Getting the Greatest Possible Benefit From a Project
Projects are the engines of change within most organizations.
When you decide that you need something new, or you need something old done in a new way, a project is born. From then on, efforts focus on planning, preparing, executing, monitoring, and managing this project. But have you ever had a project that ultimately didn't deliver the benefits you needed?
A great deal of time can elapse between the time that a project is created, and its completion. Things can change along the way as you overcome obstacles. And even very small shifts in project design and execution can affect whether the benefits you wanted when you created the project are still addressed in the final outcome.
When there's a weak connection between the project's deliverables and the organization's needs, then there's a risk that the benefits of a project may be lost along the way. (This is particularly the case when the project team is separate from the project's client.) This is where it makes sense to establish a clear case for the project – so that you can make sure that the deliverables meet expectations, and give the organization the benefits it expects.
Starting With the End
"Benefits Management" is the process by which you ensure that your projects deliver what you want. Done effectively, it helps ensure that your project's deliverables give value to the business, and the appropriate return on investment.
In the benefits management process, you answer questions like these:
- Why are we doing this?
- What business objective will this project help to meet?
- Have we defined all of the benefits we're expecting?
- Have we justified the time and expense of the project?
- How will we measure the benefits?
- Is the project still valid?
- Are the benefits still relevant?
Investing your time in benefits management helps you reduce the overall risk of the project. It forces you to look at organizational issues that might hurt a project's success, and then deal with those issues in the project plan. After all you begin by knowing what you want the end result to look like, you'll likely improve your ability to predict and avoid many potential obstacles.
The Benefits Management Process
A benefit is the desired result of a project that was created to meet a particular operational need. For example, a project designed to reduce the time it takes to process an order has benefits such as improved customer service, increased sales, and reduced frustration for sales staff who have to deal with customer complaints.
The whole point of benefits management is to make sure that your project provides clear benefits – as opposed to simply making sure the project is completed within specific time and resource limitations. So, while the success of project management is to deliver on time and on budget, the success of benefits management takes it one step further – to ensure that the initiative delivers the expected results.
Here are the main phases of benefits management:
Phase One: Define and Develop the Benefits
During project initiation:
- Talk to all stakeholders to figure out which benefits and outcomes they each expect – and why.
- Create a benefits statement.
- List the final benefits that you want, and make sure you've distinguished between "must haves" and unaffordable "nice-to-haves."
- Identify how the benefits are aligned with the company's strategy, and the needs of the business.
- Decide what must happen in connection with the project to maximize benefits.
- Identify the changes, or other projects, needed to support and achieve the outcome of the main project, and make sure that these are in the plan. For example, do workers need extra training? Do you need a new advertising campaign to tell the market about your new feature? Or do you need to hire additional people, or buy new equipment to take full advantage of the change?
- Extend the cost-benefit analysis to include the benefits you've identified.
- Remember to look for tangible and intangible benefits.
Phase Two: Develop the Benefits Plan
Again, during project initiation:
- Look at the overall project plan, and make sure that the appropriate supporting activities are included, so that you can ensure that benefits are achieved on time. Use traditional project management tools, like Gantt charts and PERT charts, to complete and track your benefits schedule.
- Watch out for gaps in benefits, as well as additional benefits.
- Identify who is accountable for delivering these supporting activities.
- Establish metrics for each benefit, and determine when and how you'll determine that the benefit has been delivered.
- Determine how the benefits will be reported. You can use milestone reports as well as a benefits dashboard as reporting tools.
- Include a benefits management summary in the business case for the project.
Phase Three: Monitor the Benefits During Project Implementation
As the project moves forward:
- Regularly monitor your progress towards delivering the expected benefits.
- Modify the benefits plan as needed when the overall project plan changes.
- Establish a communication system between yourself and the project manager (if this is a different person). This helps ensure that you routinely discuss and consider the benefits.
- Provide support to the project team, and use the benefits statement to encourage their work.
- Watch for "benefits creep" – make sure that people's expectations don't grow too much during the project. When you start to expect too many benefits, this can weaken the project's overall impact, and lead to disappointment when imagined benefits are not delivered. If your benefits-required list keeps growing, it's often better to create separate projects for each specific intention and focus. See more tips on scope control.
Phase Four: Complete the Project, and Review Your Benefits
Towards the end of the project:
- Identify the benefits that were achieved, and look for gaps and missed opportunities.
- Monitor your workers' ongoing needs to ensure that they continue to enjoy the benefits. Consider setting up a system to communicate future needs. This is a way to collect ideas for future projects.
- Record what went well and what needed improvement. This supports continuous learning within your organization.
Benefits are the reason any project is created and implemented.
Benefits management is all about ensuring that the hard work and investment that's gone into the project gives the greatest possible business return. Projects tend to change over their lifecycles, and even small shifts can produce different results. That's why it's important to focus on the project's benefits, and not just its timely completion.
Benefits management forces you to stay focused on why you started the project in the first place. And it doesn't stop after the project ends, like traditional project management – it continues until all benefits are clearly achieved. You can use the same project planning framework as the rest of the project to do this, but you'll need to build in benefit-specific milestones, as well as establishing accountabilities clearly, and setting up appropriate communications systems. Done this way, benefits management can be a smart addition to a comprehensive project management plan.