How to avoid delivering a white elephant
April 13, 2011
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I was recently having an interesting discussion with some of my peers on a project management forum. We were talking about how to ensure the projects we deliver do not end up being white elephants. This is an interesting question to ponder from a project manager‘s point of view. In a PRINCE2 project, one of the six elements a project manager is supposed to control is the benefits. However, benefits of the project is only derived once it has been delivered to the users. By that time the project would have been long finished. How does a project manager ensure what is delivered is worth the effort.
The first place I would look to any benefits review is the business case. As a project manager it is imperative that you ask for the business case as soon as you are assigned the responsibility on a project (if you are not responsible for writing the business case in the first place). The best business cases are the ones that articulate the business drivers into something that can be measured objectively … i.e., save $1.2 million over first 2 years of operation. Those are quite easy to review and establish if you are within the tolerances afforded to you by the project board. If not, you can seek guidance from the project board about the direction you should take. It is not your call to make about where the project heads. Project board may decide to terminate the project or decide lost reputation of a stopped project is higher than the actual loss of benefits. If benefits cannot be measured, ensure that you refine them enough to let you establish whether you are delivering something worthwhile.
Is there any difference in how the project was conceived? Does it matter if the project was driven bottom up or top down? If the project has come bottom up, the chances of delivering something that is not going to be used by the user base diminishes significantly. In all likelihood, they would have had to justify it to the nth degree and gone through the rigmarole of establishing a business case for it. Your job as the project manager is quite simple to ensure an acceptable system to the users. Your biggest challenge will lie in how you establish if the benefits are still achievable.
What for projects driven from top down? If the project is the brainchild of your CEO or the minister, then the odds of them having to jump through are much lesser. This is where the Senior User group in PRINCE2 can play a significant role. It is they who as the representatives of the users, are responsible for realising the benefits. If in their opinion the benefit will not be realised, or you as the project manager cannot deliver the benefits with the tolerances afforded to you by the project board, you need to report immediately to the board. This gives the project board the ability to kill the white elephant in the infancy.
There will however be examples of project boards being informed of unattainable benefits, but the project continuing to its conclusion. If the project board are unwilling to continually review the expected benefits in line with the business case, then you as the project manager do not have much of a chance. The layered project management structure in PRINCE2 is there to achieve precisely this objective.
If governance is compromised, a white elephant is exactly what the project deserves.