Key elements of a successful project

External consultant Niels-Erik Jørgensen, currently on assignment at TOTAL, outlines the key elements of a successful project, with important advice on the often-critical end phase of the project.

Interview with Niels-Erik Jørgensen Project Manager with 20 years of experience, on assignment for ProData Consult

Laying the groundwork for the conclusion of the project

The successful conclusion of a project is dependent on the choices you make initially. KPI’s, essentially are the success criteria for a project, and ultimately what your performance as a consultant is held up against. Having a plan with good, clear KPI’s and subsequent monitoring of these, is therefore important for the consultant’s ability to deliver at the end:

“KPI’s are measurable values that demonstrate how effective we are at achieving key business objectives. It is important to create a plan for how we can monitor the progress towards these objectives. The setup of this part is vital, and someone must always be responsible for keeping track of this part even after the project is finished. Since, the realization of certain key business objectives, sometimes happens years later, with results being accumulated over time, long after you have left the organization.”

Throughout the project, you must see to it that every stakeholder is on board with the direction:

“The criteria for success of a project may change over the course of the project. The formal success criteria you start out with, is not necessarily the same at the end of the project. We learn along the way. Suddenly, you might have a bunch of new criteria. Make sure these are written down, always ensure that they can be monitored, and keep relevant stakeholders in the loop at all times. A success criterion we cannot track is not worth a whole lot, which is also why scoping things properly is critical, in order to not get overwhelmed during or towards the end of the project.”

Ensure open communication lines

From the very start to the very end, communication is key. Create an environment where everyone from developer to CEO, can have their say and provide input. It gives an opportunity to improve and fix things, before it becomes too late in the project. Not doing so, can furthermore lead to lower productivity levels:

“Typically, when working on a project, you have people who like to communicate and be heard, and then you have people who might be more introvert and less outspoken. In this last case, it is necessary to open them up as they might have valuable insight and input that could be of use to the project.”

Jørgensen continues:

“You must create an environment, where people feel like they can express themselves even if its negative. As a project manager you need to be open to this. Sometimes people harbor frustration, yet there might be solution and something we can do about it. Having open communication lines motivates team members and effectively leads to better results and more successful projects.”

Knowledge transfer: Transitioning to operations

There will be no success without a positive delivery and transition phase to operations. The IT organization must be able to take over the project going forward, and be able to support it in the day-to-day activities, documentation is therefore a key element:

“Ensure clear and concise documentation. There must be a description for the operational phase and the software, including user guides, and guidelines to how the IT organization will handle any existing defects and support this thing going forward.” 

This is a very demanding phase of the project, and greater requirements are placed on an external consultant compared to an internal project manager:

“When the project ends you are no longer part of the organization, so it is critical that all vital information has been transferred. Failing to do so, can be costly with the potential of missing out on expected benefits, or in worst case, risk that the project is scrapped altogether because the project is not properly documented.”

A good tip is to let them explain what needs to be done, so you can make sure that everyone is on board, before you leave the company as a consultant:

“I think, it is extremely important that things are put in motion, while you are there. If the only focus is to finish the project, then you also get a bad transition. Get a hold of the operations team and let them explain how things are supposed to work. After that, you can call another meeting, and correct any problems there might be. This way, you get peace of mind, and you know there are people in place that can take over, when you leave the company.”

Another important tip is to let stakeholders know the project is ending, and that certain resources will be deallocated from the project:

“Make sure to inform all stakeholders - including the ones that were only part of the process in the beginning – that the project is now ending on a particular date, to avoid any problems from popping up. Furthermore, let them know that certain resources will be deallocated from the project from a specific date, as to further avoid any confusion.”

Lastly, a solid but more common advice, is to always “leave the door open”:

“I always make it clear that I will be available if something happens. It helps give peace of mind to some of the stakeholders. You leave them a lifeline - I think that is a good practice.”

Have fun and eat your cake too

Having fun is often one of the things that might get lost in all the ambitions and goals for a project, especially in the later and often hectic stages of the project. Ensuring a fun work environment, is probably not on the list of specific project KPI’s for an external consultant, but nevertheless, it is the unspoken responsibility of the external consultant. And, while it might not be an obvious criterion for success, one cannot underestimate the impact a good work environment has on the successful delivery of a project. A part Jørgensen says, he has had to remind himself to become better at over the years:

“In my early days I was not very good at celebrating the small victories, maybe thanks to my own slightly introverted nature and background as a software developer. On some of my first projects, I was surprised when the feedback I received was centered on the fact that we had not celebrated enough.”

Celebrate the small victories, especially during the final stretch of a project, where everyone is scrambling to deliver:

“I think, it is important for a project manager with my background to nourish and develop that social competence. As I have become older, and especially regarding very hard and complex projects, I see the significance in getting cake on the table, talking with the team, being social, and celebrating even the small victories along the way. Something, I forgot and did not think of being particularly important, in the beginning of my career.”

Drive and determination are important characteristics to have if you want to succeed as a consultant, as long as it does not start conflicting with the morale of team members:

“A young project manager, who just started as an external consultant, is likely to forget about these things. He needs to be effective, he needs to look effective, show results, and he forgets that the people charged with delivering the product, also need to feel good about going to work, and not feel it is hell whenever the consultant is there. It can be detrimental to the whole operation, and you risk people resisting the project or flat-out quitting their jobs.”