Do you work for a medium sized company that have around 500 employees? Do you wonder why projects never seem to get done? In this blog post, I will outline why medium sized companies struggle to deliver projects based on my experience of working in both medium and large companies.
I will show what I have found causes the problems and why Agile is not the magic pill. After explaining why medium sized companies struggle I will end the post with some tips. The tips are four things medium sized companies should not do and one thing that they should do. By doing this, it will lead to successful delivery of projects. By the end of this article, you should know how to go from very little project delivery to getting stuff done.
The latest tech start-up or that small distribution company around the corner know how to get stuff done. They need to launch a new product or create their first website. Even with limited resources and funds, they get it done.
The large corporation in the city needs to launch a newly updated website, and they get it done. With all the resources they have available it is no surprise that they can do it.
Then there are the medium-sized companies the ones with around 500 employees. They seem to struggle to deliver projects. But why? These companies used to be successful small companies which are why they grew. Then they become medium sized and get stuck. They are no longer able to launch a new product or a revamped website. The simplest tasks seem to take forever and sometimes never get done at all. The reason is often the companies approach the way they do projects. Project management seems to be the cause of why project does not get done.
A quick Google search for the Chaos Report by the Standish Group will give you tons of stats on why projects fail. You will also find the report state that Agile is more successful than Waterfall. But this does not explain why medium sized companies struggle. I have worked in medium sized companies and have seen firsthand the same problems at each of them. I have also delivered successful projects for large companies and can see the difference.
It is no wonder why medium sized companies fail to deliver projects. The successful large corporation has lots of resources working on projects. They have as they have become larger learned to be more efficient. The resources that do work on the project do it as a full-time role. These resources end up becoming very good at what they do so projects get delivered. Please note that not all large companies are the same. Lots do struggle to deliver projects as well as those that do projects very well.
The small company does have a big advantage over the medium sized company. They may only have a few employees but chances are the project they are doing is part of the core company business. These few employees get on with it doing lots of different roles to get the job done. They are not too fussed about paperwork. They are about making sure things get done as quick as possible. The goal is to get it done.
The problem is as the company grows from small to medium it has to become more accountable. There is a need to have more governance and auditors become a regular yearly feature. Now when the company wants to deliver a project it has to decide if the project is worth doing. The project is likely to be something that provides a future benefit. This gives the company a problem as the majority of staff work full time on the day to day running of the business. These staff members do not have time to do projects as well.
So what does the medium sized company do? It looks at successful companies and tries to understand how they do projects. What are they doing that is different? Then they see that successful companies do project management. “That is what we need to do” they cry “We need a project manager.” So they hire a project manager and think that is all they need to do project management.
Hire a Project Manager
With the project manager in the post, it is open season. They are given every project good or bad to deliver. With so many projects it becomes difficult to see the wood through the trees. Which project should they start first?
The project manager falls back onto their training and experience to try and get stuff done. The first step is to schedule a project kick-off meeting, and this is where the problems start. There appears to never be enough meeting rooms. They are all booked often with those annoying reoccurring meeting appointments. Then when they find a meeting room, the people that requested the project are not available. They have meetings and appointments back to back in the calendar. They do not have the time to meet about the project as they have a day job to do. When you think about it, you can see why. Why do they need to give their time when they have hired a project manager to it?
This is the cause of the first problem and a lack of understanding of what a project manager does. The project manager has responsibility for running the project on a day to day basis. The project remains the project of the person who requested/paid for it. For the project to be a success, there needs to be regular engagement from the requester. They need to provide direction and answer questions. By delaying project meetings due to availability, a week or two might have gone by with nothing to show for it. Then after the meeting, they need to give more of their time for requirements capture. If the project manager is lucky, they will have a business analyst. They have the skills to gather requirements to a high standard. If not the project manager will have to do it.
After compiling a mountain of requirements, it is off to find the people who will build the project. This is sometimes the internal IT team or an external supplier who provide services. They do that thing that the mechanic does when you take your car to the garage. The suck in some air and say “That is going to cost you.” Difficult to say how much but the project manager pushes them and gets a figure. Job done they have a quote so on to the next hurdle.
To get the money to pay for the project the next step is to pull together a business case. This nice and thick document takes many weeks to pull together. In the document, there is lots of detail from the requirements and that rather flimsy quote. Off the document goes to the monthly funding approval meeting. Then it comes back as rejected as there is no financial payback for the project. The project manager asks the requester for more benefits and justification. They get a bit more and so submit it again for approval at the following monthly approval meeting. At the meeting again the business case is not good enough which leads to the cancellation of the project. It has become too much hassle, and besides, there is a new much better idea.
As I often see in the sector, I work in the government changes direction and the focus shifts. So work that has taken many months is thrown away. This happens over and over again. The result is the medium sized company delivers hardly any projects. The company has a project management problem. They may have gone through a few project managers, but the problem remains. The medium sized company has got stuck.
What About Agile?
Then someone goes to a conference or reads an article about Agile. They find out that Agile will lead to companies being able to deliver projects.
The golden ticket and the solution to all the company project delivery problems are Agile. But for some reason, the same problems remain. Don’t get me wrong Agile is a great way to deliver projects, but it is not the magic pill. The problem is not the project approach.
One of the reasons the first approach failed was the lack of time spent with the project team by the requester. With Agile it relies on an even closer working relationship with the project team. With Agile there is no need to collect lots of requirements upfront. But there is still need to produce a product backlog. Someone has to do this work. Agile projects still fall victim to the ever-shifting sands of what to focus on. Particularly if the company keeps changing direction due to the external environment.
The medium sized company is still stuck. It has tried waterfall project management and got stuck. It has tried Agile and got stuck. What next?
It looks back at the successful companies to see if they have missed anything. After all, these companies can do projects so why can’t they. Looking at the successful companies, they see that they need full-time project teams. They also need people throughout the company to work with the project team full time.
If the medium sized company can afford it, then they go done this route. As the years pass they get better and better at delivering projects. The ability of the company to deliver projects will lead to it becoming more efficient. This, in turn, helps the company to grow.
But what happens if the medium sized company cannot afford have full-time project teams? There are lots of medium sized companies where there is not enough money to go around. In the sector that I work in, there is not enough money to go around. The government has reduced the rent people pay in housing association properties. This has reduced the amount of money Housing Associations have.
There is Another Way
The key is not to think you have to follow project management as set out in the books. Keep focused on the aim – Get stuff done. If you are struggling, here are my steps to make it easier.
Step 1 – Cut Expectation
You are struggling to deliver any projects so why do you have a list of hundreds of projects. What is the one thing that you must work on? Then bin the rest. Get good at actually doing something rather than nothing. Once you have got good at delivering projects, by all means, have a list of projects. But if you have more than ten on the list ask yourself with the resources you have are going to get these done this year. If the answer is no, then bin them. By next year the world will have moved on, and you will need to do a different set of projects. So bin project number 11 and all the ones that follow. Trust me you will still have more ideas than you could ever deliver next year.
Step 2 – One Bite at a Time
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Don’t do massive projects. You do not have the resources or the energy to do them. There will be something else to focus on before this massive project has got started. Do you want to spend months in meetings writing a massive list of requirements? Remember you want to get stuff done now. Break the projects down to be as small as possible and get them done.
Step 3 – Don’t Worry at the Start
One big problem I see time and time again are project assessment. Every project has to have an assessment to see how much effort it will take and what it would cost. Then we can look at the benefits and work out a priority order. While this is very logical and safe, it goes against the get stuff done approach. You spend months gathering requirements for lots of projects. Then once that is complete the task is to work out how much effort for each project. Instead of doing that you could have spent the time and effort doing a couple of the projects. The result would be something meaningful to show for it. Again you are getting stuff done.
Step 4 – Do the Least
Don’t worry about producing mountains of paperwork and having endless meetings. Do what your company needs. If it is one small document that states this is what we want and why we want it. That is fine. The key is to have the least amount of documentation needed to keep the project moving forwards. Remember the aim to get stuff done. No-one is going to care at the end of the project how many pages the requirements document had. They will care about does the end product work.
Remember the 4 Don’ts, and 1 Do
- Don’t keep a long list of projects
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew
- Don’t worry about comparing projects
- Don’t do loads of unnecessary paperwork
Do get stuff done.
In the next article, I will show how a medium sized company can do this and get stuff done. Have you found that medium sized companies get stuck delivering projects?