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26 June 2016

5 Reasons Why Projects are an Essential Tool for Better Business

The #NoProjects book at InfoQ
Click this image to get a PDF booklet on
the argument for #NoProjects
This article is an inoculation against the #NoProjects meme.

Projects are great. Despite the cry on the web about projects being bad for business they can really help you do a better job of organizing your work.

I am writing this as a counter to a meme about why projects are evil and need to be abolished. What was once a sentiment is now a movement (with it's own hashtag, so it really is legit.)

The main arguments against projects seem to be;

  • Projects are temporary organisations. People that work on projects don't have to live with the consequences of the work they do, and so will eagerly take quality shortcuts that someone else is going to have to pay for
  • Projects are organised around impossible goals. Some executive somewhere wants a new product out to market, or internal process fixed and all the big decisions about time money and scope are done before you arrive. 
There are more, but they are essentially minor next to these two complaints. 

The top 5 reasons why projects are great for your business

1. Projects are independent organisations within your larger organisation.

Want to hang on to the status quo? Want all your improvements to be incremental? Potentially nothing more than meddling?

There is an internet's worth of business advice that says you need to drive step change improvements to your organization from the outside. Examples that peddle this advice include things from Harvard like Christensen's "Innovator's Dilemma," INSEAD's Mauborgne and Kim's "Blue Ocean Strategy," our own community's "Clean room" and even the obscure Russian model Triz recommendation to look at the problem from outside your current thinking.  

Project organizations help you break free from the normal constraints of the organization. You have essentially created a new organisation that operates alongside the main org. The new organization has the ability to disrupt status-quo thinking, and to champion radical change rather then incremental improvement.

Saying you want to abandon projects is like saying you want to abandon innovation.

2. Projects are oriented around goals. 

Without goals you'll drift. Organisations that have purpose do better than ones that muddle along. Even if they are lean startups.

Here is an article from your mates at HBR that says a clear mission amplifies organisational effectiveness by orders of magnitude. 

Lean startup can build a sense and respond capability, but having a context to operate in gives a congruence and coherence to the work that pays off. Another heuristic business folk use is the idea of a North Star to help people grok your purpose.  

Goals are like that. Set a goal, and head towards it. Don't be dogmatic, and change when you need to, but a higher purpose will pull your work together in a way that makes a real difference both to customer outcomes and to engagement with the work from the team members themselves. 

3. Projects are collaborative efforts by people with shared goals

Projects are team sports. We do them together. Sometimes a project is delivered by multiple people. Often in organisations, especially large ones the many competing agendas can pull people in different directions. Different measures of performance, different individual priorities based on roles and different values lead to conflict and wasted energy.

A project can unify people around a mission. People can put their local or day to day agendas aside as they focus on the higher purpose provided by the project.

4. Projects have an end date 

This gives a very clear bounded context for learning. When you are done you know it. The project is over. You can now look back and ask yourself, was it worth it? If I were to do it again what would I work on doing better? If work is continuous and ongoing you can still look back and reflect on how you'll improve for the future, but what context will you be using to assess your performance?

And end also gives you a catalyst for stopping and reflecting about the bigger picture; your career, your place in the company and the purpose of the organisation you are spending so much time working at. If you don't have these moments to step outside the normal routine, you'll end up on a treadmill that's no more inspiring than a death-march.

5 Projects have a plan

A plan is a map of how you'll achieve your goals. Without a plan you may be fine, if all you are doing is one small thing at a time, but you want to do something amazing don't you? 

You want the sum of you work to be story worthy at the very least, and hopefully of great value to people. If you have aspirations to do something great, you have aspirations to do something difficult. Planning before you start will do you well.

Besides, isn't it so very satisfying when you get to say out loud "I love it when a plan comes together."

So there you have it: Five reasons why projects are an essential way of working smarter. You'll see in the examples I have described that none of this counters the prevailing ideas of what smart work looks like. Instead projects are a tool that can augment the way you think and operate that can amplify your chances of success.