How Strong are the Business Fundamentals of Your Project/Initiative?
Agility + Rigor: Has Your Initiative Got the Winning Combination?
Imagine you have just gotten the analysis of your project's business fundamentals and it looks like this:
The numbers on the visual above show the level of clarity and alignment with respect to the business fundamentals (the chassis or business foundation of your project).
- Two of the 9 business fundamentals are green with is a high level of clarity and alignment (i.e. 75% plus)
- Four are amber with the level of clarity and alignment being somewhere between 56 and 74%)
- Two of the factors are red (rated below 56%)
Clearly, the mix of colours in the diagram show that there are issues around the business fundamentals for this particular initiative. But, what if you got a similar analysis of your project's chassis: What will you do? How will you react?
How Would You React?
Perhaps you would feel disappointed or even frustrated by the results. Alternatively, you might be feeling vindicated—your concerns around the set-up of the project now been validated. Regardless, how you engage others in the results of the analysis represents both an opportunity and a challenge. With this in mind, here are some tips.
Engaging With Chassis Problems – Some Tips
Don't panic! See it as an opportunity, as well as a challenge. Once you are aware of the issue and it is out in the open you can deal with it.
It is rare that there is total clarity and alignment in respect of all the business fundamentals of a complex and ambitious project. Indeed, that may not even be desirable – especially if it stems from a false consensus or over-confidence.
So don't beat yourself up if there is a lack of clarity on parts of your chassis. Your project may be well planned in a traditional sense. However, bridging the gap between strategy and execution places new demands on projects and initiatives. Delivering against the project plan is no longer a guarantee of success – not if it falls short of meeting the needs of the business.
Clarity improves over time. As a project progresses it would be expected that the level of clarity and alignment around the key factors would naturally grow over time. As this project was at an early stage (post its launch) a certain level of ambiguity might be expected. Yet, it is hard to conceive of a project being launched that has not reached the minimum threshold of 50% charity and alignment!
It's important to note that there could be a project plan and budget, and still many of the business fundamentals remain ambiguous. This is what we refer to as project myopia where an initiative struggles to see beyond its own project scope etc. to the underlying business needs. This happens more often than you would expect, with losing sight of business needs and priorities emerging as the number one reason why projects fail.
Serious project leaders are wary of ‘hyping-up' expectations. Yet, in seeking approval for a project that's exactly what may be required. It is the glitz and glamour that sells. Embracing project cynics is a sign of confidence on the part of a project team and the business fundamentals of a project are the basis on which to engage.
Even the most meticulously planned project can have question marks regarding its business foundation. That is because the chassis goes deeper than the ‘project stuff’ such as ‘who does what and when’. It goes to the needs of the business, the realities of its market, and so on. It focuses on the ‘why' not just the ‘how'.
Once you identify areas where there is a lack of clarity you can start to work on them. The tool to fix chassis problems is a strategic conversation around the 9 business fundamentals. So, ‘reds' and ‘ambers' on the chassis point to conversations that need to happen.
Little would the skeptical stakeholders have imagined how right they were. The project team had just rated the level of clarity and alignment in respect of the initiative’s business fundamentals. The combined rating across the 9 factors was 73%. The implication being that the gap between strategy and execution could be as high as 27%.
It was telling that people struggled to communicate either the business need, business impact or the business urgency of the initiative. Moreover, the initiative did not have a clear price tag, with the budget estimate, for example, including no people related costs.
Those leading the project were taken a-back by the rating given to the business fundamentals. Yes, there had been whispers of concern, even discontent, but for just 42% to be rated ‘Green’ was seen as disappointing (see below).
When it comes to the business foundation: It may not be possible to have certainty regarding the answers, but at least there should be clarity regarding the questions. The ability for people to dialog the likely success of an initiative in an open and searching manner is an essential element of what is called Project Safety.
Conversations that are Needed
The lack of clarity and alignment on the chassis indicated that there were strategic conversations that need to happen: Conversations with stakeholders around the fundamental ‘why?’ of the project, in particular business need and expected business impact. Without this, the initiative might not deliver against the needs of the business or the expectations of stakeholders.
You may have heard the saying ‘if it is easy it ain’t strategy’. The same applied to strategic initiatives and critical projects. Strategic conversations may be difficult, even contentious.
However, addressing the issues head on is the most courageous and generally the wisest thing to do. The red and amber ratings on then chassis won’t go away by themselves. Not having the conversation represents a significant risk to the success of the project.
In theory, it is never too late to have a strategic conversation on these critical factors. However, a lot depends on the organizational environment and the extent to which it is politically safe to do so. In any respect care is needed, raising questions about business impact or business need is likely to raise the ire of those who have been slavishly committed to a project.
‘Are we busy fools?’ the Department Head had asked on his quarterly visit to the project offices. It was, as the project leader later described it, ‘a display of either brutal honesty or complete tactlessness.’
Watching the project team working intensively right across the vast open-plan office, the plain talking department head continued: ‘Time is running out in terms of validating this new market opportunity’. It was ‘a devastating blow to morale’ recalled the project leader some months later.
The ‘truth telling’ visitor was seemingly unaware that the team was working around the clock to meet an almost impossible deadline. He concluded with a stark message ‘the case for continued investment is by no means a slam dunk’.
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