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Strategic Initiatives: Why the Last Mile is often the Longest

The Longest Mile

‘The last mile is the longest mile home’ that is an old saying that is apt to describe the reality of many projects and initiatives.

Anxious, even impatient to get to the finish line – we often underestimate how long it will take. Moreover, the project may be ‘running out of road’ in terms of organizational commitment and resources, or ‘running out of steam’ in terms of the energy of those involved.

It may also seem like ‘the longest mile’ because the end point keeps moving, as the scope of the project stretches or the demands of stakeholders change.

The lesson of ‘the longest mile’ is never take project success for granted.  Be ready for set-backs and disappointments especially in the final phase of a project. Most important of all, make sure you don’t arrive at the finish line only to find that it has moved and that stakeholders are waiting impatiently somewhere else.

Here are 9 strategies you can employ to ensure the success of your project / initiative’s last mile:

  1. 1. Prepare for Last Mile Surprises
  2. 2. Leave No Key Stakeholder Behind
  3. 2. Start with the End in Mind
  4. 3. Regularly, Revisit Project Scenarios & Assumptions
  5. 4. Ensure the Finish Line is Clear
  6. 5. Check if Finish Line Has Moved / Needs to Move
  7. 6. Making the Finish Line Seem Less Distant
  8. 7. Finish Strong – ‘keep something in the tank’
  9. 8. Think the ‘Golden Mile’ & Benefits Realization

The last mile of a project or initiative is about confidently crossing the finish line with spectators cheering. Which of the 9 strategies listed above can you leverage to maximize the success of the last mile? Each of the strategies is explored in more detail below.

Prepare for Last Mile Surprises

When it comes to planning for the last mile, leaders want to avoid surprises.  A nail-biting finish is great for TV movies but not for strategic initiatives. So, the question is: What lies waiting around the final bend?

Last minute setbacks can be prevented by effective and ongoing project updates, risk management and stakeholder engagement. However, surprises are almost inevitable and in ‘Murphy’s Law’ fashion they are apt to appear close to the finish line. 

Q What hidden dangers await you as you enter the finishing stages of your initiative?

In accepting that surprises and setbacks are inevitable, a project team should seek to be less thrown by them. The problem is that they arise when the team may be least able to deal with them – when people are exhausted with time and options running out.

De-Risking the Last Mile requires that the table of risks in the project plan needs to be re-written a new as the project enters the final stage:

  • What could prevent the project finishing strong? 
  • What is the likelihood that it could happen? 
  • What impact might it have? 
  • How to mitigate that risk? 
  • Who owns the particular risk?

Track project confidence continually and encourage people to express their doubts or concerns.  Too many project risks remain hidden, not because they were not seen, but rather they were not spoken of.  It is vital to bring risks out into the open where they can be dealt with.

Leave No Key Stakeholder Behind

The last thing you want is to arrive at the finish line only to find that some key stakeholder is missing. You want key stakeholders to cross the line at the same time as the project team, ideally celebrating together what has been achieved. With this in mind: 

  • What key stakeholders will be cheering as you pass the finish line? 
  • Which stakeholders won’t be cheering, may even be hissing?  
  • How confident are you that you know what stakeholders are really thinking?

As you approach the final stages of a project, the process of stakeholder communication and engagement takes on a new urgency. Rallying those stakeholders who are fans is important for the last mile. Winning over or at least neutralizing those who are could be disgruntled supporters is important too.

Avoiding surprises in the final stages of a project means avoiding giving surprises to project stakeholders and sponsors.  It is important to clearly signpost what is coming down the road.  People should be able to sample the output ahead of time.  Seeking early feedback is a means of ensuring their satisfaction, as well as of managing expectations and creating a shared sense of ownership. It is important to remember that, it is the key stakeholders, rather than the Gantt Chart that determines when a project has been successfully completed.

Actively manage perceptions and expectations among stakeholders.  Moreover, in true agile fashion, they embrace changing business and stakeholder needs as necessary.

Start with the End in Mind

Many last mile challenges can be traced back to the first mile of an initiative. So it is that ambitious leaders start their initiatives with the end in mind. In particular, ensuring that the project is grounded in strategy, addresses a key business need and is set up for success in terms of the application of project rigour – setting out project scope, timeline and so on. 

Not only do they seek to get agreement on the outputs that will define a successful project, they also seek to link project outputs to desired business outcomes and impact

Do you need to revisit the project’s origins – the fundamental business need or business case?

It makes perfect sense that clarity regarding project goals is essential.  After all, ‘if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there’.  However, it is easier said than done.

Regularly Revisit Key Assumptions

It is vitally important to revisit the assumptions and hypotheses that inform your initiative’s forecasts and projections. Based on the evidence to date are they still valid or do they need to be adjusted? Our analysis points to delays in addressing the gap between what is happening in reality versus what was forecast in the project plan are at the root of many last mile challenges.

Managers want certainty in their plans and forecasts. Moreover, they need to display an unshakable confidence if they are to enlist the support of others. Yet, as we cannot know the future, delivering ambitious and innovative initiatives requires imagination or even a crystal ball.

Regardless of the detail of the spreadsheet or the confidence of the promoter, project goals are only forecasts. They rarely come with a guarantee.  While it may be possible to exercise a high level of control over the inputs and activities of a project, and to predict project outputs with a reasonable level of confidence, it is much more difficult to forecast the business outcomes and business impact that will derive from a project’s success.  Forecasting downstream impact is, at best, educated guess work reliant on assumptions, scenarios and hypotheses.

Do the original assumptions underlying the project still hold or must they be updated?

However, when it comes to projections nuance tends to get stripped away fast, with scenario and assumptions quickly getting ‘locked-in’.  For example, while the presentation to the board of a global corporation included a total of 30 slides and showed 3 scenarios regarding results for an important strategic initiative, the one that the Chairperson took away was the $250 million within 5 years figure. Although labelled as the best case scenario, it has become the Chair’s only yardstick for success.

Ensure the Finish Line is Clear

In a race people know where the finish line is – it is typically marked on the road and has somebody there waving a flag to show when it is crossed.  However, ensuring clarity regarding the finishing line for a project may not be so easy.  It is important to ensure that the different stakeholders agree on when the project is finished and how its success will be measured. This is something that needs to be continually reviewed as the project progresses.  This allows for the fact that sometimes it is not possible to be accurately define success until a project is underway.

Q: Are all the key stakeholders agreed on the finish line for your initiative?

Confident Projects leaders are not afraid to have open conversations about project success. Rather than backroom whispers, they prefer that concerns about success are brought out into the open. They see divergent perspective on project performance or project success as an opportunity for even greater stakeholder engagement.

Q: Who will wave the checkered flag – declaring that the project has ended and ended successfully?

Check if Finish Line Has Moved/Needs to Move

Before you start in the journey it helps to be able to visualize the finish line and successfully crossing it. But beware the finish line is moving, and it has too if it is going to reflect changing business and stakeholder needs. 

Keeping the end in mind is essential throughout a project.  That means not only checking that the initiative is on course to deliver what is expected, but checking that those expectations have not changed.

Q: How has the finish line moved / expectations changed since your initiative began?

From conception to close, projects can span many months, quarters or even years. The danger is that the need as understood or defined at the start of a project may have changed considerably after 3, 6, 9 months have passed. The project team risks ending-up at ‘the finish line’ only to find that stakeholders are nowhere to be seen – they are waiting impatiently further down the road. 

There was a time when scope creep was considered a negative, so too changing stakeholder needs. But in a dynamic environment we must be ready to welcome changes (think project benefits creep) even when they arrive late in the process. That is a key principle of agile.  Without some creep your project may well fall behind as changes happen and expectations grow. That is not to say that scope is not carefully managed. If scope changes, everything else must change too – that includes time and budget (reference project triangle).

Q: Does your team welcome changes to requirements / scope?

Don’t Leave it to the end – focus on the few critical laps

One of our colleagues tells the story of the four-minute mile and how this record was broken by Olympian Roger Bannister. It has powerful relevance for managers who are faced with what can seem an equally impossible task –  delivering a major initiative on time and to budget.

The four-minute mile approach suggests that an impossible target needs to be broken down into smaller parts. In Roger Bannister’s case the target to run a four-minute mile – which at the time was considered impossible – was broken down into its 4 parts.  First to run a quarter of a mile in one minute, then to run to quarters of a mile in two minutes and so on, until ultimately achieving the end goal.

How to apply this principle to your strategic initiative?  Rather than working towards a finish line far off in the distance, deliver results in smaller chunks, but more often.  This is the classic ‘agile versus waterfall’ approach to project delivery. 

Q: How to break the last mile of your initiative into its parts?

There is a psychological and motivational value of bringing a far away finish line closer and scoring some fast laps early on (‘The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, but few managers understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation’ according to Teresa Amabile* & Stephen J. Kramer in their book ‘The Progress Principle’. ).  Regardless, it is too dangerous to leave the deliverables to the end. 

Finishing Strong – Keep Something in Reserve

A key challenge in respect of strategic initiatives is to build and sustain momentum across the life of a project. The last thing you want is to find yourself in the final stretch of a project depleted, with nothing left to give. With this in mind it is important to ‘keep something in the tank’ for the final stretch. The question is: How will you finish strong?

One of the unusual challenges faced by drivers in the earlier years of F1TM was to ensure there was enough fuel in the tank to complete the race.  As fuel adds weight and takes from the performance of the car it was a difficult balancing act between carrying too much fuel and running out of fuel before the race was over. There was a famous race where driver Jack Brabham won by pushing his out-of-petrol car across the finish line. What is the risk that this could happen to you?

Strategic Initiatives are a test of endurance and stamina and it generally requires more than a heroic solo-run to get the project across the finish line. As you approach the final stages address the following question:

  • What is the level of fatigue or burn-out of the team? 
  • What is required in order to deliver one more final sprint?
  • How to build a buffer against last minute setbacks & surprises?

Think Golden Mile of Benefits Realization

‘Rather than focusing on the obstacles and challenges of the last mile, why not focus on the potential to convert the last mile into the golden mile?’ asked one of our partner colleagues.  ‘After all, the last mile is about ‘bringing home’ the benefits of the initiative – delivering on the hopes and expectations’ he added.    

Q: How can you turn the last mile for your project or initiative into a golden mile?

Getting a strategic initiative across the finish line is a low bar – the project will be delivered, the project team will disband and people will move on to something else. The real question is how much of the hopes and aspirations behind the initiative will have been realized before that happens?  How much of the ambition of the strategy (LINK) will have been realized?

Q: How confident are you that the full benefits of the initiative will be realized?

Remember, your project or initiative is a lever of strategy – a talisman for change – a force for good within an organization. It once held the potential of the project to propel the business forward – to shape its future and perhaps even the future of its industry:

  • To transform channels, business models and markets
  • To re-invent processes and systems
  • To transform ways of working,
  • To wow customers and stakeholders,
  • To energize and engage
  • To chart a new course
  • To illuminate the path forward
  • To embolden a new strategy
  • To change the way the organization sees itself, or engages with the world
  • To develop important new capabilities
  • To jump the curve to represent the next bounce of the ball.

So, which of the above ambitions has your initiative furthered?

Project leaders need to see benefits realization as a key element of the last mile.  In reality, the strategic initiative is not over until the benefits have been realized.

The last mile of a project or initiative is about confidently crossing the finish line with spectators cheering. Which of the 9 strategies listed above can you leverage to maximize the success of the last mile?

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