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Why didn’t that project deliver the benefits expected?

So, you’ve just invested a significant amount of time and money working hard to deliver some kind of project to improve your business. All the changes you planned were implemented well and yet the expected benefits aren’t showing in your management reports leaving you with a bit of an empty feeling! Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon, and you’re definitely not alone.

So, why does this happen?

One of the most likely reasons is that you’ve overlooked a critically important aspect of project management, i.e., ‘benefits realisation’. Benefits realisation is a process that should run throughout your project. It should start as soon as the project is conceived and continually influence the shape of your project as it progresses.

Of course, any good project will start with a business case. But whilst this is an essential step many business cases focus on the scale of the benefits rather than detailing how they will emerge. A good benefits realisation plan will start with a detailed definition of, not just the scale of benefits, but also how those improvements will be measured, which budgets will be cut, which revenue lines will be increased, and, of course, when all these benefits will emerge. Importantly, the plan should also identify who (named individuals) that will be held accountable for delivering each line of the benefit realisation plan. And, of course, the plan should ensure that these benefit owners can influence the project as it progresses, so they feel truly committed, and able, to deliver the benefits expected.

Don’t gloss over the difficult issues

All of this sounds very straightforward but, for some types of projects, it’s all too easy to gloss over the difficult issues that surround being specific about how the benefits will emerge. Productivity improvement projects, often related to introducing new technology, are notorious for having a strong business case that somehow fails to deliver in practice. This typically happens because the business case is based on a number of time-saving points e.g. we’ll save a few hours per week on this process, another few hours per week on that process, and so on. These are then added up to produce a monetary cost-saving. What this approach fails to realise is that freeing up staff time doesn’t automatically reduce costs. There needs to be a plan to use the time saved to perform other productive tasks or, if this can’t be achieved, then arrangements need to be made to let some staff go. Unfortunately, Parkinson’s Law[1] is generally true. So, unless you have a robust plan to use the time freed up by your project, then the reduced workload will simply expand to fill the time available.

If your project is all about enhancing the quality of your service then, again, be specific about which aspects will be improved and, most importantly how you will measure and assess those improvements. Hard facts, such as turn-around times are, of course, important but, the perception of your clients is probably more important, so make sure their voice is a key factor in assessing the success or failure of your project.

Projects designed to increase revenue also need considerable care. It’s all too easy to focus on increasing capacity without also considering where the increased demand for your services will come from. By producing a strong benefits realisation plan these broader issues can be identified and planned for.

Keep referring to your Benefits Realisation Plan

Once you have a robust benefits realisation plan the temptation is to put it to one side and simply focus on getting the project done; a temptation that must be strongly resisted! The benefits realisation plan must be referred to throughout the project, especially at the design stage, to make sure decisions are not being made that will make it harder, or impossible, for the expected benefits to be realised. For example, consider the impact on job roles, work allocation, and whether your existing staff have the skills and knowledge to perform any new tasks.

It’s also useful to schedule periodic review meetings purely focused on the plan to ensure it remains both realistic and achievable. Such meetings also provide the ideal opportunity to identify “runaway” projects before they become a major issue.

And, as the project starts to deliver, use the benefits realisation plan meetings to ensure the changes in activities, workload allocations, skills, attitudes, and behaviours are also happening as without these you will be left with that empty feeling that your project didn’t actually deliver what you expected.

Remember, our team is on hand to help and give you further guidance on your project issues, so please get in touch.

[1] Suggested by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay he wrote for “The Economist” in 1955.


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