~This article, contributed by Mark Langley and Ed Hoffman, was originally published by the Harvard Business Review.~
How do you get a five-ton spacecraft safely to Saturn and land a probe on its largest moon when your project involves three space agencies, 17 countries, 18 separate scientific payloads, and 250 scientists working across 10 time zones?
New findings from the Project Management Institute (PMI) suggest that organizations that focus on excellence in project management execution can reduce risk, improve performance, save money and achieve a greater return on investment.
PMI’s Pulse of the Profession Survey shows that more than two-thirds of project-based organizations have created a dedicated project management office to lead such efforts. More important, the study highlights the key role that project teams play in the success of their initiatives and how organizations can best support their teams. Eight years after the Cassini-Huygens Saturn spacecraft reached its destination, it is still sending extraordinary pictures back to Earth. The project was recently awarded the Trophy of Current Achievement by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. While its results are singular, the methods used to achieve them can be used by any business that needs to reach a goal through team coordination. The PMI study found that organizations like NASA that are highly successful at project management:
- Use project portfolio management to select and prioritize projects and to maintain a strong connection between all projects and the overall mission of the organization. This is even more critical for an organization like NASA that has many high-risk projects and an ever-shrinking budget.
- Have active executive project sponsors.
- Maintain a constant focus on talent development for their teams and in particular their project leaders.
Connecting to the strategic vision
It’s natural for everyone embarking on a project as complicated as Cassini-Huygens to focus mainly on the specifics of making it work. But the Pulse Survey found that teams that focus on achieving their organization’s strategic goals rather than just the performance goals of a specific project increase their overall success rates by as much as 20 percentage points.
Focusing on the larger strategic goal made it easier to manage the schedules, budgets, and human and technological resources in a way that was optimal for the whole project, not just the individual project groups involved — no easy task when the teams were drawn from individuals and organizations from different governments, industries, academia, and scientific disciplines around the world.
One innovative portfolio management technique the mission employed was a novel free market resource allocation concept drawn from the field of economics. Each of the 18 principal investigators (in charge of the various instrument payloads the spacecraft was carrying to capture and transmit information and images from the mission) was authorized to trade key resources — cost, mass, power, and data allotments — across the entire project. So, for example, a principal investigator whose payload was allocated 10 pounds of mass on the spacecraft but required only one was free to trade the other nine pounds for other resources. This approach ensured that project resources were properly allocated where they were really needed and minimized conflicts of interest and management overhead.
Leveraging executive sponsors
It stands to reason that good project management requires active executive sponsorship. In fact, according to the Pulse Survey, executive sponsorship is the greatest factor influencing project success rates. NASA projects generally have many executive sponsors widely deployed — some are in the field centers; others at headquarters; others within industry or the scientific academic community whose research benefits from the outcomes of NASA projects. They advocate, and in some cases fight, for financial resources, people, and equipment. It was their power that endowed the project management teams with the decision-making authority that made the resource allocation exchange possible. Without strong executive sponsorship, many times during the life of a complex project it would seem easiest for teams to walk away from the challenge and difficulty.
Continuing talent development
Few companies, it would appear, pay enough attention to teaching people how to lead teams. The Pulse Survey found that only two in five organizations have a formal process for developing project managers. NASA is one organization that has in fact put a lot of effort into predicting which individuals would succeed as project leaders. For decades, NASA has been committed to training employees in project management through its Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership, an in-house organization that advocates for project management discipline in all missions.
In a study of senior practitioners by Ed Hoffman and Matthew Kohut, the academy identified “four As” necessary for personal effectiveness in its project-based organization — ability, attitude, alliances, and assignments. Ability is obvious. The attitude NASA looks for in its project leaders is an openness to other people’s ideas and perspectives. The most brilliant person without a respectful, collaborative attitude is a failure waiting to happen. Effective NASA project team members also have cultivated large networks of people willing to use their unique views and diversity of experience to solve difficult questions, scrutinize decisions, spread knowledge, and innovate. Finally, rising project managers receive assignments with increasing degrees of difficulty so that they gain a variety of experiences (technical, political, social, system, domain) that prepare them for the challenges they will inevitably face in future assignments.
When a project fails, the Pulse Survey found, an average of one-third of that project’s budget is lost for good. Taken with the additional analysis that shows that on average 36 percent of projects do not meet their original goals and business intent, we see organizations putting at risk significant sums of money when their projects are poorly executed. The teams that lead projects might be the most valuable asset a company has, and the firm must manage those assets carefully.
NOTE: Originally published by Harvard Business Review in 2012. Copyright 2012 Harvard Business Review. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.