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Background

I’ve been tasked with updating the business cases underlying several projects in a program that is significantly over-schedule and over-budget. I’m anticipating that this exercise will also force us to revisit things like our overall development plans, program/project governance structures and our internal communications/engagement strategy.

While the mechanics of this are straight-forward conceptually (i.e. engage end-users, suppliers, etc to define business capabilities required, benefits they will accrue and their associated costs) I’m concerned about meeting resistance from current project leaders. They have put a lot of time, effort and personal prestige into what has been done to date, and I see a huge opportunity for them to become opponents of change if things aren’t handled well.

My Questions

  1. If you were going through this kind of exercise, what would be the key outputs/products that you would generate? For example, in addition to revisiting the business case would you create/revise a governance plan? Communications strategy? Vision?
  2. What are key aspects that must be addressed from a human perspective in order to help avoid unnecessary opposition/resistance?
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TL;DR

I’ve been tasked with updating the business cases underlying several projects in a program that is significantly over-schedule and over-budget.

This is corporate-speak for "the projects have failed." To address this properly, you may want to consider positioning the current program portfolio as a sunk cost so that the focus is not blame avoidance, fixing accountability, or various departments making excuses for past overruns. Instead, treat this as if you were building a new portfolio supporting a fresh set of strategic initiatives.

Don't Recycle the Old Portfolio

Re-defining a portfolio must be positioned as a positive strategic event rather than a witch-hunt. This is easier said than done, but here are some bullet points that may help you spin this as a value-generating proposition that will help the organization take advantage of new opportunities.

  1. Review your value filters based on where the company is today. Business needs may well have changed.
  2. Review active charters and use cases in light of your updated value filters to see if they remain valid and continue to provide value to the organization. If not, remove them from the portfolio.
  3. Use the opportunity to update your IT governance or project management methodologies to avoid the same mistakes that sank the previous projects, but keep the focus on process improvement rather than blame or accountability.
  4. Use your updated assumptions, values, and use cases to prioritize projects in the portfolio. Don't treat them all as equal.
  5. Request a new budget that covers the scope of the revamped program portfolio. Re-using or modifying the old budget carries a taint of prior failure that you need to assiduously avoid.
  6. Make sure the new budget includes sufficient overhead for any new processes, governance programs, or program controls. Don't build the new portfolio on a foundation of unfunded mandates!
  7. Ensure the new project schedule includes sufficient slack to avoid the 100% utilization fallacy or failure cascades.
  8. Consider a shift to an iterative or earned value methodology so that projects can provide partial value even if they are canceled early.
  9. Suggest that senior management set a new "tone at the top" that rewards failing early, rather than long after any potential value (even partial value) has been lost.
  10. Make sure the new portfolio is promoted as a fresh initiative, rather than an attempt to redress past failures or missed milestones.

They key throughout all of this is to ensure that the organization improves its processes and controls while looking forward rather than backward. Lessons learned are important, but if you aren't an archaeologist or an historian, looking forward is where the real business value is.

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You need to understand the context behind the task you have been given. If the expectation is that the programme is to be killed off, and all you are doing is to provide justification for that, then whatever else you do may be a waste of time and effort.

On the other hand, if the question is being asked as a genuine "should we or should we not continue?" or "which parts of the programme should be continued?", then the position is slightly different. In the first instance, I still don't think you ought to be doing a great deal more than providing a review of the business case(s). However, as one of the conclusions of your review, you should perhaps make a recommendation that a further activity should be to review the governance, the vision, the comms plan, etc. That way, you are delivering exactly what the business has asked for, with the option to take it further if they want you to.

In other words, concentrate on delivering what you have been tasked with delivering - otherwise your review will also run the risk of being, in your own words, significantly over-schedule and over-budget, but give the business a proposal to take it further if this is deemed appropriate.

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