What is project viability?

The rationale for the project is set out in the business case which will be expressed in terms of a set of benefits which contribute towards strategic goal(s). The project framework and planning should be written to ensure that achievement of those benefits is maximised.

Many things can affect project viability

  • Cost overruns. If the project is based on a rate of return on capital invested, then an increase in project costs can eliminate this.
  • Time overruns. Some projects have to be delivered within a certain time frame to deliver benefits. Extending time may completely eliminate the benefits.
  • Changes to specifications and scope. As projects progress changes to the plan or even the scope will inevitably be requested. These need to be carefully assessed against the continued ability to deliver the benefits.
  • Quality problems. It may become clear during the project life cycle that the original quality expectations cannot be met. This can have an impact on the acceptability and hence the usability of the project's outputs by the end user. Changes to quality must be assessed against the benefits.
  • Change in the business environment. Sometimes organisations have to take a different strategic path, making the need for the project obsolete. There is little point carrying on committing resources to a project for which there is no longer a need.

It is the project sponsor's duty to continually assess project viability and if necessary to kill an unviable project.

Keeping the focus right

Project managers and project teams working at the coal face of project delivery often get focused on deliverables, timelines and budget profiles. This can often lead to compromises being made to quality which make the project benefits unachievable. Project sponsors should always be focused on benefits realisation, so should be removed from the everyday decision-making of the project so they can take an objective view of the project.

I am not confident that my project will deliver but can’t get to the bottom of what’s wrong

Use independent external project assurance to help. Bring in someone with significant project experience either from outside the University or from another school or directorate to review your project and give you a project health check. Sometimes the project team can be too close to the project to acknowledge lurking problems. In projects which have significant implications for the University it is good practice to build these audits in at the beginning, without waiting for a crisis to occur.

Selecting the right project manager

Selecting the right project manager is essential to the success of your project. It is often true that project managers are selected on availability rather than skills or knowledge. This is the worst possible reason for selection.

It is useful to categorise project managers into three types when considering who to pick [source: The role of the executive project sponsor p67, Robert Butterick 2003].

  • Intuitive: This type of manager will have little formal knowledge or training in project management but uses common sense and acquired good practice in project management. This type of person has probably managed a number of small projects successfully and will be a good communicator with well-developed skills in scheduling and organising. They will use initiative to solve problems and naturally engage with stakeholders.
  • Methodological: This type of manager will have training in formal project management tools and techniques and will have formal procedures and practices set out to control the project. This is needed for larger projects where informal methods will not work.
  • Judgemental: This type of manager will be highly experienced with formal training in many tools and techniques of project management and will have highly developed general management skills and will think strategically about the projects. This type of manager will always start with the principles of good project management and use those to apply a range of tools and techniques in flexible and creative ways. They will be comfortable with highly complex projects and even managing a programme or portfolio of projects.

A good project manager of a reasonably large and complex project will not only have specific project management skills but also will have all other skills you would expect to see in a competent middle to senior manager. Leadership, team building and change management are vital, as is a high degree of initiative and the ability to communicate with people at all levels in the organisation. There will be many conflicting demands. This level of manager will also be able to broker effective compromises without sacrificing the benefits of the project.

Project managers are often selected because of technical ability; this should not in itself be the reason for choosing a particular individual. Project management skills should always be the first requirement. The ideal project manager is someone who is willing to put the effort into grasping the essence of the technicalities without becoming a subject matter expert.