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  • Writer's pictureThomas Fourier

How a critical project was brought back on track

A lot depended on the project. The entire board was aware that delaying the product launch by a month would cost more than 5 million. When he compared the various reports and presentations from the responsible parties in the steering committee, he had to expect a deviation from the original plan of at least two months. However, this was not certain, as feedback from the project was slow and only came upon direct inquiry, and was sometimes contradictory. The project manager himself tried to remain optimistic, although he complained about a lack of resources at every opportunity. Nonetheless, he never questioned the final deadline to the board. As the saying goes, hope dies last!

When the board asked each department, they always received only a fragment of the project, never the whole picture. The information, and especially the information gaps, worried him. And there were only nine months left!

In this uncertain situation, Humanagement was brought in to check the actual status of the project and provide suggestions for securing the deadline.

In the initial meeting with the project manager, our main goal was to ensure good collaboration with him. Of course, the project manager knew the indispensability of his expertise for the project. However, he quietly feared that the involvement of external consultants might undermine his position or even reveal his mistakes.

On the other hand, the pressure on him had significantly increased. There were some reshuffles in his team, motivation was at rock bottom, and some unresolved issues with cooperation partners needed to be dealt with. These were the really "important" issues. However, in recent days, he had mainly been occupied with "urgent" matters: the status presentation for the board, updating project budget information for controlling, responding to the constantly changing demands of the marketing department, and not least the conflict with the lab manager to finally give the project the necessary priority.

Humanagement's offer to get the project back on track together with him and take a lot of work off his plate seemed to have positive aspects after our initial discussions and closer consideration. He agreed.

Now the actual work could begin. The starting point for our concrete entry into the project was the existing project plan, which had become outdated in many places but still provided good starting points. After an initial review, the Humanagement team, together with the individual project members, compared the existing planning documents with the actual project reality and gradually revised the plan.

This was done mainly through sequential interviews, where we looked impartially at what needed to be done to ensure the overall goal was achieved on time. These conversations with individuals or small groups lasted no longer than 30 minutes. The approach outlined was then incorporated into the project plan by a Humanagement colleague, which was further refined in a follow-up meeting shortly thereafter.

There were already some surprises for the participants. It became clear that a number of important sub-tasks could be completed with effort but without additional resources and special support from outside the project organization. In most cases, it was merely necessary to bring various partners to the table, clear up misunderstandings, or eliminate misinformation. And we at Humanagement supported this. We clarified matters, mediated, and followed up on open issues with determination, including the unpleasant ones.

However, some obstacles became apparent that the project participants could not solve on their own. In some cases, resources were lacking within the project, but more often, the project was inadequately supported by the overall organization. Deliverables were promised but not provided on time or at all. All these points were clearly identified.

In the end, there was a master project plan that realistically showed what was needed and what could be achieved, and where the specific and actual bottlenecks for project realization lay. This comprehensive plan was also a solid basis for the realistic cost estimation for the remaining project duration, which controlling had repeatedly demanded with emphasis.

The master project plan, created by a neutral party and detailed, was not only the basis for the next steps but also provided the board with clarity and certainty about the actual status of the project. Thus, they could support the project's course, and the project manager had the necessary backing from the company's management.

With the creation of planning transparency, the situation was, of course, far from relaxed. In some areas, the extent and drama of the situation became even clearer, such as with some required cooperation services and approval procedures. Therefore, it was urgently necessary to develop an escalation procedure for the further work, which had to fulfill three tasks:

First, it had to quickly and continuously—almost in real-time—provide an unsparing and reliable clarification of delays and their impact on project success.

Second, it had to support project members, departments, and the project manager in quickly developing alternative solutions when problems and bottlenecks arose.

Third, it was to obligate the remaining organizational units of the company to responsibly support the project and, if necessary, to set aside their own agendas and priorities.

To this end, we established a special project monitoring system together with the project manager. The starting point was regular status consultations, which our Humanagement team held weekly with the work package managers. Based on the realistic master project plan, the work progress was recorded in each 30-minute session, and with a four-week forecast, we identified where delays existed or threatened, what the reasons were, and where we needed to start to eliminate them.

Delays that the work package manager could not make up on their own were addressed as so-called Major Delays to the responsible parties within the company. These included, for example, missing contributions from a department or delays in pending decisions, such as the procurement of important tools and services.

In this way, the Major Delays targeted and reliably worked out the bottlenecks in the project and could be addressed in a focused manner. Major Delays were usually addressed to responsible management personnel within the company, who were promptly obligated to develop mitigations, i.e., specific measures to reduce delays and thus the risk to the overall project.

The formal escalation of delays and project bottlenecks continued to be handled by the project manager, who relied heavily on our support. We prepared the escalation of Major Delays by clarifying them with the parties involved and drafting decision templates for management. We also consistently followed up on the mitigations. This way, the bottlenecks in the project were promptly resolved. The specialists could focus on the technical challenges.

And there was another side effect of immense importance to the project: Our involvement led to increased communication among the project participants and motivated them to work on problem-solving. We repeatedly pushed for solutions, pointed out ways, brought the right people together, and created constellations that enabled objective, open communication, not only in status consultations but anytime and anywhere within the company. For example, the constantly changing requirements of marketing regarding product and packaging design, as well as expected sales volumes, were quickly clarified within the project. Both were important to complete the development and finalize the systems and processes. The close integration of marketing into the project, moderated by us, was crucial in establishing a common understanding and resolving issues.

Humanagement's involvement gave the project manager and all participants a significant advantage in this context: We were solely committed to the cause, even when it became uncomfortable. And last but not least, the fact that Humanagement was commissioned by the board provided the overall project with the necessary backing from management.

In this case, we accompanied the project for the full nine months until its timely completion. As the project approached the finish line, we were able to significantly reduce our involvement. Everyone was on board, the escalation paths through monitoring were tested and functioning. And most importantly, the motivation of the entire project team had increased.

Make your project a success too!


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