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The Importance of Project Objectives – Do We Know What We Are Doing?
By Christine Petersen

Just do it is a common refrain sung by management in organizations today. It is a major reason that projects are classified as failures, and this because nobody insisted on taking the time and effort to define and agree on a clear vision of what the project should achieve in the first place.

I often hear people say: well, we’ll work it out as we go along. We don’t have time to sit down and write down all the objectives now – we have to start the project or we’ll be late. Well, this is the best way I know of making sure that the project WILL be late.

So, why is it so important to take this time up-front to clearly define our scope and objectives? Well, the statistics speak for themselves: A study by Info-Tech research Group, IT Priorities 2005, based on a survey of more than 1,400 companies, mostly in the US, Canada and UK showed that 62% of projects failed because of poorly designed project scope. This is a worrying statistic. It shows that even though we know how important it is to be clear on what the project should achieve, more often than not – in fact, more that half the time, we accept to manage projects without a clearly defined scope and objective. And then we wonder why so many projects either do not make it on time, within the agreed budget, or without the expected and required results.

And what should we then do to avoid this particular pitfall? Well, to start with, we need to create a dialogue, a conversation, with the client or Sponsor of the project – the person who wants the result of the project. The person who had a problem in the first place, that needs to be solved. The biggest mistake Project Managers make is to assume. Assumptions are like the kiss of death to projects and therefore to the Project Managers. We assume we know what others want / need / like / don’t like, and we don’t take the time to go and ask, and be sure that we understand – because we don’t have the time. The result of this is that later on in the project, once we are half-way through (if we’re lucky) creating the assumed results, we are surprised when the client comes back to us and says “No, that’s not at all what I want / need / asked for”. I thought you knew what I meant.” And we have to start again, or modify, or re-work the work already done. And we wonder why more than half projects end late, over budget and without the desired results!

So, the first rule is to communicate. Build a relationship with the client, make sure that both sides agree on the exact requirements, and how to measure that these requirements have been achieved, and then agree to meet regularly to review what has been achieved, and whether you are still on track. This makes sure that the client stays involved, and gets to see the project progress, and gets to say whether it is progressing in the right direction BEFORE it’s too late. It also means that at the end of the project, when the results are produced, we have clear measurements that we can use to define whether the project has been a success.

The questions that you should ask your client are the usual ones: What? Why? Who? When? Where? How much? These are the same questions that people will ask you throughout the project, so you might as well get the answers right at the beginning, and agree on them with your client up front. Once you have answered these questions with your client, it is time to put the answers into one or two sentences. For example: “In order to have a comfortable and pleasant place to live, my architect will build a 160m2 house by the end of the year in Boston that will not cost more than $ 800’000”. As you can see, this sentence gives us a lot of information. Not enough to be detailed, but enough to get started on. This is our “Scope Statement”. Attached to this statement, we will now define the objectives. The questions to ask there are: “How will I know that the result is a success?” The answer in this case is “the house conforms to the local and country building codes and it conforms to the attached blueprint”. OK – we would go into more detail, but I am sure you get the point.

The Scope Statement and Objectives are then integrated into your Charter document. The Charter is like a contract between the Project Manager and the client or Sponsor, and describes the project in broad terms. The chapter headings of a simple but effective Charter are: Business Case (Why?); Requirements (What?); Objectives; Project Manager name and authority level; Summary Milestone Schedule (When?); Stakeholders and their influences; Assumptions (for example: I assume that I will get the help I need”, “I assume people will not fall sick or go on holiday”); Constraints (for example: “weekends”, “no trees may be cut down”) ; and Summary Budget. The Charter is signed by the Project Manager and the Sponsor / client. You should then attach a DETAILED requirements document written by the client with the help of the Project Manager or team. The Requirements Document should number each requirement individually so that at the end of the project, we can go back to each requirement and tick it off.

If you insist on spending time creating the Scope Statement, Objectives, Charter and Requirements Document, you are in a much better position to manage your project and to ensure that the result is achieved in the right time, with the agreed budget, and with the right result. So now: just do it!

Christine has been managing large, multi-national projects Europe-wide since 1990. She is now based in Switzerland, speaks Danish, English, French, Italian and German fluently, and has been training in these languages since 1999. Her experience as a Project Manager led her to realise the vital importance of using people management skills in Project Management. Christine founded VIRAK (http://www.virak.com) in 2001 in order to be able to train, coach and consult full-time and has since built up an important client base throughout Europe. Christine’s approach to training is to ensure that the course content clearly targets the needs of the participants, that they learn quickly and are ready to apply their new knowledge and self-awareness as soon as they are back in the work environment. She believes that if participants are enjoying themselves, are interacting and are actively participating, then they will be much more likely to achieve this goal.

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