Investing the capital of a business to achieve the returns is crucially important. Usually only the largest, most complex and expensive programs and projects reach the Board level for oversight. Consequently, these are also often the highest risk and thus the most likely to fail on one or more dimensions.
In order to keep track of major project investments, to be confident that the capital is being invested well and to deliver the returns from that investment, there are a few essentials every Board member should know as a minimum. This primer gives a short quick summary of topics; while the items on this list may seem simple, they can create are plenty of elephant traps for the unsuspecting.
The list is divided into the three crucial stages in the project investment /capital lifecycle:
- Before you start – what are some of the overarching parameters that set the groundwork for successful investment?
- Pre-Business Case stage – how do you define a project investment that will deliver value?
- Post-Business Case stage – how do you deliver and preserve the value?
Note: In this primer, we use the word “project” interchangeably with the word “program” (comprising multiple projects).
1 Before you start
The Board must establish these important parameters up front in order to set the groundwork for successful project investments
|What the Board should know||Commentary||What to watch out for|
|What will ‘success’ look like at the strategic level?||Desired Strategic Outcomes should define how the organization will look in future – the new business-as-usual – when the strategy has been realized and the organization is working ‘just right’.Each future state/outcome needs to be defined in clear, specific, measurable terms that allow its realization to be assessed by a true/false question – “Can we or can’t we?/ Do we or don’t we?”For a major strategy/ business initiative there may be 60 or more outcome statements.||Few strategies ever clearly define their desired strategic outcomes in specific, measurable terms – so this definition of success is not common practice – but it should be.Most strategies start with definitions that are too vague or unclear, which means it is then hard to ensure that all staff at all levels are on the same page and working to the same end point.Lack of clarity at the start is themost certain predictor of failure.|
|What is your organization’s risk appetite?||This defines the level of risk you are willing to take.With risk comes reward; therefore too low a risk appetite can restrict the availability of the returns and value. Too high a risk appetite may endanger the organization.Breakthrough strategies will require a higher risk appetite.||You need to have strategies to deal with risk.Contrary to popular assumptions, practical experience has shown that a simple reliance on importing ‘brand-name’ consultancies is not a guaranteed strategy to lower risk.Instead, you must ensure that your organization learns to systematically assess, mitigate and manage risk itself.|
|What is your organization’s Value Delivery Capability level?||Your organizational level of Value Delivery Capability will determine your results. This level can be measured and used to predict – even before you even start the project – what the investment return will be.If you take on projects or programs that are beyond your capability to successfully deliver, they WILL fail to some degree or another.You therefore need to know your organization’s capability level, how it matches to the project investments that you are undertaking and that it is sufficient for you to successfully deliver your strategy and projects.||If your capability level is insufficient for what you are trying to deliver, and you do not plan an uplift program to improve it, your likelihood of the achieving the targeted investment value is low.|
2 Pre-Business Case stage
The Board must ensure these elements are in place so that project investments are defined from the outset to deliver value.
|What the Board should know||Commentary||What to watch out for|
|What are the desired business outcomes for the project – and how do these align with your organization’s strategy?||Success must be defined in terms of the clear, specific, measurable business future states (outcomes) to be achieved.You want a precise definition of what the business-as-usual will look like when everything is working ‘just right’ –that is what the desired business outcomes describe.||Success SHOULD NOT be defined in terms of a list of deliverables or a description of what the project is going to ‘do’. These are the wrong focus – a project focus rather than a business focus, e.g. while the project may be delivering a “brick making factory”, true success is when the business has a working operational asset that is generating sales and revenue i.e. the “factory making bricks”.|
|What is the value to be delivered by the project – and does this align with the strategic plan’s targeted future results?||The project’s value should be defined in specific measurable terms:
The program’s value must be clear and clearly deliverable by the program and planned to be progressively delivered.
No stage of the program should exceed six months, otherwise too much can change in the business environment.
|The planned value must align with your overall targets. If you plan to grow your business by 10% in the period but the program cannot deliver that, something has to change – either the targets or the planned program.You should be seeing real value delivered in each and every six month time block. Waiting for a program to “finish” in 3 years hence, without banking any benefits in the interim, is as unnecessary as it is risky.|
|Who is accountable for delivery – and do they have the wherewithal to successfully deliver the project?||Who is the executive accepting the accountability for this investment and what will happen if it fails?If the program is important enough, this person should be allocated full-time to oversee the program and be seen to be fully accountable for the program’s status and results.||Failure should be defined accurately, that is, as not being totally successful rather than the accountable executive gaining a tick for just “getting the program over the finish line”.There needs to be a clear personal downside if the program is not successful (as defined above).If there is no known downside to the overall accountability role, then accountability has no meaning or relevance.|
|What is the level of delivery competency – the skills of the people on the team – and does it align with the size, scale and complexity of the project?||Is the governance team trained in their role? Do they know how to govern effectively? If not, the program is at risk.Is the program leadership team competent with a proven record with this size, scale and complexity of program?If any are external to the organization (eg contractors) what commitments do they have to see the job through||Don’t assume that reputation is enough; each such person needs to be individually assessed. Just because a person has been employed by a reputable ‘brand-name’ is no measure of their individual competency or suitability for the role.|
|How does your delivery capability – the overarching organizational abilities – align with the size, scale and capability demands of the program?||Every organization has a measurable level of organizational capability to deliver programs.The capability level required by a project can be assessed. For example, a higher capability level will be required if the project impacts the external market or customer services. Once you know what capability level is required for the project, you can then plan what has to be done to fill any capability gap.||Organizational capability cannot be outsourced; even if using consultants, the organizational capability limitations still apply.If you lack requisite organizational capability, you are better off not starting the program and leaving the money in the bank.|
|What are the business requirements – defined as end-to-end processes?||Your organization works through processes.Your business requirements therefore need to be defined in detailed step-by-step process terms which cover the footprint of all the processes – not just those directly affected by the system.||Orthodox approaches to requirements specification which define them in terms of functions and features or via adopt a software package’s solution ‘out of the box’ can severely reduce a program’s investment value and returns because they do not enable the operational processes.|
|Has the business case been thoroughly assessed and validated?||Ensure the business case is rigorously validated by an independent party to ensure each aspect of the program is fully justified and optimized.You should clearly understand – which benefits contribute the most to the value; is it possible to generate 90% of the benefits for only 60% of the costs; which benefits contribute most to the time and cost for the project and the least to the value?||This validation needs to be done by a party with no vested interest in either the program or other consulting work within the organization – i.e. they can afford to upset any potential vested interests if that is what is needed to get the best result for the organization.|
3. Post-Business Case
The Board should be tracking these items to preserve and deliver the value
|What the Board should know||Commentary||What to watch out for|
|Are the Risks are being managed effectively – at the program, program and portfolio levels?||While risk management is a core element of program management, with high-risk programs it is wise to have an independent party validate the risk profile of the program on a bi-monthly basis to ensure all risks and issues are being identified and adequately dealt with.The Risk Committee’s reports should be submitted to the Board.||The Risk Committee needs to be chaired by an independent party with no vested interest in the program or similar work.|
|Is the level of organizational commitment and support adequate?||The provision of the agreed resources (people and funds) on time and for the duration required must be tracked and reported.If the organization is not enabling the program its likelihood of success rapidly declines.||Lack of commitment can be seen in the provision of the ‘B’ team resources or the hijacking back into operations of ‘allocated staff’, for example.|
|Is the project tracking – in alignment to the agreed schedule when measured against 100% completion?||95% complete is 100% incomplete.The only true measure of progress is the verified delivery of 100% complete outputs to the agreed schedule.Each month a series of measurable outputs should be due. Whether or not they have been 100% delivered is the true measure of progress. If they have not been delivered, the program is running late. Simple.
NB This approach to progress reporting includes delivery of the benefits throughout the program’s duration and after.
|Percentage complete reporting is potentially misleading as it allows problems and lateness to be hidden. Only 100% complete is meaningful.Occasionally, whether the 100% is actually 100% needs to be independently verified.NB any time delay/lateness is a reduction in the business value of the program.|
|What is the current value – net of the costs of delivery?||During the project, the value of the benefits can legitimately change during the program due to factors outside the control of the program. These changes to the program’s value need to be tracked and reported.Increases in delivery costs are reductions in the net value to be delivered. At all times you should be assured that the program still viable.||Each quarter the governance team should formally confirm that the program is still
|What is the program’s investment health – are all of the components of the program cumulatively delivering the desired outcomes?||Is the program going to deliver the planned desired business outcomes, benefits and value?Analysis of the root causes is essential to avoid any remedial action addressing only symptoms.Note: a project may be well run from the delivery perspective but still – due to changing circumstances in the business environment, become non-viable from the investment perspective.||Compliance (audit) assurance aka “tick the boxes” health checks are of little value as compliance to standards and controls is no guarantee of success.Any health check/diagnostic should confirm – will the project deliver the intended investment value and what (if anything) must be remediated in order for it to do so.|
|What is the status of the leading indicators of failure – is the program heading off the rails?||In addition to formal reporting, you should track the leading indicators of failure such as:
|Programs go off course 1° at a time and become late 1 day at a time. Formal reporting will not pick this up until the divergence is so great the project may already be at risk.|
|The program’s delivery health – what’s happening on the ground?||Occasionally visit (unannounced) the program team and the business areas to be impacted — what is the level of enthusiasm, morale, energy? Do they have any concerns? Does what you are sensing match the formal reporting?||Not even the Board should govern by remote control only. You should walk the territory to see with your own eyes what is happening on the ground.|
The Board should ensure that the overarching fundamentals are in place. Many of the items on this list are not covered by orthodox project/program management approaches since they cover the business aspects of the project and thus can only be determined by the accountable business executives.
In fact, in many organizations, it is these business aspects which are most likely to be deficient or missing and which then contribute to the failure of the project to deliver the business returns intended.
As a Board member, you may find, when you first start to track your investment projects and ask for the answers to these questions that you get inadequate answers or no answers at all. Only persistence will ensure that you uplift your organization’s capability to make high quality answers the standard for every project .
The payoff is substantial: sustained success in delivering the value from your project investments will define the growth trajectory (and survival) of your organization over the longer term.
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