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Reduce the risk of project failure and increase your legal project management capability

Where and how to deploy resources for maximum benefit is a constant challenge for all organisations, including law firms.  How can law firms increase the likelihood of securing a return on the time, cost and effort spent on projects?  More particularly, how can they increase their confidence that time spent establishing or improving legal project management capability will generate business benefits for them and their clients?

Think in terms of ‘projects’

Leaving aside servicing ‘business as usual’, at any one time there will be numerous projects going on in most law firms.   Sometimes these projects are not even recognised as such.  They may be referred to as doing ‘IT upgrades’, ‘business improvement initiatives’ or simply ‘another round of marketing’.

The fact is that any commercial endeavour can be classified, and therefore managed, as ‘a project’.  Blithely ‘doing stuff’ which ties up resources without putting some project control around it is a recipe for disaster.

So the first thing to do is to recognise that a related collection of tasks and activities is ‘a project’.  Put someone in charge of the project and make them accountable for deliverables.

Recognise that project management alone is not enough

However collecting and ordering tasks together as  ‘a project’ and putting some management control around it cannot guarantee successful outcomes.  Even when organisations are enlightened enough to create ‘projects’ and apply some form of project management to them, projects can fail to deliver their hoped-for benefits.

What makes this situation rather depressing for many project managers is that the main causes of project failure are well known, as are the key things to do to avoid project failure.

Understand the main reasons for project failure

There have been a number of studies which have investigated project failure and listed the most common reasons why projects fail.  The list provided by the UK’s Office of Government Commerce (OGC) is well known and cited often with approval (note: the OGC does not exist as a separate entity any more, but that does not in invalidate its work re project failure).  According to the OGC, project’s fail because of:

1. Lack of clear links between the project and the organisation’s key strategic priorities, including agreed measures of success.

2. Lack of clear senior management [and Ministerial] ownership and leadership.

3. Lack of effective engagement with stakeholders.

4. Lack of skills and proven approach to project management and risk management.

5. Too little attention to breaking development and implementation into manageable steps.

6. Evaluation of proposals driven by initial price rather than long-term value for money (especially securing delivery of business benefits).

7. Lack of understanding of, and contact with, the supply industry at senior levels in the organisation.

8. Lack of effective project team integration between clients, the supplier team and the supply chain.

This list comes with the caveat as being ‘aimed at those managing or otherwise involved in the delivery of projects across Government.’  It looks a pretty comprehensive list to me and, I’d argue, one that is also relevant to commercial organisations.

Avoid Pet Project Syndrome

Most disconcerting, and probably most common, is item one above: the failure to tie projects to an organisation’s strategic priorities and determine measures of project success.

Commercial organisations of all kinds create and run projects for all sorts of reasons.  Sometimes projects have only tenuous connection with the bottom line.  Pet ideas of senior people or creating something because the technological capability to do so exists (regardless whether there is a real market need for the thing created) seem to be very common ‘reasons’ for initiating projects.

Moreover I’d suggest that given the culture found in most law firms, where the views of senior partners have incredible persuasive force, the percentage of ‘pet projects’ is probably higher than elsewhere.

Develop Organisational Project Delivery Capability (PDC)

I have written previously about developing organisational Project Delivery Capability (PDC).  PDC is a model which helps people understand, and improve, the effectiveness of an organisation’s project delivery.  The idea behind the model is quite straightforward: only those projects which are most aligned to organisational priorities should be funded for development; once in flight they should then be managed in such a way that real business benefits are delivered.

This sounds really obvious and easy to do.  In reality of course it is not quite so straightforward.  In the real world stuff happens which gets in the way of progress, especially where progress cannot be experienced nor evaluated in the short-term.

It seems most of the problems surrounding effective project delivery (by which I mean the delivery of true business benefits) start right at the beginning, ie aligning projects to strategic aims.  Successful alignment happens far less than it should.  Perhaps part of the problem is that some organisations do not have a clear business strategy and of those that do the strategic aims are not widely understood.

How to improve organisational PDC

‘All’ an organisation needs to do is:

  1. Devise a strategy (few organisations will admit to not having one)
  2. Promote and publicise it throughout the organisation
  3. Select and fund projects which are most clearly aligned to the strategy
  4. Take steps to manage the projects effectively, with the emphasis on delivering real business benefits.

Sounds easy, but this is often difficult to implement in practice for a whole host of reasons, far too many to discuss here.  So what to do?

Begin (and continue) with the end in mind

As you will probably recognise, the sub-heading above has been adapted from Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, where the second habit is ‘begin with the end in mind’.

This is good advice, especially in the present context.  What organisations, and people within them, need to do is continually bear in mind strategic objectives and ask whether they, and the projects they are working on, further those objectives.  If not, why are they working on these projects?

How to improve Legal Project Management Capability

I cannot imagine a law firm which has a strategy which does not place clients, and the best means servicing them, at its core.  Legal Project Management is all about improving legal service delivery.  Hence, shouldn’t scarce project resources be deployed to improve legal project management capability?

The irony of course is that implementing, or improving, legal project management capability also requires project management skills.  For many firms I suspect this is something of a catch-22.  They do not have sufficient (or enough) project management skills available to help improve the legal project management skills of their lawyers and associated professionals.

The answer of course is to bring those skills in from the outside, to acquire legal project management training, coaching, implementation and consultancy advice.  If you need any of this, you know where you can find me!

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