It’s More Than Project Take-off and Landing

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
In our previous post, Let’s Start at the Start, and Finish at the Finish, we left a teaser at the end. It’s the paragraph about the parts of an airplane flight that requires the most pilot skill. We were “piloting” our parallel concepts for a paper we were writing for the August 14-15 UTD PM Symposium. This event, hosted by University of Texas at Dallas, the PMI Dallas Chapter, and PM World Journal, is always one of the best regional PM events of the year. IPMA-USA and IPMA have participated in each of the events since they began, and they are always outstanding. Now I offer the rest of the parallel concept.

Five Crucial Value-add Timings and Results
Managing a project is much like piloting an aircraft. There are several crucial timings where deft leadership, talent, quick reactions and redirection are essential for success. There are other timings when we can run on “cruise control” and perhaps, even take part in completing project work packages or other actions.

From iStock

And just when are those crucial timings?

Clearly, as illustrated in the photo at right, take-off (and landing) are among the crucial timings. And how does our piloting analogy relate to projects? Project take-off must begin with an effective Kick-off meeting—the first get-together of the team. And the landing? That has to be the Project Closure & Review, with review of results, then reallocation of the team to new projects. The results of these two crucial timings may be obvious, but in projects they include, for Kick-off, all stakeholders safely aboard the project, buckled in, and with a clear sense of direction, timing, commitment, and intended result. 

Ok, two of your five crucial timings identified so far; when is the third? Our answer: Those ad-hoc periods when you encounter Project Execution Turbulence. This occurs when unanticipated issues arise, and you must act—showing your leadership and communication skills under pressure. These might occur when key stakeholders realize their requirements will no longer be met. Or when your team discovers that the selected design solution will not scale to accommodate your latest scope discovery. Or, when any of the early-identified risks strike, and the response manager fails to respond. So far, so good!

Next, at journey’s end, all stakeholders must be satisfied with their experience of the journey, the correct destination, their timing, scope (their baggage also arrived), and most-importantly, the contribution of this part of the journey to their overall trip objective. After all, the project was just a means to a greater business purpose. (This is beginning to sound like a portfolio, isn’t it!)

So far, we understand three crucial project timings, and have a hint to the fourth: Benefit Realization; achieving the intended business purpose —for all our stakeholders. This next timing depends on the same factors that our stakeholders constantly monitor and evaluate during all projects. They are verified when we prove final benefits: The right business results, including all needed scope, at the right level of quality, in acceptable time and cost, and with appropriate risk mitigation, and proper use of talent.

What is the remaining project timing? We did say five, after all—or was that just an early estimate? Oops, we just gave you another hint! When are those early estimates made, and who makes them? On what information are they based? How reliable are they? At that Kick-off meeting, the new project team hears about a number of constraints that have already been set. And this hints at the most important of the value-adding crucial timings. The period from Inspiration until Kick-off has the greatest impact on project and business success—given PM competence in those who complete the needed results.

Many people call these actions pre-project, but those are people who don’t really understand where start starts and end ends (see previous post). For the project’s customer, your stakeholders, this project starts with Inspiration. We said above and we’ll repeat it: It is the effectiveness of those who complete the needed actions between Inspiration and Kick-off who have the greatest impact on your total project and business success.

In the pilot analogy, just what are the actions that preceded this particular take-off? For this flight (or project), we need to consider our decision to travel, our options for getting to the destination, the price and schedule comparisons of those options, and the commitment of significant funds before the project even starts. Then we safely travel to the airport, check-in, get through security, and so on. We’ve seen cases where the entire journey was irretrievably destroyed before those pre-flight actions finished.

Could those pilots successfully complete that take-off if all the customers, and all the other participants in the flight value chain, had not successfully become engaged? Those parties include all stakeholders—participants who are affected by, or can affect, the success of the project. And here is an irony… Some pm standards have posited that the period between Inspiration and Kick-off is out of the control of our profession. Au Contraire! The most effective project managers I’ve worked with always manage that initial period best! Similarly, the most competitive companies (especially of those that specialize in projects) are strongest in this initial period. They know when start starts!

It is not just a matter of our project manager guiding us through the turbulence. This ad-hoc period also relies on executives and managers who understand rolling-wave planning, and the need to change early project estimates and constraints; it also relies on their leadership and maturity in managing a project oriented enterprise. This is a key aspect of managing change, and managing for success.

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