This month it’s all about celebrating project success here on ProjectManagement.com, and with that in mind I wanted to explore some ideas around what makes a project successful.
Malcolm Gladwell has been instrumental in shaping my thinking about this, and you can read more of how I got to know of his work and his thoughts on the paradox of successful cultures in this article.
Often times, we rely on the old adage: “Fast, good, cheap: pick any two.”
The assumption here is that if you don’t pick ‘cheap’ and you have plenty of money to invest in your project, then you’ll get a successful outcome. We also hear leaders talk of being able to throw money at a problem.
Don’t get me wrong. Having money to help resolve issues and to fight off potential problems is a huge benefit. Funding does make many issues seem less troublesome. When you can call in extra resources or buy more stock without worrying about it, that’s definitely a burden removed.
The thinking of Gladwell, author of Blink and Outliers, suggests that successful cultures aren’t the ones with the most money to throw at problems. Success doesn’t come from unlimited funding.
Borrow and Follow
Successful project cultures are those that rely on the ‘borrow and follow’ approach that Gladwell laid out at the PMI Global Congress North America in Dallas where I heard him speak.
Those project management cultures don’t innovate – at least, not extensively. They look at what is working and adapt processes to their own environment. They actively pay attention to lessons learned. They work hard to build organisational knowledge and avoid the mistakes of the past – following in the footsteps of those who have done good work.
In other words, don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. Let someone else do the heavy lifting. In project management this could look like:
- Using a standard, published, recognised body of knowledge instead of trying to write your own
- Using best practice processes, instead of trying to design your own
- Having a robust and followed lessons learned process so that continuous improvement becomes part of the fabric of the way things are done (whether that’s using Agile approaches or continuous review during a sequential-style deliver)
- Using existing published career paths and competency models for your project managers instead of trying to write your own
- Using existing, recognised training and credentials for your project managers and team members instead of trying to design in-house training schemes.
There’s no requirement for ‘success’ to start with a lot of hard work in setting up systems that already exist elsewhere. While you should always be mindful of taking intellectual property and reusing it as your own (ethics is always paramount), there are plenty of materials, processes, templates and more out there that mean you can create a successful project management culture with a smaller initial outlay.
The Negative Side of Funding
The other interesting idea that has come through Gladwell’s thinking is the concept of money constraining creativity.
In other words, the more money you have, the less creative your project environment is likely to be, and that can have implications for success – both on a project level and on a portfolio or PMO level.
You’ve probably seen this yourself in your workplace. When money isn’t an issue on a project (if you’ve been lucky enough to be in that kind of environment) then you’ll know that when you hit a problem, the first thing the team thinks about is how to buy their way out of it.
When I researched my first book, Project Management in the Real World, I included a case study of a build project where the team had to work creatively together to find ways to hit the project budget. The project was a success because the effort of having to think creatively around funding brought the team together. The closer working relationships they forged when together the various suppliers worked with the project’s objectives front of mind made it a better project for everyone.
Money Doesn’t Equal Success
I don’t doubt that money makes projects more likely to hit their objectives. The experience of working on a project with adequate funding is more pleasant than having to scrabble for resources, count every penny, and challenge every receipt. But it isn’t the only thing that makes a project successful.
Think about your projects and what success looks like for you. How much of it is determined by the funding available and how much by the talent of the team, the timescales or the commitment of leadership?
What do you think about this topic? I’d love to hear your thoughts so let me know in the comments below.