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Is 'project' a dead construct?

Organisations across a variety of sectors are being disrupted by new commercial models enabled by digital technologies. Consumers are able to compare and switch suppliers with greater ease and expectations as to how products and services are delivered has risen due to the pervasiveness of mobile and tablet computing.

For a majority of organisations, the pace of change is increasing, and time to market an imperative. Is it time for a new way of thinking about how change is delivered in organisations?

Traditional thinking is to structure the organisation around working with current processes and systems and creating projects and programmes to manage changes to these. However, isn’t it time to consider change as a business as usual activity?

The trouble with projects

There are a number of challenges when it comes to traditional project thinking and approaches within organisations. For example:

  1. Projects aren’t flexible or agile enough – the budget for a project is set at the very start and the benefits and value is assumed to be delivered and measured once the project has been completed.
  2. Delivery teams are aside from the regular organisation – this means the people affected by the change and who know the most about the business are not as involved as they should be.
  3. Risk can be introduced into the organisation – the transition of a product from project team into the organisation is often complex and not frequent enough.
  4. Projects are temporary – it takes some time for a new team to become productive and it is often an inefficient way to deliver change.

Evolving from traditional thinking and structure making change within the organisation a regular activity needs to occur, if organisations are going to achieve the greater agility they need to progress.

Unblocking barriers to greater agility

Historically many barriers have existed, particularly on technology projects, which have prevented the progression of agility, resulting in change not being as frequent and regular as organisations would like.

Innovations in recent years though have overcome many of these barriers, for example:

Barrier Solution
Insufficient rapid insight into customer needs and priorities. Use of big data, analytics and social media to gain greater insight into customer needs.
Long procurement lead times on physical infrastructure. Use of elastic Cloud computing models to provide increased flexibility around infrastructure.
Lengthy and complex procurement for software products. Open Source alternatives to large COTS products than can be downloaded and used immediately.
Risk averse culture and high release overhead on technology change. Frequent releases of smaller increments of change enabled by continuous delivery and DevOps.

Moving from project to product

If organisations do not embrace projects, is there an alternative option? Rather than having the strategy, business expertise, operations and technology separate, some organisations are now embracing convergence around product. Combined teams contain all the skills required to change and run a particular product.

For products already existing, a combined team can deliver regular change according to its insight into user needs, which will drive value for the organisation. However, introducing a new product where the minimum viable product (MVP) is unavoidably large requires more consideration. The typical solution to this kind of transformation might be to have a programme to deliver the new or replacement product and another to stand up the service to operate it. The better solution is to consider this as a start-up within the organisation and to create a product team to build and run the solution.

The alternative to traditional project thinking is to empower teams to change the product they have created to meet the needs of its users and to release value for the organisation. This allows for frequent change without boundaries.

So, is the project dead?

No the project is not dead, but there are new alternatives. There are new ways of working which are available to organisations that offer the opportunity to:

  1. Fully embrace all that modern digital technologies have to offer,
  2. Empower converged teams to change and run their product,
  3. Be more agile in governance and investment decisions.

It is an exciting time for all parties involved within project delivery to consider how they can better meet the needs of the organisation and the customers they serve.

Nigel Wilson, author of BJSS Enterprise Agile