The Unicorn Project

Don’t get too excited; we’re not here to talk about mythical, horned horse-creatures (rainbow-hued or otherwise).  We want to talk about whether there is really any such thing as a ‘Good Project’.

In our experience, projects can fall into two broad categories:

  • Small changes, where it is easy to succeed – but the rewards are low
  • Large change programmes, where success can be elusive, and costs high – but the results can be transformative 

Is there a Goldilocks Zone?  Is it possible for there to be such a thing as a ‘Good Project’?

We think the clues lie within an examination of projects which fall within the second category above.  As much as these extended programmes can be a source of stress, angst and prolonged periods of apparently never-ending change – some are better than others, and the reasons which make some ‘better’ can be enlightening.

Clear Aims
Being clear about what we are trying to achieve – and, crucially, why – is vital in a large, complex set of changes.  Think of this as the project ‘rudder’ – there to keep us all on course, and prevent drift.  As much as it may be easy to be cynical about a ‘Mission Statement’ – something as simple as a single sentence can help to refocus a project team during times of difficulty.

Engaged Stakeholders
The ‘clear aims’ above, and any project objectives which sit below that must have an element that describes why this change is important for the business stakeholders impacted. Being clear, as a project team, about that ‘why’ helps the team to stay engaged when things get tough.  More crucially – it is a critical point to keep front and centre of conversations with the stakeholders.  “We know this is important to you, because…”

Senior Support
Any change programme or large project will give the illusion of ‘senior support’ – simply as a function of requiring a certain size of budget that requires senior (often Board-level) involvement.  This is not the same thing as ‘senior support’.
Real senior support is having sponsorship from someone senior enough – and empowered enough – to go to bat for the project when it gets tough.

An Example
Without being too specific about the personalities and about the firm involved… there was once a project to move an investment desk onto the same order management system as the other desks in a newly merged asset management firm.  The project was not without difficulty, and was compelled to pivot and deliver something technically different to the stated aims at the outset. 

This project took longer than it was planned to, cost more than it was planned to – and was not without issues after it went live.

Despite which – we still had senior stakeholders proclaiming that the project team had done a good job, once it was delivered.

Why?  Because they were engaged, the delivery – although different to what was planned – was better aligned with their aims, enabled them to do continue to do what they do best, and grow their business.

From the outside looking in – this was anything but a ‘good project’.  And yet – that senior level support, day-to-day engagement and alignment with the aims of the business team impacted – means it was close to as good a project as it could be.

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