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Set-up properly for project success

How can you improve the chances of a project delivering recognisable benefits within a defined timescale?  One answer is to make sure the project is set-up properly at the outset.

The following steps are indicative of good project set-up.  Most of these may appear rather obvious but you’d be surprised at how often they are not done properly, or at all.


1.   Identify someone responsible for delivering the project successfully

In extreme cases senior management may believe that someone is responsible for project delivery but, unfortunately, that belief is not shared by the person concerned. More realistically perhaps, a person who has been identified as being responsible for delivery may not prioritise the delivery work as highly as they should.

With law firms under constant pressure to meet the ‘more for less’ challenge, various business improvement initiatives may well run alongside the business as usual work. Complex and fast moving environments can become even more so while business improvement initiatives are running (which you might say is a cruel irony).

Senior management may not appreciate that ‘initiatives’ should really be considered ‘projects’ with some fundamental project controls in place. The most fundamental of all is to appoint a project manager and make it clear what is expected of them in terms of project outcomes.

The project manager need not necessarily be a full-time project management  professional, although this would be best.  An acting project manager could be someone who continues to work on other business as usual activities, provided of course that those activities are reduced to allow for additional project management responsibilities.  It follows too that the acting project manager needs to have at some project management skills and properly prioritises project responsibilities.


2.   Express project objectives and success criteria clearly and succinctly

It’s successful delivery you are after, so this must be made plain. Managing processes and activities is all very well, but the appointed project manager (and others) needs to know what outcomes will be deemed successful ones.

For example, what does ‘successfully implementing a new legal workflow system’ mean?  Does this mean successful technical (IT) implementation?  Or does it mean that fee earners must become more productive using the system?  If the latter, how will you know improved productivity when you see it – what productivity KPI’s will you be using to measure success?  How long are you going to measure productivity before declaring the project a success or not?

One of the most common sources project failure is that projects are not properly aligned to organisational needs and objectives. So time spent carefully considering and communicating project objectives is time well spent.


3.   Let the project manager conduct a project feasibility exercise or a project review

It is only fair, if someone has been given specific responsibility to deliver, that they be given an opportunity to assess project feasibility.

Essentially a project feasibility report will state objectives to be met (see above), consider the best options for achieving them and recommend the option most likely to result in successful outcomes.

If project work has already started but the project manager is newly appointed, the first thing they should do is conduct a project review to assess continued project feasibility, bearing in mind the constraints of time, resources and budget.


4.   Take the project review / project initiation seriously

As a result of the project review the project manager may able to identify, and substantiate, reasons why the delivery objectives are in jeopardy.  They should of course also propose alternative means of trying to achieve them (or at least some of them – see below).

The project manager should listened to and their advice taken seriously.  Sadly, this is not always the case.  JDI projects – ‘Just Do It’ projects – are by no means confined to law firms.  Senior management may justify JDI projects with reference to, say, the ‘bigger commercial picture’ that the lowly project manager cannot see. It follows that the project manager should ‘just deliver’ and ‘do what it takes’ to deliver according to the original timetable.

Unfortunately, things rarely work out well with JDI projects.  A strange thing about JDI projects is that the fixation on delivering all original objectives on time remains (in fact the resolve to deliver often hardens when objectives are under threat) but very little flexibility is shown regarding project scope, resources or delivery dates.

It takes only a little enlightenment to listen and fully engage with staff. If this is not done then the project manager will soon conclude, not unreasonably, that he / she is being set-up to fail.


5.   Be prepared to amend project scope

Let’s assume the outcome of the project feasibility or review casts serious doubt on whether  the original objectives will be achieved, and benefits delivered, by the stated target date.  What are your the options now?

Reducing project scope is the most obvious option.  Providing the de-scoping is done wisely, there is no need to feel short-changed.  Delivering something within a reasonable time and of tangible value, which can be enhanced later, is better than plodding on with an unwieldy project which is unlikely to deliver anything of value reasonably soon.  .

Usually, reducing project scope is more effective than throwing further resources at the project.  There are lots of reasons for this, perhaps the most pertinent being that increasing the number of people on the project will usually increase management overhead and this factor alone may actually add to the time needed for successful delivery.  Furthermore, applying additional resources will also require additional cost – how much cost can the project incur and still be considered a successful one?



Some people dislike project management precisely because there is a significant amount of upfront planning work required early in the project lifecycle.  By the way, this is also true for projects managed using Agile methods.  Being Agile does not mean you can get away without any project planning.  It just means that Agile methods require a different kind of project planning.

The allure of JDI projects is obvious but a truth well known to professional project managers is that time spent on early planning significantly improves the likelihood of project success.  Good planning begins by assessing project objectives and ensuring they are realistic and achievable bearing in mind the resources, cost and time available.

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