What Makes Complex Projects Successful

The backbone of all highly successful companies is an ability to successfully execute a project: a bespoke initiative that reaches fruition in a manner that is on time, on budget and accomplishes its goal.  Without strong project execution, companies cannot innovate or change; they cannot nimbly adjust to the market; they cannot launch new things; they become stagnant and eventually decline.  The question becomes: what are the essential ingredients that make a project, especially a complex one, successful?  We see nine critical steps for making projects a success.

  1. Establish a clear goal.

This may sound obvious, because it is the reason any project exists.  But you’d be surprised how many projects are initiated without a clearly-articulated goal that makes sense for the business.  

Sometimes, when you dig into it, projects start off on the wrong foot because of goal pitfalls: 

  • Accomplishing the goal is a distraction to the business or a really bad idea, so the project should be killed entirely.

  • A project is a good idea but cannot be justified relative to the investment and potential benefit to the company.  Or, it has so little impact it’s just a distraction.

  • There isn’t one goal, but many goals.  That means goals end up fighting with each other when it comes time to prioritize, and the inevitable result is a mediocre implementation of all goals, instead of great delivery against one goal.  Companies must be disciplined and have one goal, but if there must be more than one, goals must be clearly prioritized so it is clear which goal wins out.

  • Different stakeholders have different, sometimes conflicting, goals for a project.  Chaos ensues.

  • Nobody knows why a project is happening--there has been no consistent, project-wide communication. More chaos.

So avoid the chaos by establishing one clear goal, and make sure it is a big, important one that justifies the investment.  Ideally, make the goal quantifiable, so everyone can measure the project’s success against metrics.  Then, clearly communicate the goal to everyone and work to achieve broad alignment.

  1. Create a vision.

A goal is an objective, but what does that really mean for the company?  That’s where the vision fits in.  The vision is the emotion; it is the story that lets people imagine the future of the company, a company where the goal has been achieved.  For example: If a company’s goal is to drive incremental sales with a direct-to-consumer digital initiative, the vision would be describing the amazing customer experience people would get when buying direct; the magical fulfillment that happens behind the scenes; the happy employees who are less at the mercy of big box retailers.  It’s important that a vision isn’t so futuristic it’ll never happen; it should be something that feels achievable by the company if the project is achieved. It should never be more than two years away, because then it becomes an abstraction.  Visions are best communicated from the perspective of the customer and other people who benefit from the goal, so people can understand how the company changes as a result of the project being initiated.

  1. Create a roadmap.

Once a vision is in place, how does the vision come to life?  That’s where a roadmap comes in, which is a high-level implementation plan.  At this stage, we may not know all the detailed requirements and steps to bring a project to life, but the vision should dictate the general things that are required to be completed: to continue the D2C example from above, it could be things like an ecommerce site, a fulfillment solution, a customer service solution and a marketing solution attract customers, and a CRM program to retain customers.  Now, prioritize those initiatives, estimate how long they’re likely to take, throw in some intermedia milestones for each requirements, and you have yourself a roadmap.

Of course that’s a gross oversimplification, but the point is that planning is required for any successful program, and you have to start somewhere, so that’s where the roadmap fits in. And for truly complicated projects, much more planning is needed for different components of the roadmap, and that’s why its perfectly valid to schedule in planning phases for individual initiatives.

  1. Translate the roadmap.

Next, translate the roadmap into a rough timeline, budget and resource plan for each initiative.  You may think: how, at this early stage, can you know how long something will take, how big the team has to be, and how much money it’ll cost?  The answer is you don’t.  Certainly expertise and experience can provide better estimates, but the secret is that you can guess at this stage because the scope has not been defined.  Take the fulfillment requirement from above.  Fulfillment could cost millions of dollars if you are getting warehouse space, hiring a fulfillment team, and setting up all the software and logistics to bring it to life.  Or, it can cost nothing but a per transaction fee if fulfillment is outsourced to Amazon.  

So the art of translating the roadmap into an effective plan is to figure out a budget that’s realistic for you to obtain, and the maximum amount of time you have to get something live. Then, keep on reducing scope until you can fit the project into your time and budget.

  1. Designate a Decision Maker

Large companies are inherently collaborative and matrixed.  But for a project to succeed, a single decision maker is needed--the person who holds the vision for the project and understands the final goal. The decision maker can build a team of stakeholders who are needed for specific expertise, but the decision maker can help moderate the day-to-day discussions and drive to a decision--which, in practical terms means approving the completion of project milestones to move to the next phase of work.  This may sound simple, but the projects that fail usually do so because a single decision maker who has the courage to make real decisions does not exist, and then the project become mired in endless cycles of collaboration, indecision, or worse, decisions that are made and then change in the future.  

  1. Build a Shared Vocabulary

Successful projects require collaboration with people who have diverse skillsets.  That diversity means people have different ways of working and communicating.  Misunderstanding is therefore the biggest risk to collaboration.  Key to fighting misunderstanding is to clearly define key terms and their meaning for the project.  In this manner, everyone knows what is expected for specific deliverables; what the meaning of “done” is; and how items should be documented, communicated and completed.  Without clarity about what is expected from everyone, teams cannot hope to succeed.

  1. Start Small

Large projects can be so daunting that people often don’t know where to begin. Even worse, a project is set up so nothing is deemed complete until a long period of time.  The longer something goes on, the more it is at risk of getting further and further delayed.  So start small.  Pick something simple that can be done fast and get completed. It’ll give everyone confidence that the project is going well and things are getting done.  Completing things boosts morale and gives people the conviction to get the next thing done.  Celebrate the wins and move on to the next thing.  Before long the team will be a well-oiled machine, well on its way to realizing the vision.

  1. Have a Weekly Check-in

It may sound basic, but the surest path for a project to go off the rails is to stop paying attention to whether the project is on track or not.  That’s what the weekly check-in is.  Take time, once a week, to update the timeline, identify risks and issues, and see how the project is tracking to promised deadlines.  Then, map out a plan to mitigate risks, resolve issues and get whatever is not on track to be back on track.  A weekly check-in is good hygiene for keeping the trains running on time.

  1. Lower Your Expectations For Done… But You’re Never Really Done

Every project, no matter how seemingly simple, is too ambitiously-scoped.  Its human nature--we consistently overestimate what we can accomplish in a short period of time.  So have the discipline to the make the project smaller, more modest, and more focused on what you need to achieve the goal, not what you want.  As the project progresses, never stop looking for ways to reduce scope.  Better to make a simple thing great than half-execute something sprawling.

The biggest reason this makes sense is that once you finish a project and launch it—once you are “done”—you can see how well it does and make it better.  For that reason, a project is never “done.”  Only the first phase is done, and then the real work begins—how to make the initiative better and better, so it continues to meet and exceed defined goals.

But the problem with many projects in a corporate environment is that there’s only budget for the first release, and no money for any follow-on work.  Then the initiative launches and fails.  But the project didn’t really fail; it was never given a chance to succeed.  Instead, structure projects and budgets so they can launch simple and fast, and then iterate to get better.  A project that launches after 3 months and improves monthly for the rest of the year will be better than a product that launches once after 12 months and doesn’t change thereafter.