Project management outside the box - 7 examples of successful, project approaches that were a little different from the norm

5 December 2014

John Hannah

John Hannah


There is no shortage of advice available on best practices for project management. Of course, most of the time it’s easier to describe than to do. Rather than add some more, here I have written about some of the more unexpected or unusual project management styles or approaches that I have come across.  

These are all real examples from real projects. Some were very simple and quick, others required a lot of effort and commitment. But they were all comparatively rare, and therefore outside the norm. And they have stuck in my mind because they were all highly successful, so I am sharing them as food for thought.

1) Tame the Steering Team

The Project Manager had to make a key presentation to the steering team at a critical stage of the project. There were some important options to consider and decisions to be made regarding the scope and direction of the project. Based on previous experience of other steering team meetings, the Project Manager wanted to ensure that attention remained focused on the key questions.

On arrival at the session, each of the steering team members was handed 3 plastic tokens. The Project Manager explained that they had to exchange one token for each question they asked; in other words they were only allowed to ask 3 questions each during the session, which was around 2 hours long including 1 hour or so of presentation.

Fortunately for the Project Manager’s career prospects, they agreed to comply with these rules, and the result was a very successful session. The Project Manager was able to present without too much interruption, and the audience was forced to think carefully and ask constructive questions in order to make best use of their ration. It forced them to operate more collaboratively than was usually the case, with the result that the Project Manager was able to control proceedings and to influence the meeting towards the desired outcome for the project.

You might want to consider the profile of your own steering team before trying this one out in anger yourself.

2) Shut that door

One Project Manager employed a relatively straightforward method of keeping control at the weekly project team lead meetings.  The meeting time was set, the room was booked, and one minute after the scheduled start time, the door was locked from the inside. Anyone who turned up late didn’t get in, and consequently did not have the opportunity to influence proceedings. It did not take long before everyone learned to arrive promptly and well prepared for the weekly sessions, which were both efficiently run and highly effective.    

3) The Dream Team’s dream fulfilled

Yes – there once was a project where the organisation really did execute the project using their best people full-time. Not just a scattering of great people on a part-time basis who were actually too busy much of the time working on other stuff. Management understood early on that introducing the new (ERP) solution would provide the new systems and process foundation for the whole business. They wanted it to be designed correctly, and to maximise buy-in across the organisation. They were willing to endure the pain of back-filling key people across multiple areas of the business, and filled the project team with top performers – both existing seniors and experts, and bright future prospects. They took a conscious decision to have them on the inside, and not the outside, of the programme.  

They were well rewarded. The team had bags of business knowledge, energy and dedication, as well as the foresight to see how future process needs might evolve rather than just seek to imitate the status quo. Business commitment to a successful outcome was pretty much assured from the start. Many of those involved later took up senior management positions across the organisation and continued to act as sponsors and champions as the systems were subsequently extended over time.   

4) A seriously planned roll-out

This was a multinational roll-out of a global ERP template. Each phase, typically 6-9 months, took the solution to another 1-3 countries. From the start the programme engaged closely with the HR function to pro-actively plan the resourcing of the overlapping project teams and phases. This including identifying and seconding key individuals from country B (next target) to join the team in country A (current implementation focus). This was long term and strategic project resource planning, not the reactive and short term tactical resourcing lottery that blights too many projects.

It was an extensive undertaking which merged the needs of the programme with creating great, international career development opportunities for those involved. The individuals concerned were able to learn the solution by being seconded to work with those already more familiar with it, and then were able to take it back to their home country and act as knowledgeable and committed participants to help implement it there. Importantly, they also were in a strong position to understand and defend the integrity of the consistent “template”, so as to protect the key objective of rolling common processes and systems across the different countries and business. This helped greatly in avoiding the “not invented here” syndrome that can be a common issue on such roll-out programmes.

5) Role reversal

It was still the early scoping stage of a future programme to build and implement a common global process and system template. The initial phases were based in the UK, and involved the participation of multiple business units within the UK, even before the wider global dimension was taken into account. As is often the case, politics were involved, and business unit leaders were nervous about aspects of the future direction. One senior and influential individual, who was perceived as being firmly in the “anti” camp, was by default becoming a focal point around which other dissenters were beginning to coalesce.

In response, the CEO “invited” the chief dissenter to take charge of the programme himself, and to make it work. The politics and personalities involved meant that he had little option but to accept. He did, and the fulcrum of dissent was removed almost in an instant. He had the power to reshape the programme sufficiently to address his own concerns, without diverting from its core objectives, and what could have been a very difficult launch and mobilisation phase had been addressed.

This kind of role reversal can work at an organisational level as well as at an individual level. In another company it had proved almost impossible to get a new global template initiative off the ground. The objective was common processes and systems across Europe, but the business organisation was structured on a country-specific basis, with its country-specific management teams being measured accordingly. The executive took the decision to restructure the business into cross-market business functions reporting into European-level directors – commercial, manufacturing, finance etc.

These new directors were to be measured on their business functions’ performance at the cross-market level, and were expected to find efficiencies and streamline their processes across Europe. At a stroke the resistance barrier was removed, and these directors had a major vested interest in promoting common processes and one version of the truth. The buy-in to the new template concept had been assured at the highest level, and the programme was able to proceed.

6) Don’t automate inefficiencies; remove them 

A distribution and logistics service provider had decided to implement a new ERP solution. A major element within the scope was the warehouse management solution, where requirements were quite complex and the scale was large. Across the different physical warehouses in scope there were numerous site-specific process variations, often arising from historical practices or the specific requirements of key clients.

Not surprisingly, during the design phases there was a high user demand for the new solution to reflect these site-specific needs, although everyone understood that the primary objective was a new common and consistent process model wherever possible. The project manager applied a strong scope management and change control approach so that each “non-standard” request could be properly evaluated. Each request was assessed in terms of its own “business case” benefits and costs. This quickly exposed a significant number which could not make the grade and were clearly “nice to have” in terms of the project scope. Many were related to exceptional and occasional manual tasks, where the development of an automated solution would cost more than the time saved, as well as adding complexity to the solution design.

Not that unusual, you might say, although it is surprising how often project teams do succumb to such requests without doing the proper cost / benefit analysis. But this project manager went one step further. The items excluded from scope were not just dropped and forgotten about as the project moved on.  They were fully documented, and had business owners appointed for each. The objective here was not to return to them as part of some subsequent phase two scope. The objective was for the owners to eradicate the quirky process exceptions completely from the business operation. Many were questionable, inefficient and represented longstanding custom and practice.

There was a part of the organisation which specialised in providing logistics process re-engineering services to its clients, so they were engaged for a bit of organisational self-medication to eliminate the process exceptions. The result was a win-win – the project got to focus on its core scope with fewer distractions, and many of the inefficient process exceptions were removed altogether to help streamline the operations, rather than being automated needlessly. 

7) Food for thought

This is my favourite one in the list, because it was so simple and yet so effective. The project team was quite large, around 30-40 people, and built around four or five process streams / teams. Each process stream had a natural steering team representative – production director, sales director, CFO and so on. The project was generally well run with all of the usual governance elements. One small additional aspect was suggested early on and acted upon. Every second Friday, the relevant steering team member sat down to lunch in the staff canteen with their process team from the project (and not including the project management).

These informal sessions led to all sorts of benefits. The steering team members learned some of the detail and challenges involved in the project and the solution design. They positively sought feedback from the project team members on any blockers or “difficult” characters they had to deal with, and then acted to address it. The project team members could experience the high level business commitment directly for themselves, and on at least a fortnightly basis. The scope for any unpleasant surprises on both sides was drastically reduced. Steering team meetings were more enlightened and effective because of the high engagement levels of all participants.     

As I said, so simple, and yet so effective. Why does it not happen more often? I suggest you give it a try sometime.


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