If we know anything about projects, it is that they carry risks and cost money. Sometimes significant risks and a great deal of money. If the most serious of risks become manifest (eg going over budget on time and money by significant amounts) then the consequences can be serious.
Despite the high rate of project failures being reported in business and academic journals, our appetite for projects continues to grow unabated. Though project management has been good to me (I owned and ran a project management consultancy for 16 years), I know that the need for many of the projects that I have led could have been avoided if firms had taken a different approach to achieving and maintaining operational excellence prior to calling me in. Specifically, by creating a culture of continuous improvement, organisations can avoid ‘falling behind the curve’ relative to their respective environments (markets, competitors, customers, regulators, etc). Allowing operating models and IT systems to stand still while everything changes around them will almost inevitably result in a need for ‘all or nothing’ projects and programmes at some point, with the attendant risks and stresses that comes with such projects.
When I started out in my career, the emphasis was very much on continuous improvement (CI). Undertaking my studies with the Institute of Management Services, we were only taught CI as a way of improving operational efficiency and effectiveness; project management was never mentioned. Though CI techniques have been around for a long time they increasingly started to be named and popularised from the 1960‘s onwards under titles such as Kaizen (the Japanese phrase for Deming’s plan-do-check-act cycle); Total Quality Management, Lean, the Toyota Way, and Six Sigma. For anyone unfamiliar with these approaches, spending time learning about them can be highly worthwhile. As someone who has used almost all approaches on the change continuum (from the most continuous to the most discontinuous) I know that CI provides the most sustainable, maintainable and correctable operating environment. The approach applies equally well to organisational design, business process redesign, and updating IT systems, and works best when applied to all three at all times (with measurement focused on the customer perspective). An operating environment subject to the constant attention of CI will not only keep up with the curve, but will push it forwards (as Toyota has demonstrated) and ensure maximum customer satisfaction.
Of course, we will always need projects. Some change is discrete by nature. Civil engineering and ship building are good examples – though they also use CI methods to improve their processes. CI can itself drive a need for projects on occasion if the implementation of change requires a significant level of control. Generally, the iterative nature of change that is driven by CI means that implementation can be handled by line staff more often than not, and specialist project managers are not required. That approach should certainly be the default. Six Sigma is particularly good at spreading the necessary skills across the organisational structure.
It might feel that developing IT systems is better suited to a project management approach over CI. This is generally true, but many of the IT projects that I have led could have been avoided (or the scale, cost, risk and urgency of the development reduced) if the implementation of the previous / existing system had been accompanied by a plan that did not end on go-live day, but instead carried on to ensure that all benefits were realised, and that support and maintenance was driven by business horizon-scanning rather than just technical needs. A useful middle ground is agile development methods such as Scrum and XP where new systems are built and maintained by self-managing cross-functional teams without the need for project management specialists.
To summarise, I believe that continuous improvement is the best way to ensure that a business will continue to succeed even when the environment is changing rapidly.