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Converging over Coffee... The Business of Projects

March 2022

Projects are everywhere we work. Projects are how we have always delivered infrastructure enhancements, new technologies, and implemented change. And projects will be how we will be building the sustainable & resilient economy of tomorrow.

Although sometimes we do things as a project and think of it as nothing more than a process, we should actually think of Projects like a Business in itself. After all, it is a key activity within the value chain, with its own tools, practices & solutions that deliver very real & tangible outcomes for customers.

This edition of Converging over Coffee takes a closer look at how getting projects right helps us accomplish the outcomes that matter to us. We examine the How, the Why and most importantly, the Who that are critical elements to creating successful projects.

Where Things Get Done

Whether we are delivering an infrastructure project, developing a bespoke solution or product, or maybe creating change within a team or organization… the work involved tends to shape itself into a project. And with the more complex problems of today, getting the job done demands ever more collaboration & teaming. There are few things that really can be done without the formation of projects.

Projects tend to be driven by a clear end-goal, either with detailed definition or something more aspirational. There would need to be a coordinated series of actions required to get from the current state to the desired end-goal, which is often held together by a plan laid out in the early stages. There are a few more of these basic building blocks if we use some of the formal frameworks. But generally easy to recognize.

There is a useful set of lens that I like to use when delivering or evaluating a project. It takes a step back and attempts to understand projects by looking at 3 essential components. They are (1) the internal front, (2) the external front and (3) the people who are driving and navigating them both.

Think about a truly successful project you've been involved in. Chances are, it would've delivered reasonably well on all 3 fronts. A troubled project on the other hand might have over-indexed on 1 or 2 fronts, or suffered a gap on 1 front that the team did not manage to recover.

Projects have become our universal tool for getting important work done - especially the grand & the complex - and for creating change. Getting these projects right will bring greater returns today than ever before.

The How Rules

To what extent does the “How” - implementation, delivery, execution - determine project success?

When we talk Projects, the conversations are often dominated by challenges and innovations in the processes for execution. Conversations about Products on the other hand revolves around the outcome, function & customer/user. Execution & processes results from an internal focus, while function & end-user is more externally oriented.

The traditional projects approach worked well because it assumes the outcomes are well defined. Much attention goes into elaborate, technology driven platforms, systems & tools to increase execution efficiency. It’s particularly vulnerable when the outcomes are poorly defined and subjected to multiple demands that morph during execution. That’s why these are the biggest headaches for most projects.

Today’s product or solution development projects are driven by one of several incarnations of design thinking or agile processes that places a lot of attention on problem and solution definition, which are treated as an evolving goal. Execution challenges tend to get less attention in comparison and are trickier to get right.

The reality? We desperately need to bring these worlds together.

The Why Matters

In the earlier days, I recall one partner negotiation that I attended with a senior manager. I felt strongly about the position that we should take and have done the work to make sure it’s fair to us. But during the meeting, the senior manager listened to the partner and instead of holding our ground, gave up some ground & concluded the agreement. I recall being upset because I felt he didn’t back me up and the whole thing made me look bad.

My younger self just didn’t understand Why. Did my senior manager not care about protecting our position? Was he not bothered that our internal numbers showed we’re supposed to get more than what he agreed to?

Time and perspective helped give me a different look at that story today. He did know our position and our numbers. But he also appreciated the value our partner brought. He appreciated the uniqueness of the project. And he appreciated its importance to our client and their stakeholders on different levels. It wasn’t a zero sum game, it wasn’t about personalities and most definitely not simply about protecting his position or mine.

While it’s important to have strong internal processes, the real work of Projects is done in the external space. There we must contribute to the progress of partners, clients, stakeholders… and the wider community of end-users. That’s the true Why for any infrastructure or technology project.

The Who is Key

People. This final piece of the Projects success puzzle might not be too surprising. What is surprising is how little time & energy gets invested to elevate it, considering how critical it is.

Even with the most robust internal processes, it still takes people to make them work as intended. Processes have a knack of developing a life of their own. While they are meant to create more certainty in outcomes, over time they can muddle the original intent and take agency out of the hands of people doing the actual work. How people interprets and aligns internal processes to deliver client outcomes is absolutely key.

Even with a clear commitment to client & stakeholder service, it still takes people to really understand how the desired outcomes are influenced by a messy external environment. The pathways to project and personal success are seldom direct or hinderance-free. Some will need a series of tiny progressive steps that don’t seem to lead anywhere. Others will require building coalitions that involves giving up some ground. And almost all of them will demand a degree of ingenuity if the goal is to delight.

Our careers are built from Projects. We have the opportunity to design an ensemble of project experiences that can build the finesse needed to advance the internal front together with the external front, and the macro view needed for leadership when advancing complex infrastructure, technologies & change.

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