenario such as greater workforce automation, improved technology infrastructure and greater government regulation of digital markets.

2. Simplification of the business today
Complexity is the enemy of agility and in times of change, agility is critical. It is amazing that so many executives and boards lament the opportunity of their lean, startup, competitors who don’t have the legacy that they have to deal with. This is not just technology but also long-defunct products, outdated business processes and expensive infrastructure.

Established businesses should have an advantage over their startup rivals, they have market knowledge, infrastructure and large amounts of data. To be ready to adapt they also need to have a constant focus on simplification.

It would be great to do a one-off spring clean of our organisations, the reality is that this is too hard and unlikely to get the sustained focus that it needs except in a crisis and by then it’s too late. The best approach is to make simplification the goal of every project.

Where today we usually measure a project’s success by time, budget and scope, we should add the total enterprise complexity as well. Of course many projects will have to add to the complexity of the part of the business where they operate, but that doesn’t mean that a completely different part of the organisation can’t be the target of offsetting simplification.

3. Inspiration through new capabilities
Finally, every project needs to be delivering something new. Business is increasingly looking to somehow change their relationship with customers, find new ways of connecting suppliers and customers and engage better with their staff. Understanding the strategic goal of the new and how it fits with a wider business goal is critical.

Projects that seek to simply adapt to the future (such as future of work, future of cities or future of transport) lack the focus to motivate teams. Projects that only streamline and simplify the organisation (such as a new enterprise operational system) lack the inspiration to excite and maintain the motivation of teams. People often gravitate to projects that have something completely new as part of their scope, even when it may not be a major component.

Every project is an opportunity to experiment, whether it be with new business platforms, new technology or new ways of working. While not every project is a transformation, many transformations are incomplete through a lack of a something that makes stakeholders go “wow”. It is a good idea to include an element in every project that gets the heart racing in the midst of even the most benign of changes.

There is much to be done
The years in front of us require organisations to take on huge amounts of change. It is oft quoted that organisational lifespans are getting shorter. I don’t accept this, I think that mergers and acquisitions account for many of the movements as the best businesses find alignments and synergies that add value to shareholders, customers and suppliers. However, there is no doubt that those organisations that don’t take ownership of transformation find themselves a victim of it.

There is so much that every organisation can do to create value through transformation for their stakeholders. Just delivering a vision of the future, improving today’s business process or adding new functionality over the top of existing processes is incomplete. It is only by harmonising all three that genuine and sustainable change is possible.

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