Why Projects Succeed: Clear Business Objectives

Why Projects Succeed is a blog series in which Slalom Business Architect Roger Kastner sheds light on key factors behind the art and science of successful project management and invites readers to discuss how they apply across different environments.

Slalom Consultant Roger Kastner

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where…” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

–Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

A successful journey, like a successful project, requires many things, but one thing is definitely required: the knowledge of your destination.

On any project, being able to articulate the business objectives is key to success. Like Alice not knowing where she wants to go, a project without a stated destination will likely go in many directions, none of them resulting in the desired effect. Without clearly articulated and understood objectives, not only will the road be bumpy, but you won’t know when the project is complete because you don’t know what “complete” means or how it is measured.

Successful Project Managers will know that clear business objectives are important not only for measuring completion, but that business objectives should be identified early in the project in order to serve as the touchstone for all project decisions. The business objectives will set the triple constraints of scope, time, and cost, and the objectives will provide guidance throughout the project lifecycle.

Here are a few examples of how clear business objectives can make the project “road” smoother.
Focusing and prioritizing solutions
Clear business objectives help project teams prioritize their focus on performing the work that best achieves the objectives. Many times that will be evident through prioritization of requirements and scope. If a Project Manager is working with the team to determine how to spend project dollars between two efforts, and one aligns better with the achievement of the objectives, the decision should be pretty straightforward.

Guiding problem-solving and decision-making

When determining how to resolve a project problem, seek the solution that more effectively aligns to a business objective in order to arrive at a straightforward decision.
Measuring for completion
The business objectives provide a measurement of scope attainment and inform the team and stakeholders when the project is complete. To do this, the business objectives should adhere to the golden mnemonic for all goals, S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
My Experience
Years ago, I was assigned to a project in mid-flight that was hitting all schedule and cost expectations, had all the best resources in the department, and was one of the executive sponsors’ “top priorities.” When I asked why I was replacing the existing Project Manager, I was told that the previous project manager was “driving the other stakeholders crazy” because he kept asking for the business drivers for the project.

That seemed like an interesting reason, I thought, because knowing the business drivers is actually a good thing. Curious as to why that was a problem, I found out the project sponsor had not articulated the business drivers for the project and had refused to articulate them when asked. I started sensing that I was going to fall into that same rabbit hole if I was not careful.

When I asked the team members and the primary stakeholders why we were doing the project, nobody had a response. When I asked them how would they know if we were successful, they sheepishly pointed to our schedule and the documented desired functionality, but they couldn’t tell if either one of those actually drove value for the organization.

So, I scheduled a meeting with our project sponsor to talk about the project where I told her that our project is green on all schedule and costs measurements, but that I’m thinking of putting the project into red status because “we don’t know how to measure project success or completion.” Without achieving the business objectives, the team was concerned about failing to deliver value, and thus, this would not be a successful project. The executive sponsor’s response clearly demonstrated she was not sure why business drivers were important to the team. She actually said, “delivering this product will be enough, let me worry about selling the value of it to my peers.”

Stepping carefully around the opening of that rabbit hole, I framed my argument as follows:

Perhaps you are right, everything is ok, and I’m just being over-cautious. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t like surprises, and I’m guessing you don’t either. Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and presume the following errors might have occurred:

  • The project team made a mistake and they prioritized requirements based on what they incorrectly thought was more important.
  • The project team made wrong decisions about problems based on the wrong criteria.
  • The project team has been measuring scope completion against the wrong factors, which will result in an unsuccessful product debut.

Perhaps they guessed correctly in each case and what you will see at the launch date will meet all of your expectations. But just to be sure, to stack the deck in your favor, don’t you think we should articulate the business objectives to the team and check to make sure the teams’ presumptions have been correct all along so there are no surprises on launch day?

As I said, no one likes surprises, and the sponsor didn’t like the potential for surprises here either. She had strategic reasons for not communicating her objectives broadly, but once she saw the potential for the team to go off in the wrong direction in many instances, she was willing to share with certain team members her objectives for the project.

The process of connecting the dots between those objectives and how the team’s comprehension of those objectives impacted the project results was all the sponsor needed to know in order to provide the necessary information to guide the project. In this case, the new understanding did require course correction, and fortunately we were able to do this in time to bring the project to a successful completion.

Clear Business Objectives are the destination for any project and provide a guidepost for the many decisions that will be made along the way. In order to eliminate surprises and ensure directional correctness, the successful PM will work with project sponsors and stakeholders to develop and articulate the business objectives early and often in a project

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About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

2 Responses to Why Projects Succeed: Clear Business Objectives

  1. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed – Articulating the Value of Project Management « The Slalom Blog

  2. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed: Defining Success « The Slalom Blog

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