Making Better Choices: Implications Of Formal Project Initiation

In discussing the implications of a formal project initiation process, it is probably wise and appropriate to preface with the observation that there isn’t a lot of empirical data to work with. Few organizations actually have a formal process in place that governs how projects are identified, reviewed and selected. Not that there aren’t processes out there. Even where there are processes – or the appearance of processes – how the project approval decisions really get made tends to be much more subjective and informal.

For an organization to adopt a more formal project approach, what are the impacts? What could reasonably be expected as a result? There are five key outcomes that we have typically seen emerging where a consistent, formalized project initiation process is put in place:

The first, and possibly most significant, outcome of a formal initiation process is that fewer projects get done. In part, this is a result of the presence of clear initiation criteria. As well, the presence of clear criteria means that those projects that do get proposed are subjected to greater review, and lesser priorities simply aren’t initiated. An understanding of the organization’s capacity means that those projects that are initiated respect the budget and resource capabilities in place. The net result is fewer projects get initiated, but those that are initiated have greater likelihood of being completed and having a positive impact.

Secondly, not the same kinds of projects get initiated as before. The act of defining prioritization criteria sends a clear message to the organization about what is valued in organizational projects and what is not. When people understand this, there tends to be fewer pet projects initiated, even at a department or business unit level. More scrutiny up front in terms of what the project should deliver and why means that more careful choices get made about how the projects get defined and delivered.

Thirdly, claimed benefits go down. Business cases stop being used as sales tools and start being used as the decision-support documents they were intended to be. Where there is a commitment to ensure that the benefits of projects are actually realized, and to ensure the follow-up and accountability for measurably delivering those benefits, there is a great deal more rigour that goes into what realistically can be claimed as an outcome. Business cases that used to promise the stars and the moon start being much more down-to-earth and pragmatic in reviewing what changes will be made, how those changes will be made and what benefits will accrue to the organization as a result.

The fourth outcome is that resources are able to focus more on their jobs and work more effectively and efficiently. The net consequence of fewer projects is a reduction in the degree of multi-tasking that we all take on. When the organization defines its priorities more clearly, staff are better able to manage their own individual priorities and commitments. They know what is important, because the organization has explicitly defined it. As a result, they don’t have to second-guess their responsibilities or make their own prioritization choices.

Finally, projects become more strategically focussed. They are aligned with the organization’s needs, rather than those of the business units or departments that previously initiated them. That isn’t to say that departmental and business unit projects don’t happen, but that the same principles of accountability, priority and value realization will apply. Even where the executive team isn’t reviewing all projects – and they should not be required to do so – there should be an expectation that at whatever level that projects are initiated and defined, they are evaluated and approved according to similar principles.

If these are the implications of a formal approach, why don’t more organizations work this way? Why wouldn’t any executive team want to ensure a more rigorous review of their projects? Why wouldn’t this be viewed as being anything but a very good thing? In the words of Dr. Phil, “People do what works.” If the environment does not support a formal approach, it is because someone is getting a payoff for using an informal approach. Not a bribe, per se – I’m not suggesting anything illicit here. But they benefit from the status quo being the status quo.

Where fewer projects get done, and different projects get initiated, there are executives and managers who aren’t getting done the things they themselves want done. For them. To respond to their needs. What’s good for the organization overall may come at the expense of at least one, and possible several, business units that previously were quite used to getting their way. Having to actually deliver on promised benefits creates a level of accountability and visibility that previously wasn’t required, and that, frankly, looks like a lot more work. If the organization gets better, more focussed results, this may come at the expense of different results getting created elsewhere.

Self interest is a reality. We create the systems and processes we do because we see them creating value, based upon the outcomes we most value. For a formal process of project initiation to work, we need to value the organizational strategy, the furthering of overall goals, the responsible investment of organization resources and the commitment to ensure demonstrable results. Certainly these are worthy and noble goals, and by no means unattainable. Just different from how many organizations work today.

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