What is a project and how to master the Art of Execution

What is a project: the fundamentals

Challenging projects are excellent catalysts of personal and professional growth. Exposure to stress and the never-ending quest for innovative solutions under the constraints of time make the creativity and the quality of everyone involved emerge and increase. Just like muscles take shape when properly strained, so people improve under appropriate training.

Leaving aside other important factors (management, division of roles, etc.), any particular project will have the following key components:

  • Objective(s): : which has/have to be S.M.A.R.T.
  • Activities: the elements making up the project from start to finish.
  • Resources people, materials, information, technology
  • Temporal and financial constraints, which have to be consistent with the project’s complexity.

These core components are timeless; they can even be found in Aristotle:

First, have a definite, clear practical ideal, a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.

The activities may be collected in different phases of the project. In IT (but not only), you have usually the following phases:

  1. Planning
  2. Analysis and Design
  3. Execution
  4. Go-Live
  5. Monitoring after Go-Live

The definition of the objectives itself (the project’s mission and raison d'être) is a fundamental activity concretised in the Planning phase. No project is destined to happen without having a clear objective, a to-do list and appropriate resources, that is, people with a can-do, proactive, ambitious attitude. Every one of the above components is critical and requires due attention. Every phase is important and full of snares which must be disposed of by competent and experienced people. Working on projects on a daily basis makes you realise clearly all the rough edges in the execution of action plans.

I write this down to grasp my thoughts, because all too often you lose them in bits and pieces, like fish caught with hands.

Mastering the Execution phase: critical factors

How important is the Execution? In this paragraph I’ll stress the third phase, which is usually where the greatest number of activities and prepared resources concentrates. Execution can be defined as the phase in which activities are completed according to times and methods established beforehand.

Once the objectives and the plan of action have been defined, there are essentially two factors which can either compromise or support the project’s progression:

  • Organisation
  • Interpersonal relations and communication

These factors are critical because strictly correlated to the management of scarce resources.

A deficient organisation ushers in a feeling of failed control, which then has the potential to cause an iniquitous and unbalanced distribution of tasks and, consequently, the overburdening of specific resources. In the long run, it can affect negatively the morale of the workforce (see the burnout syndrome), and it certainly involves the wastage of the scarcest of resources: time. With a deficient organisation there comes a need for unpredicted stoppages, to mend the tears as they occur.

The execution phase resembles a swollen river, charged with energy (human plus material and immaterial resources), rushing through a dug-out channel (clearly defined list of planned activities) in its pursuit of the ocean (the great final objective).

Be Water, My Friend

An example from my own professional experience. As a SAP consultant in a project to implement S/4HANA, I found myself wasting days only to garner the necessary information in order to plan some formative sessions (UATs). To avoid the dispersion of that river through predictable holes along the way, it would have been better if protective barriers were raised in time. In my case, having lists of people involved with the project along with their emails would have enabled a significant saving of time and energy that otherwise had to be spent for data gathering that could have easily been garnered beforehand.

A wasteful communicative style, inefficient and ineffective, betokens the absence of vision and leadership. It can have several negative effects on the workforce: confusion, frustration, drop in effort. It leads inevitably to further wastes of time in order to effect remedial actions, clarify, motivate, and make individuals and groups take responsibility.

Communication Failure: From Point A to Point B

By failing to pay attention to these factors the risk is above all that of failing to complete the activities within the settled deadlines. The risk, in other words, is that of failure.

The enthusiasm, the passion and the clarity about the objectives of the project make the mission clear and obvious to all the participants involved.

Effective communication: From Point A to Point B

Excelling at organisation through efficiency catalysts

Managing ‘many’ is like managing ‘a few’: you only have to take care of organisation. Controlling ‘many’ is like controlling ‘a few’. It is only a matter of training and signalling.

Sun Tzu, The Art Of War

Organisation may also be defined as the removal of bureaucratic obstacles in order to allow the happy furtherance and fulfillment of a project’s activities by the people involved. A kind of via negativa consisting of finding and eliminating that which does not belong to the project or that which is not executive phase.

There are two possibilities for excelling at organisation:

  • Hiring people who are catalysts of organisational and operative efficiency. A PMO is a key figure. The PMO puts the priorities in order, assigns them, reviews them, and keeps track of them in order to allow a smooth continuation of the project within the established deadlines. For a good PMO, ‘managing many’ is like ‘managing a few’, because he knows how to take care of organisation.

  • Adopting methods and tools which generate efficiency. A PMO without the right methods and tools to support his operations is blind or hobbled, and destined to fail.

If the failure is predictable, it is better avoided.