Interview with Seamus O’Sullivan, author of ‘Whose project is it anyway?’

Change Management

The single biggest risk on a project can often be the business case, which is too important to trust to the sponsor or project executive. The project manager needs to understand, believe in and be able to defend the business case.

This advice comes from Seamus O’Sullivan in 3gamma’s recent article ‘Whose project is it anyway?’, which is about how organisations can avoid project failures. An engineer by training, Seamus is a Prince, SCRUM, MSP, MoP and MBA qualified project and programme manager with over 18 years’ experience, delivering major change projects for clients of 3gamma UK.

Hi Seamus. Your article has the intriguing title ‘Whose project is it anyway?’. Where does it come from?

The title is a play on a film title from the early 80’s ‘Whose Life is it Anyway’, however it mainly is inspired by the somewhat frightening fact that in the midst of an active project it is a question which many stakeholders struggle to answer. Despite what most methodologies would say, most stakeholders will in practice look to the project manager. The paper therefore suggests embracing this reality rather than fighting it.

In the article, you reference a large survey conducted by KPMG, where only 2% of the organisations surveyed report that all their projects achieve the desired benefits, and 86% of organisations report a shortfall of at least 25%. Why is this?

One of the core reasons cited is poor accountability and governance on the end to end process of benefits identification, prioritisation and realisation. Emotional argument often sways decision making in the early stages. Even if the original justification was based on sound reasoning, people rarely circle back for regular reviews of the business case. The reality is that life moves on, often quite quickly in some markets, and yet the project often remains static.

The traditional role of the project manager has been to lead projects to completion, within the specified timeframe and budget. He or she often comes in when major decisions have been taken and the scope is set. This role does not include the mandate to question the underlying logic behind the project. But you’re saying that this model doesn’t work very well. How should organisations set up their projects instead to secure better outcomes?

My first strong suggestion is to give the project manager that mandate to review the business case. Another approach is the one suggested in 3gamma’s upcoming white paper on governance ‘The Emperor’s Clothes’; implement a small senior group with the responsibility to review project business cases at key stage gates, with the default being that projects have to actively justify why they should still continue. This assumption is therefore that the project should stop unless the re-evaluated business case justifies its continuation.

To challenge a poor business case can be a delicate issue. How can project managers go about this without coming across as offensive?

I touch on this towards the end of the paper but a key element here is for the organisation to give the project manager the mandate to ensure the business case is reviewed, and give them a governance path to do so that does not put them into a direct conflict with the business case owner. That said, a good project manager should already have the skills to handle these sorts of discussions. It comes with the role of needing to sensibly challenge all the other project team members; BA’s , developers, architects and any other specialist resource on a project.

From your experience, when a project manager decides to challenge a business case, what is usually the response? Does he or she tend to succeed in raising awareness for eventual concerns?

It is fair to say that, in my experience, success is mixed and is often heavily influenced by the politics and personalities. If a project manager can orchestrate a scenario where a senior and objective stakeholder is in the room when a questionable business case is brought to light, then the chances of a successful intervention increase significantly. I have seen this a few times and on smaller projects in particular. However I have equally had the scenario where the senior management team took a decision to carry on based primarily on the fact that they would lose the funding if the programme was stopped. Sometimes it is a question of choosing your battles. The least a project manager should aim for is that a conscious decision is made (even if it is the wrong one!).

Great, thanks a lot Seamus. This is a really interesting subject, which I’m sure we’ll come back to in the future.

Seamus was interviewed by Jesper Nordström.

About the authors

Seamus O’Sullivan is a leading programme manager delivering major change projects for clients of 3gamma UK. An engineer by training, Seamus is a Prince, SCRUM, MSP, MoP and MBA qualified Project / Programme Manager with over 18 years’ experience.

Jesper Nordström is a digital strategist, emerging technology analyst and head of group marketing at 3gamma. With a cross-disciplinary background, he has extensive experience working at the intersection between business, IT and design – helping companies gain competitive edge by leveraging digital technologies. Areas of expertise include digital transformation, innovation strategy and emerging technologies. Jesper holds dual degrees in engineering and business management.

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