5 Key Elements of a Successful Project

Government organizations undertake projects when some aspect of carrying out the people’s work needs to change. According to the Project Management Institute, a project is “a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.” When a project changes how an organization does business, the project’s end products are incorporated into daily work and therefore improve the organization’s work in perpetuity.

It may sound easy, but it is not. Change is difficult, and projects can run off the rails very easily. Every day brings about challenges that threaten a project’s progress and eventual success.  To combat this peril, projects need certain vital elements. With the following items in place, a project has a high chance of success.

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A Committed Project Sponsor

The project sponsor is the high-level person in the organization who has ownership of the project. A committed project sponsor expects the project to succeed and does whatever he or she can do to ensure that success comes to fruition.

A project sponsor has four primary responsibilities related to the project. First, the sponsor champions the project. He or she cheers on the project team publicly and privately. Second, the sponsor supports the project manager. When a project manager needs obstacles removed, he or she calls on the sponsor for assistance because the sponsor has the organizational clout to make things happen. Third, the sponsor aligns resources by providing them directly or working with other high-level people to get resources. When the sponsor is a strong champion for a project, the sponsor’s peers are more likely to contribute significant resources. Fourth, the sponsor facilitates decision making. When the project team bogs down, the sponsor can broker the decision or flat out make the decision. 

The sponsor stays informed through constant communication with the project manager. The two work together to determine when the sponsor needs to step in and more forcefully exercise the sponsor’s responsibilities in support of the project manager. For example, a project manager could have trouble obtaining information from the organization’s finance department. The project sponsor can approach the chief financial officer about the situation and ask that the task of getting the information is prioritized above competing tasks.

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Clear Goals and Scope

Before work on a project is done or even planned, the project sponsor must articulate the goals and scope of the project. The goals are the big things the project is supposed to accomplish. Take a software enhancement project, for instance. A human resources department uses a well known customizable business software to manage payroll. The organization wants to add a module for learning management. The goals of the project are to customize the learning management software to the organization’s business needs and to integrate it with the existing payroll system.

The scope defines the parameters of the project. Continuing with the software project example; this project’s scope is limited to bringing on the learning management system and integrating it with the payroll system. Many times, it is helpful to identify things that are out of scope to understand what is in scope. For this project, adding other modules is out of scope. The accounting department cannot come to the project manager and ask for billing, accounts receivable or accounts payable modules.

Adding a module once the project has been defined allows scope creep. Good project sponsors and project managers guard against scope creep and are very reluctant to add scope mid-project. Increasing a project’s scope increases the project’s need for resources like time and money. Additionally, working on the additional scope puts the quality of work products at risk.

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A Good Project Manager

A project manager plans work and organize resources to get a project done. This person is the link between the project sponsor who sets the vision and the project team who accomplishes it. As appropriate and in timely ways, the project manager brings in stakeholders to offer input.

Project managers usually have the following traits that help them move the project along:

  • Project managers are planners. They think about the sequence of work and know what needs to happen after the team completes the task at hand. They make good plans but also know when to be flexible and to divert from a plan.
  • Project managers are trustworthy. With their success depending upon the work of others, project managers need people to trust their good intent and competence. Trust is particularly important in the relationship between the project manager and project sponsor.
  • Project managers tend to be extroverted because the vast majority of their work involves communicating.

They hold people accountable to their commitments. Here is an example. A project team member’s supervisor told the project manager that the team member could dedicate four hours a week to the project. This team member has missed two weekly meetings in a row and has made no progress on his assigned tasks in the work breakdown structure. After the first missed meeting, the project manager met with the team member to discuss the absence and missed deadlines. The team member said he had more pressing priorities. The project manager suspected this was not true, so after the second missed meeting, the project manager met with the team member’s supervisor. The supervisor told the project manager she would make sure the team member’s behavior would turn around.

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Engaged Stakeholders

Stakeholders on a project are people who have a vested interest in the project’s success but are not members of the project team. They do not think about the project on a daily basis like the project manager or project team members do, but they want to be in the loop on critical decisions and overall progress toward the project’s goals.

Stakeholders have their motivations for staying abreast of project activities, but it is the project manager’s responsibility to bring them into the fold in ways that advance work toward the project’s goals. In many cases, doing this involves a delicate balance between getting too much input and getting too little input. Stakeholders cannot weigh in on every decision. That would bog down the project and make every decision a fight. Conversely, stakeholders cannot be shut out because a significant aspect of almost every project is satisfying stakeholders.

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Dedicated Project Team Members

Project team members accomplish the work of the project. Many times, project team members are assigned to a project on top of their regular duties meaning there is no reduction in other work to compensate for the additional work brought on by the project. Project managers can help team members negotiate with their supervisors on this issue, but the project manager has no control over the responsibilities project team members have outside the project.

Team members’ dedication to the project is very valuable. Without dedication, deadlines slip, and work products are not of good quality. Dedicated team members are motivated to accomplish the project’s goals on time, within budget and up to quality expectations.