Projects can be likened to trains. If you want to be going northeast but set off on rails leading northwest, you can’t easily just turn right and correct your course. You often have to go back to the start and realign your project.

(This explains why a problem project is always a problem project regardless of how many ‘rescue’ attempts are made.)

When I do health checks and find projects in trouble the root causes can often be tracked back to the early stages of the project. How it was set up, how it was categorized (eg as an “IT project”) and how it was pursued.

Mistakes made at this early initiation, set up, commencement stage will come to haunt a project in later times. And, there is often no remedy later other than (almost) starting again.

In our video “Understanding how projects are condemned to completion” (Understanding how projects are condemned to completion” will be available on valuedeliverymanagement.com by May 10th, 2008) we take you through a real 30 month project so you can see how it started off on the wrong foot and then made one decision after another that progressively destroyed more and more value with the full involvement and support of the project leadership and governance teams. Had different decisions been made at the start of this project, a very different result would have been delivered.

Project set up and initiation is a critical part of value delivery management. Yet it is too often seen as just organizing the resources, building a business case and generally getting the project up and running.

But, at this time, fundamental assumptions and decisions are being made that will colour the whole project. You are, in effect, deciding the ‘rails’ your project will run on. And, while in the very early days you can move across from one set of rails to another, once the project gets momentum your options as to how the project goes, where and what it can deliver are increasingly limited.

The greatest danger at project set up is the desire for visible action — producing a plan, a business case, a technical specification, or whatever. (Project managers can be great deliverers, ever keen to deliver something. In a recent discussion to identify what exactly a division wanted to achieve with a new initiative, 10 minutes into the discussion the project manager was listing ‘deliverables’ and ‘actions’ long before we’d decided where we were trying to go!)

Those in charge of project set up should think of a building project. If you buy a block of land and then start designing your house, you’ll come back to that block of land in three months and nothing will have happened on the site. Meanwhile, the house is designed, costed and submitted for council approval; the materials and building staff have been organized and any unexpected problems with the job have been discovered and dealt with. Now, you’re ready to go. Now, you’ve defined clearly what ‘set of rails’ you want to be on.

So, before you rush into your project, take the time to define your business requirements, design your solution and identify all of the possible options, approaches and risks. Then select which ‘set of rails’ will deliver you the best results. (The Governance Guide “How to govern your project’s set up” will be available from www.valuedeliverymanagement.com by May 2nd.)

Don’t be railroaded down the wrong tracks from the start.

Post your comments on our blog at valuedeliverymanagement.com

Topics: Strategy Execution, Value Delivery, Business Case, Project Governance

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Apr 2008) as "Railroaded"

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