Managing the Project Lifecycle

Posted on Thursday, April 28th, 2011

The chart shown below is an eagle-eye view of project management. I use it to explain how to prevent problems which may occur during implementation by devoting some extra attention to the first three phases of the project lifecycle. Too many times I’ve heard the statement, “I’ve got the concept, let’s go.” This approach is the fastest route to failure.

Today I am addressing senior business executives in the role of project sponsors. You hold an eagle-eye perspective, and you’re in the best position to ask the tough questions which will steer a project away from danger. The project manager—even if s/he is an executive—is focused on producing short-term results and will not be able to see the big picture at the same time. It’s up to senior executives to bridge the “perspective gap.”

Depending on what industry you’re in and the maturity of your company, what I call the “Normal Project Lifecycle” may resemble your own project lifecycle, appear very simplistic compared to your more rigorous process, or represent an ideal you’re striving for.

Business Case

Most projects begin with a business case. The most important outcome of this phase is clear, measurable objectives. Projects can drift toward opportunities and away from impediments. One of the most important things an executive sponsor does is hold the project manager accountable for meeting the original objectives. Note that projects always have more than one objective.

To test the worthiness of a business case, these are some of the questions you might ask:

  • “Is there a market for this product or service?”
  • “What is the expected ROI?”
  • “What are the risks?”
  • “Are there better or more strategic investments we might make instead of this one?”
  • “Do we have the right resources?
  • “Are our competitors in a position to do the same thing better/faster/cheaper?”

If you give the go ahead, this is the point at which a budget is established and planning begins.

Plan

Planners work out the details that were probably glossed over during the development of the business case. (After all, salespeople will say almost anything to get a deal.) Planners identify all the tasks, establish a schedule, and determine whether resources are available in-house or must be outsourced.

When presented with a plan, the first question to ask is “What haven’t we thought about?” This is the time to perform a formal risk assessment. Changes to market conditions, shifts in the competitive landscape, emerging technologies, labor disruptions—all of these should be surveyed again—especially if the planning required more than a month or two.

Design

By the end of the design phase, the technical team should have verified that the task list is complete and identified who is doing what. They should also have established relationships with suppliers and know what equipment is needed and what the lead times are.

At this point, it’s important to ask whether the project can meet the original objectives on time and within budget. If not, a new business case should be made or the project scrapped. It’s also important to perform another risk review. Have market conditions changed? Are we trailing the competition rather than leading? Has the projected ROI changed? What is still unknown? Open the gate to implementation only when the answers to all these questions point to success.

Implementation

I call the implementation phase the danger zone because this is where any glossed-over details will rear their ugly little heads. Problems arising during implementation— whether it’s called construction, fabrication, development, or something else—are very expensive to fix and can have disastrous consequences for the profitability of the project.

Projects get cancelled all the time during implementation because of cost overruns, schedule delays, or the loss of market opportunity. Many of the projects I’m asked to review could have been implemented profitably if risk analyses had been more thorough. Others should have been scrapped before they got to the drawing board. In both cases, better planning would have prevented irrecoverable losses.

 

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