Critical Success Factors

As a general rule, human beings dislike change, preferring the sense of security and comfort that stems from consistency. However, sometimes, change is the best course of action.

When we began the process of developing a new approach to project management, we knew that we would have to face the challenge of introducing significant change in an environment built on years of learned behaviour. In order to foster the adoption of our new approach, we would need a means of driving internal change that would be both repeatable and measurable.

Our solution was to investigate and define a set of factors that are critical to project management success. Factors that we believe must be fulfilled for projects to be delivered on time, within budget and to the quality we expect to deliver to our clients. For the process to work there had to be an agreement on what the critical success factors should be. Each factor had to be defined accurately, leaving no room for vagueness or uncertainty, and there had to be a firm understanding of where the line of compliance for each factor lay.

Despite having a high number of potential factors to choose from, we limited our initial set of criteria to those that would have the highest positive impact, to maintain our focus and ensure a successful change. Combining the structure and aim of our new approach with knowledge gathered from previous project experience, a small selection of key areas were accurately defined.

Of course these factors include typical project management activities, such as risk management and communication, but the aim is to ensure that we are actively managing activities and not just ticking a box. For instance, in the case of risk management, the success factor aims to drive behaviour to ensure risk assessments are completed, addressed and updated throughout every project.

While we would like to discuss all of our factors in detail, to keep this article brief we will limit ourselves to just three more.

As we mentioned in the last article, JIRA by Atlassian would be a key tool in our new project management approach. High-level activities are recorded as ‘Epics’, as they have the potential to roll over several sprints. Engineers are then responsible for breaking each Epic down further into tasks no greater than one days worth of effort. We have found that by keeping the size of tasks small our estimations of effort are more reliable. In addition, limiting tasks in this way reduces the opportunity for 99.99% complete loop. What we mean by this is, that small tasks can quickly and reliably be marked off as complete leaving an accurate picture of progress. In turn, this leads to better predictions of milestones and delivery dates. By incorporating JIRA into our critical success factors we could ensure proper and consistent behaviour. We wanted it to become an unconscious thought process for our engineers, no wondering what to do or when to do it.

It isn’t uncommon for companies to claim that they hold daily stand-ups, but despite their best intentions, this process can rapidly run out of steam. By including daily stand-ups in our list of critical factors we can drive a consistent approach and focus across every stand-up, giving us an even measure on the health of each project. As expected of a daily stand up engineers will be expected to answer three key questions, “What did you achieve yesterday?”, “What do you plan to achieve today?” and “Are there any blocking points?”. However, we also expect engineers to have updated JIRA to show tasks that are now complete, how long they have worked on each task and update predictions of remaining effort. Updating JIRA in this way encapsulates another of our critical success factors. The benefit of this additional success factor is that we have access to our best guess of remaining effort for the project at any time.

Of course, there is little point in outlining these factors without instigating a measure of success. In the case of our Critical Success Factors, we have decided to utilise a Green, Amber, Red (RAG) traffic light system, defining the criteria for each degree of adherence. This gives us a framework to allow for regular audits of the health of each project. The critical success factor RAG status of each project is reviewed during a weekly portfolio meeting. Should this status fall out of green, actions are agreed upon to bring the project back on track in terms of the criteria.

On top of these measures of project management success, we have also taken the time to identify and define a corresponding set of factors for both software and non-software development projects. As our work can vary greatly in terms of client requirements, we want to take every course of action to ensure we consistently meet and go on to exceed all expectations.

It is no secret that we work for several different clients, and at times will have many projects running in conjunction with one another. So while our critical success factors help to ensure the success of each project, we need to take great care to manage our portfolio so that we don’t lose sight of the overall state of affairs. Check out the next article in this series to see how we manage our project portfolio.

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