Friday, November 30, 2012

How Clear Objectives Help lead to Project Success and to Avoid Failure

My perspective is based upon observation of Information Technology projects and organizational IT department performance.  My interest is to understand the factors that contribute to the success or failure of any IT project.

One of the first elements that determine success or failure is how well we define success and failure in a project or within an organization. 

Sound simple?

This definition sets up the project, frames it, defines it, provides the executive with the criteria by which we can measure progress.   When finished it helps us better understand, what we have done and what we have achieved or not achieved. 

All projects achieve something whether the results are intended or not.  One of my favourite insights on the results we achieve, comes from William Deming.  To paraphrase:

“the results that you achieve are perfectly suited to the process you used to achieve them”

“you got what you got because you did what you did”

Deming was talking about organizations and the collective processes needed to achieve quality and efficiency (which will be discussed in much greater depth in future posts). 

Of course, the objective of all projects is to get what you want to happen to actually happen.  The end point isn’t just the completion of project deliverables but is the intended effect of completing the deliverables.  That is success.     

So how do we define success in a project?  A good start is to clearly define our intention to achieve specific outcomes.  A project begins with objectives.  Objectives set the conditions for success and for failure.  Objectives set up our ability to see whether we are succeeding, floundering or failing.  They define what you are trying to achieve.  Well articulated objectives allow you to scope and measure.  They help to gauge the significance of every task in relation to the intended project outcomes.
It sounds simple – but defining good objectives takes skill.  Objectives can be mushy, grand statements that really only work as strategic touch points or to rally the troops to a vision of future abilities.  But they do not act as a reference for action and decision making.

What works are objectives that are well thought out and articulated.  Some of the characteristics of well articulated objectives include:
  • They are limited in number, but sufficient to define the outcomes of a project
  • They are clear, succinct and distinct
  • They are framed in business language, relating to business results and new or improved capabilities
  • They are measurable
  • They are formally stated
  • They are formally reported
  • They help to define scope clearly

When done well, objectives set the tone for project direction.   Once defined they still need to be managed well as having them does not guarantee success.  Having them does set up one of the preconditions to ensuring success and avoiding failure.   Poorly defined objectives do not doom a project to failure, but clear objectives do signal the relative health of a project or of an IT organization.

If you have any questions, please contact me at istcl.  
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