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How to Put Your Program Back on Track, Part 2

By Jim Schwalbe

Program Track3 Hero

In this three-part blog series, we’ll explore ways to address the all too frequent problem of a transformation project that’s gone off the rails. Pinpointing the root cause may be a challenge, but the symptoms are usually clear: confused stakeholders, sidetracked teams, repeated delays, and inflated budgets. It’s my hope that you will benefit from my hard-earned expertise and walk away from these blog posts with a few new tools for getting a project back on track.

Focusing on the Essential Work First

When making crucial decisions, does your program leadership involve the appropriate executives and stakeholders? Do you know if deliverables are truly done and done well? Are you confident the team is doing the most important work first and staying on the critical path?

In Part 1 of this blog series, we examined the importance of getting your integrator to tell you the truth. So, let’s assume you have gotten to the truth. Now you have work to do, and it’s key that you focus your energy on the most important work first. As obvious as that sounds, it is not typically an easy task. It takes attention upfront to establish the path to success. Defining the essential deliverables and standards will be the foundation for your entire program. If this sounds like the point at which you are stuck or a step your team may have bypassed, I encourage you to take the time to do this right (at the beginning or as a reset). It will save you time and money and directly impact results. 

Chart the real critical path

There are excellent courses that teach the definition of critical path and tools that enable a complex program’s critical path to be input and monitored. I am an advocate of both. However, at some point, you need to be able to discuss the real critical path at an executive or board level. So, I suggest creating three critical path perspectives (technology, process, and people) and then showing how they integrate into one program-wide critical path. This will help you with focus, staffing, and communication. It will prevent vital work streams and deliverables from becoming afterthoughts or getting missed completely. The real critical path drives attention and visibility, and creates a talk-track that is relevant for the steering committee, executive sponsor, and board.

Make decisions that stick

Over the course of the program, the critical path is navigated most efficiently by ensuring that you don’t have to repeatedly re-visit or re-make key decisions. The ability and authority to make these key decisions quickly and see them adopted in full is driven by:

  1. Proactively communicating upcoming decisions
  2. Clearly and completely documenting impacts 
  3. Involving the proper decision makers (bringing key decisions to the steering committee)
  4. Succinctly documenting reasons for decisions 
  5. Recording physical signoff (important to deter re-opening later)

There will always be significant decisions to make, and, frankly, there will never be a perfect option. That said, one of the biggest reasons for budget overruns and missed deadlines is re-visiting or re-making decisions because they were not laid to rest with the necessary awareness, involvement, support, and commitment the first time. When you make decisions that stick, the entire program benefits. 

Be meticulous with the deliverables that matter most

In a world of texting and tweeting, creating thorough documentation and meticulous records is something of a lost art. It is tempting to run things in parallel that need to be sequential, but you must complete the essential work first. So, let me share a simple example of the dependencies that can drive incredible success if done well or cause incredible pain if done poorly. Most large programs have the following common deliverables. Showing them sequentially helps convey the interdependency:

Requirements  Future Processes – Test Cases/Scripts – Training Materials

If the team shortcuts the requirements, you will miss some of the processes, which will result in incomplete testing, and the training will also fall short. Every one of those shortcomings will create a snowball effect and result in an expensive project delay or budget overrun. Even worse, it could result in a large financial or production problem after go-live. So, it is important to have quality control on the deliverables that matter most and stage gates (critical completion points) before you move on to the next deliverable. Take the time to ensure meticulous standards and templates are in place so that, even if many people are involved, they will produce common results with excellence. Two questions I encourage you to ask regularly are: “Can you show me proof that we are doing this well?” and “Can you show me proof that we have completed the essential work required to move on?”

Closing thoughts

The obvious nature of the three core messages above are too often lost in the shuffle of a big program. Your people, your budget, your time, and your opportunity to focus on business growth may all be dependent on enforcing these principles. If you take the time to do this right, it will save you time and money and directly impact results.

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