Effective project implementation delivers results. Delivery to specification delivers an output. The business wants results. Here's the differences

Delivery to specification and effective implementation are not the same thing.

It is often believed that if a project delivers ‘to specification’ it can be deemed successful. However, from a business perspective this is totally insufficient. Whatever is delivered ‘to specification’ has to also be effectively implemented to be useful.

Delivery v implementation

Imagine developing a car and producing all 2000 parts ‘to specification’. To the owner, having 2000 parts is not of much use; it is only when they are assembled and tuned that they have a car they can drive. However, from those 2000 parts, there can be several ways they can be assembled and tuned that will make or break their usefulness and effectiveness.

The BMW 760 and Rolls Royce Ghost are largely assembled from the same parts – but are seen as two very different cars. Some of the differences are branding, and motifs—aspects that don't affect the performance, only the perception.

Imagine that you want a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a large family room and patio in a certain geographic location. On any weekend there may be 10 houses for sale that fit this specification in the chosen area. However, on inspection you may not want to live in any of them. They are the wrong design, wrong ambience, wrong street, wrong price
and so on. These are the implementation factors that determine if you want the house that is ‘to specification’.

Effective implementation translates the focus from what is delivered to how it is delivered.

Not change management

And, no, effective implementation is not just a euphemism for ‘change management’. The way change management is currently practiced it is at best a subset of effective implementation.

When talking to the developer of a major high-rise apartment block, he was quite clear at the outset what he wanted, his desired ambience, the price point he was aiming for, the quality of finish he needed, the facilities that would be expected at that price, and so on. He started from day-1 with a clear idea of how he wanted his high-rise to be implemented. This then drove the specification and the builder. He was not engaged in ‘change management’.

Different measures of success

Delivering ‘to specification’ will see ‘success’ as

The system is installed, working to its functional specification, the staff knows how to use it and the systems maintenance group knows how to maintain it.

‘Effective implementation’ will see ‘success’ as

The system is installed, working to its functional specification, the staff knows how to use it, the systems maintenance group knows how to maintain it, it is integrated into the end-to-end business process—it is working effectively in situ and producing the desired results.

Notice these two definitions of success have moved from ‘it works’ to ‘it is producing the results'.

The impacts of ‘delivering’ versus ‘implementing’

When projects are not effectively implemented the results can be disastrous.

Take a B2B project where the regulator had specified how the B2B transactions needed to be managed. The specification was excellent, very precise and very clear. So good that it lulled the project team into thinking that this specification was complete and handled all of the issues involved. It was not complete. While precise in the actual transaction areas, it failed to address the end-to-end process issues.

When this project was implemented the transactions worked exactly as specified. However, the non-transaction workload went up, the staff numbers went up (when they were planned to go down) and the staff members were put under immense pressure and many quit.

The manager of the business area involved commented that, “They did not take into consideration the end-to-end process, they just focused on the system aspects.” This is an illustration of delivering ‘to specification’ while implementing ineffectively.

How you want to implement needs to be defined upfront in order to drive the specification. When designing the B2B system’s solution, how the end-to-end process would work should have been part of the initial design.

Start with the end results defined

You can solve this by defining in clear, specific and measurable terms the desired business outcomes to be achieved. These highly descriptive but specific definitions of exactly what the future state will be in the business after the end of the project when everything is working just right then need to become the focal point for every aspect of the project. These outcomes were captured in the developer’s clear idea of exactly what he wanted from his high-rise building.

Then you identify all of the changes required to move the organization from its current state to this future state. Most of these changes will be executed by the project team, with the rest executed by the business. But now all of the changes, including to the non-system processes and other factors that were deemed irrelevant by the B2B project team, will be identified and executed.

This is how you shift from ‘delivering to specification’ to ‘effective implementation’ and reap the desired rewards. If you don’t plan to implement effectively you might as well not start.

The respective roles of ‘to specification’ and ‘effective implementation’ are described in our book, “Why your measures of success are destroying your projects”.

Topics: Project Success

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Apr 2016) as "Delivering 'To Specification' v 'Implementation'"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections