Project management – the underrated superpower

To innovate and improve, companies need creativity, courage and technical expertise. But those capabilities will not have the desired impact if something else is missing: Here are 5 reasons why project management is the superpower of successful companies.

Whether research and development, production planning, procurement or marketing – companies allocate dedicated budget and resources to these projects and assign experienced hands to tackle their execution. Is the same true for project management?

The success rates cast doubt: worldwide, one in three projects fails to meet its target, almost half take longer than planned, and over one-third of projects exceed their budget. These figures are from a long-term study conducted by the Project Management Institute (PMI) in 2021. Fortunately, these figures are improved slightly from previous years, showing that project management skills seem to be growing around the globe. But there’s still a long way to go to: in a corporate world that is increasingly characterized by project work, the track record could look much better.


Five overlooked principles for success

Many companies are already addressing the problem and investing in their employees’ skills. The focus is often on agile principles, which promise faster and more innovative results. However, basic project management resources and capabilities are much more important, and often overlooked. In our experience, the following five fields of action make the difference between success and failure:


1. Create and maintain momentum

The project is approved, the team is in place. Before getting down to work, everyone involved needs to have the same understanding of the project goals and scope, agree on a schedule, and clarify dependencies and responsibilities. The human factor is tremendously important. To motivate the team and keep it together even in difficult moments, the members need to build trust and develop a sense of community. Especially in large groups and virtual project teams across different locations, this does not happen automatically. Dedicated workshops can get things off to a good start and also help overcome obstacles as the project progresses.


Even if most of the project work is done virtually, there is a strong case for kickoffs and milestone workshops to take place in person. Collaboration tools such as Miro and Mural may also enable very good results online, but on-site meetings are much more effective at creating deeper connections that will positively impact collaboration. When team members are face-to-face, spontaneous exchanges can develop more organically, without the need for arranged Zoom breakout sessions. Voice and body language also have an immediate impact, but are so often lost in digital communication. When team members are together, listening is easier, the mood is more relaxed and participants take away not only new tools, but also a more emotional experience that can help drive collaboration even further.


2. Recognize and monitor risks

A Mars probe can crash because of miscalculated distances. An airport can be shut down due to insufficient fire protection. Bank customer transactions can be halted due to a new and immature banking system. All of these are project nightmares come true. When big failures such as these occur, it is often said, “They should have known that!” This is where Risk Management comes into play: it is to the project as liability insurance is to driving an automobile. This is especially true for innovation projects, where you have to weigh opportunity very realistically against all conceivable risks.

Internal and external influences that could jeopardize the project success must be identified and evaluated comprehensively. The project leads must then decide how the team should deal with the risks. For example, should a critical event be avoided by all means, or is it sufficient to limit the potential damage? For visualization purposes, a heat map can be a helpful tool that differentiates between critical, moderate and minor risks and prioritizes them accordingly. There is also a close link between Risk Management and Issue Management. When a problem does occur, the responsible managers must respond with appropriate mitigation actions. It’s good to hold regular status meetings to keep track of the risks and issues and to monitor the progress of problem solving. As a result, escalations can be avoided.


3. Integrate stakeholders systematically

Projects imply change, be it internal or in the market. Therefore, Transformation Management is indispensable, to different extents, depending on the scope of the project. Project managers must identify the relevant stakeholders right at the start and make clear how the change will affect them: How will the project benefit them? Which interests might conflict with the project? What information or skills do the stakeholders need to make the transformation successful? The answer to such questions is a detailed Stakeholder and Change Impact Analysis.


Based on this analysis, the project team can plan targeted measures to ensure stakeholder support and mitigate resistance. Conceivable measures include large-scale events, workshops, training and coaching sessions, team-building activities, gamification elements in everyday work, internal surveys, creative competitions and much more. Especially for large organizations, there is one superb method to engage employees at all levels: the workshop cascade.


4. Record progress and critical points holistically

Do you know what a real nightmare looks like for project pros? It occurs when employees don’t effectively manage their to-dos, when status lists are decentralized via scattered e-mail messages, when everything has to be tediously recapped in meetings. This is not only a waste of time, but may also result in important tasks being left undone or delayed. It’s actually quite easy to alleviate these challenges by using modern Status Reporting and Documentation tools. Kanban boards such as MS Planner or Confluence are very useful, even in teams that don’t follow agile principles. The board contains all tasks, including status and responsibility, and it automatically reminds team members of deadlines to ensure that the entire project community is up to date, even if individual members have missed a meeting.


5. Create aha! moments and foster identification

The times we live in are characterized by a constant flow of information. Stakeholders are in the middle of this flow and expect to be kept up-to-date on projects. They want this information delivered accessibly and clearly: as top news on the internal home page, in a project newsletter, as part of roadshows, as an agenda item at town hall meetings, through poster campaigns, info flyers and giveaways.


Whatever the avenue, Project Communication must not slip through the cracks – it’s embedded in Transformation Management and a critical component of the overarching strategy. Developing suitable communication measures requires creativity, a good deal of publishing experience, and empathy. Projects are usually staffed by experts who are fluent in their specialties, but untrained to make them understandable to people outside their peer groups, let alone to inspire them. There’s a golden rule from media business that applies here as well: People love to read, watch and listen to other people’s stories. For this reason, every project needs personalities who build common understanding in the team by showing: We know what we are doing. And it’s a really good cause.


2022-03-25, Grosse-Hornke

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