Restoring Projects to Peak Performance

You’ve performed project triage.
You’ve run the required diagnostic tests.
It takes more than a diagnosis to avoid more implementation failures.  Now what?

Here are some quick remedies and prescriptions for fixing ailing projects:

Treatments for project illnesses
Treatments

This takes us back to the beginning of the cycle. Periodic triage and interim project health-checks are the best way to make sure your project portfolio will contain fewer implementation failures.

Preparing for Project Rescue: Diagnosis

In my last project management blog post, I talked about performing triage on a project portfolio.  Over at the Oracle Infogram blog, they picked up on our post with a reminder that triage is a pervasive activity, and one that is essential to project management:

“Triage runs from the queuing on the CPU all the way up to the user’s daily calendar entries, it is a concept that should always be kept in mind when planning and building projects.”

The result of the triage effort is to identify those projects most in need of immediate intervention.  Just as in the medical world, the next step after triage is diagnosis; now it’s time to focus on projects in the third group and perform project diagnostics. If you are tasked with rescuing a failing project, here are the first steps that you should take to find the root cause(s) of the project’s difficulties.

patient history1. Obtain a thorough patient history: Skilled medical diagnosticians may not rely solely on the patient’s recollection. In some cases they need to interview family and friends to obtain information on subtle symptoms.  Likewise, the skilled project diagnostician should combine the skills of Dr. Gregory House and Dr. Cal Lightman.  When trying to diagnose failing projects, they shouldn’t don’t rely solely on direct interviews of the project team. A multi-perspective view of the situation is needed:

  • Have a closed-door session with the project sponsor: Find out what the key issues are with the project and begin to explore areas where a rescoping might help bring things back on track. Find out what kind of scope reductions are likely to be accepted by the business, and which might require significant salesmanship or a fierce battle. Understand the organization’s politics so that you can factor them into your corrective action plan.
  • Talk to the project stakeholders about their original expectations, their current concerns, and any difficulties they may be experiencing with the project team.
  • Create comfortable communication channels with all members of the project team, and dig deeper than project plans, status reports and issues logs. Find out what is causing project anxiety within the team.  There are often valuable clues here. Be sure to probe any areas that are glossed over or brushed aside quickly.

 2. Next, take the project’s vital signs:

  • Pulse check: Assess the burn rate. Are you eating up budget faster than you anticipated? What is the new estimated total cost?
  • Blood pressure: perform a risk assessment, in terms of what could happen between now and the go live date to cause a significant incident. Various frameworks exist for this assessment. The Six Sigma FMEA template can be modified to suit your needs here, giving you an objective framework for assessing all possible places where your solution could fail, and steering your future corrective actions toward those that have both the highest likelihood of occurrence and greatest criticality.
  • Temperature:  Red yellow green heat sheet with respect to key milestones. This should be part of your regular status report, along with some basic trending. For example, we once managed a huge portfolio of interdependent concurrent projects with weekly reviews that tracked both last week’s and the current week’s milestone status. Because we were in an M&A situation facing TSA deadlines, we had not time to bring up robust project portfolio management tools, so we kept things moving with simple, homegrown Excel tracking tools.
  • Other specialized diagnostic tests as needed—assess the scope (original and current), review the technology strategy, development strategy, testing strategy, release strategy and change management strategies.

After performing these steps, you should have insight into why the project has gotten off track. Our next blog post will cover some of the intervention steps to take after the diagnosis is complete.

How often do you perform project triage?

A quick google search shows that the medical concept of triage is commonly applied to evaluating IT projects and other major business initiatives. pm_thumbnail

The concept of triage comes from medicine, and in particular medical treatment under difficult circumstances—war, epidemic, disaster—where the number of people needing treatment exceeds the resources available. In such situations, the sick or injured are typically assigned to one of three groups.

 In the business context, it usually means allocating scarce cash and human capital under difficult economic conditions, when the number of ongoing projects exceeds the level available resources.

Project Triage Framework

In the current economic climate, it probably makes sense to perform a mini-triage of your project portfolio quarterly, with an annual triage as the last fiscal quarter approaches.  In addition, you may be faced with the need to triage in emergency situations such as a sudden shift in business strategy, in the face of a new acquisition, or when presented with an across the board budget cut. Periodic review is a cornerstone of an effective project portfolio management strategy. This regular triage can be a valuable form of project insurance. Preventative medicine is always less costly than crisis treatment.

Your triage team should include your senior IT management as well as functional business leadership. Performing project triage is easiest if there is regular, reliable status reporting from the project teams, on their milestone and budget status.

Triage is also easier if your project initiation process includes a business case that assigns a business criticality score to the project. It’s entirely possible that business criticality of a given project might change over the course of the project’s lifecycle, and a master project status tracking document helps the triage team keep track of this.

After reviewing the health of individual projects and their alignment with current business needs, triage will place them into three groups which align perfectly with the medical definition of triage:

1. Persons who are likely to live even if they don’t receive immediate treatment—projects going well that need no additional intervention

2. Persons who are likely to die even if they do receive immediate treatment– projects that you should suspend NOW before they chew up additional resources

3. Persons who are like to live only if they receive immediate treatment– projects that need you to perform an immediate intervention

Our next blog post will cover specific diagnostic tests you must perform on projects that fall into the third group. In the meantime, let us know your apporach to project triage by answering this poll:

How often do you perform project triage?