Discover more from The Project Management Blueprint
The Common Path to Uncommon Success
The 12 (+3) Standard Steps to Project Success
”Uncommon success is achievable, and the path is a common one.” —John Lee Dumas, Entrepreneur on Fire
We’ve seen that projects occur in four distinct sequential phases (Initiation, Planning, Execution, and Closeout). Add to that a healthy dollop of leadership, and you have the basic framework for successfully shepherding a project from start to finish. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Each of the phases can be further subdivided into a series of individual steps, and each of those into sub-steps, and so on.
To understand how this works, it’s helpful to consider the primary fifteen project steps. Like the phases, these fifteen steps are universal to all projects. Of course, the complexity, detail, and level of rigor applied to each of these steps will vary between projects, but for the vast majority of projects, these are the fifteen required elements. To ignore even one of them is to put your project at a serious risk of failure. Said more plainly, these fifteen steps are the fundamental building blocks experienced PMs use to ensure all the requirements of a project are systematically identified, logically addressed, and successfully achieved.
The Initiation Phase Steps:
The Initiation Phase of a project is when we gather information from our primary stakeholders and determine what the project is fundamentally about. We cannot create any meaningful plans unless we establish what the primary goals of the project are, and how we intend to accomplish those objectives. The Initiation phase comprises three primary steps that are informally known as the “3 D’s” of a project: Define, Decide, and Document.
Define the Project Purpose & Desired Outcome. Every project has at least one stakeholder who wants or needs the deliverable that the project should create. In this first step, we identify these key stakeholders, interview them, and then document their high-level wants, needs, requirements, and constraints in a series of high-level “project definition” documents. These typically include a Mission Statement, a Scope Statement, and Cost & Schedule Constraint documents. The contents of these documents are broad, high-level descriptions of the key objectives and conditions placed on the project from the stakeholders' perspective. Further, these definition documents will be the seed documents we use later to create and refine our Project Baseline.
Decide on the High-Level Execution Approach. In Step 1, we determined what we’re supposed to create during the project, along with any high-level constraints (such as required schedule milestones or budget caps). Now, during this Step 2, we work out how we’re going to accomplish that end goal—again, from a broad-brush, high-level perspective. If Step 1 was about establishing what project success is supposed to look like, this Step 2 is establishing how we achieve that success. We establish the “best” way to achieve the project’s purpose & desired outcomes. To accomplish this, typically we decide on the high-level approaches to acquiring the deliverables (e.g., procurement & test), what resources will be required for that plan, how the project will be structured and operated, what high-level risks we’ll likely face and how we’ll address them, and how project information will be handled. Again, we establish the high-level ideas and plans for these things, which will later be refined into a formal project execution plan.
Document the Project's Why’s, What’s, and How’s in a Charter. Step 3 is the capstone to the Initiation Phase. We take what we defined and decided in the first two steps, verify these are acceptable approaches with our key stakeholders, and then formally document this “roadmap” in a project agreement document, or “charter,” as it is more commonly known. The charter is a contract we establish between the project and the key stakeholders. It formally defines the project goals, expectations, timeline, cost, and overall plans for how we’ll proceed. Depending upon the size, complexity, and type of project, a charter can take the form of anything from a simple email authorization to begin, to a formal contract document, including signature blocks. Regardless of form, however, we should never begin a project without a clear, complete, and written agreement that establishes why the project exists, what the definition of success is, and how we’re going to achieve that aim.
The Planning Phase Steps:
The Planning Phase of a project is when we take the high-level, top-down information we gathered from our primary stakeholders in the Initiation Phase and turn it into detailed, bottom-up plans we can then execute in the next phase. There are two key elements to this phase:
Develop & Refine the Project Definition (i.e., the Baseline). Step 4 is the first aspect of the Planning Phase. During this step, we take the high-level wants and needs identified and documented in the previous phase, and turn them into fully fleshed-out and refined baseline documents. These documents include a complete Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS, Quality Acceptance Requirements, a detailed Integrated Master Schedule, and of course, a complete and accurate Integrated Project Budget. These four things (Scope, Quality, Schedule, and Budget) constitute the objective measures of success that the rest of the project is built around and targeted upon. As we progress through the project, we will measure against these objectives and make all required course corrections to achieve the baseline.
Develop & Refine the Project Execution Plan (PEP). In Step 5, we take the high-level approach we determined in the Initiation phase and turn it into detailed execution plans. These always begin with the Acquisition Planning, which includes developing the concept for the deliverable itself (i.e., the design of the deliverable), working out detailed procurement plans, and even how we’ll assure, control, and measure acceptance of the deliverables. During this step, we also work out all the details of Resource Management Plans, Performance Management Plans, Information Management, and, of course, Risk & Issue Management Plans. By the time this step is complete, we will know exactly how to create and deliver the scope within the constraints prescribed in the Baseline.
The Execution Phase Steps:
The Execution Phase of a project is when we implement the PEP to accomplish the objectives of the Baseline. This is the day-to-day management of all the project work, including all the supporting work (e.g., systems engineering, safety engineering, etc.) and active risk management activities. The purpose of this step is simple: to proactively keep the project on course to deliver the deliverable on time, on budget, and within quality acceptance requirements. There are four primary aspects of this phase, all of which are repeated iteratively until the project work is finished and the deliverables of the project completed:
Direct Project Work Per The Plan. This step is the act of prioritizing, planning, and prepping the work at it unfolds per the schedule. This is important because a schedule comprises relatively high-level activities. We need to continually review and expand those 1-2 week-long activities into specific day-to-day tasks. Part of this is ensuring we and our team are focused on the truly important elements of work, and not just the so-called “urgent” tasks. We also must ensure all the plans, logistics, and resources are lined up to the support the upcoming work. And finally, we need a means of managing ours and our team members’ tasks.
Monitor & Measure the Project State. This step is about measuring progress against the plan. We do this both quantitatively (e.g., via techniques like earned value management) and qualitatively (e.g., via discussions with team members & stakeholders, and seeing the work ourselves firsthand). Along with this, we also monitor and assess the project risk situation, reviewing existing risks and identifying and analyzing any additional risks that may have arisen since the last time we checked.
Control the Project Trajectory. This step is when we take the results of the previous Monitoring step and implement all required changes to keep the project on track for success. These changes can occur to either the baseline or the project execution plan. This step is also when we implement any risk response plans, plus address any realized risks (i.e., “issues”) as they arise.
Report & Document the Project State. Finally, a key aspect to successful project management is ensuring all key stakeholders are informed and appraised of the project statement, including progress to date, the current trajectory the project is on, risks and issues, and any changes that have been made or are being contemplated. We do this by keeping good internal records and documentation of the work, plus regularly reporting to our stakeholders.
The Closeout Phase Steps:
Next, we come to the closeout phase of a project. This is when we take all our hard work from the previous Execution phase and wrap it all up with a nice, neat bow, shutting down the project in a complete, systematic, and professional manner. This phase has three key steps:
Complete & Handover the Project Deliverable(s). When we’re satisfied that the work is complete and ready for handover, it’s time to perform formal delivery and get the stakeholders’ acceptance. This is called “validating” the scope, and it can be easy or difficult, depending upon how well you’ve done the previous steps of the project. And regardless of how smoothly it goes, this step is perhaps the most important of all steps: getting formal acceptance of scope completion from your stakeholders.
Close All Project Obligations & Commitments. In additional to delivering the deliverable, we have to close or transfer all open obligations, contracts, leases on equipment, legal commitments, lien releases, and so on. All significant project documentation and communications must be archived, and all unused resources and unspent budget gets returned. While not the most glamorous of work, these elements of this step are vital to ensuring the project is properly shut down.
Shut Down the Project & Release the Team. The last step of the Closeout Phase is when we release the project team and shut-down the project. To accomplish this, we first gather lessons learned from them, prepare them for their next career or job duties, celebrate success with them, and then release and/or transfer them off the project. This part of a project is often bittersweet; you’ve sweated and worried and toiled alongside these team members over the course of the project, working through both the highs and lows of the project, and finally completing the work—and now it’s time to bid adieu.
The Leadership “Phase”:
Those 12 steps above comprise the “management” aspects of overseeing a project from start to finish. But there is another area of responsibility that comes with being the project manager: leadership. In simple terms, leadership is the act of eliciting maximum productivity from your project team. To do this, there are three key things you must perform in parallel with previous steps throughout the entire project:
Guide the Project Team. The first primary aspect of project leadership is one of guidance and direction. As leaders, we must take ownership of the project and its purpose, worry about the project, energize it, and steer the project through and around all the obstacles that are put in its way. Some project managers liken this to “driving the project bus” or “steering the ship,” and these aren’t terrible metaphors. At its core, leadership is the act of guiding the project along its course, from the project start to its end. As we dive into this area in a later post, you’ll see that I use the acronym “P.O.W.E.R.” to represent the five key elements of this aspect of leadership.
Motivate the Project Team. The second key aspect of project leadership focuses on team motivation and inspiration. Boiled down to its basic elements, motivation is about encouraging and ensuring your team is working at maximum productivity, meaning they are inspired, committed, and working at maximum efficiency, effectiveness, and endurance during the project. It’s easy for a team to start strong, but then fall into routines and, frankly, the drudgery of a project, losing motivation and productivity. Your job as leader of the project is to do the things that bolster and improve morale and motivation whilst removing those things that eat away at it. As you’ll see, I use the acronym, “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” to address the seven key elements of this motivation aspect of leadership.
Exemplify the Project Standard. Finally, our role as a project leader is to set the standard we want our team to observe, resonate with, and emulate. We can’t ask our team to work hard day after day unless we’re willing to do the same. Similarly, we can’t expect them to behave with integrity and high standards unless we ourselves set that example. Said more simply, leaders exemplify the behavior and conduct expected on the project. From professionalism, to resiliency, to ethics, our goal is to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk, too. The acronym we’ll walk through during this discussion is “P.R.I.D.E.”
The Bottom Line:
Every project is unique. The size, scale, complexity, levels of formality and rigor, the industry, the product… by definition, your project differs from mine. But the path to success of essentially every project will be the same. You must start with proactively defining, deciding, and documenting how the project will be executed. You must develop and agree upon (with your stakeholders) a project baseline and execution plan. Not only that, but you must direct, monitor, control, and document/report on your project proactively. You must systematically and logically shut the project down at the end, delivering (and getting acceptance of) the project deliverables. And you must provide effective leadership to your team along the way.
Most projects fail. Per annual surveys, something like 75% of all projects don’t meet their goals and objectives. The reason for those failures can usually be traced back to the failure of one or more of the basic fifteen steps. Project failure is common, but it doesn’t have to be this way; the steps and process to success are common among all projects; only the level of rigor and formality of those steps differ between projects.
The bottom line is this: if we want our projects to succeed, we must think and act systematically. If you intend to organize, execute, and close a successful project, you need to fully embrace a logical and planned process. There are no shortcuts to success—but it’s not rocket science either. It’s just common sense—on the common path to uncommon project success.