PMI released its 2012 Pulse of the Profession survey at the end of last month. This survey of over 1000 project managers looks at key industry trends and what makes organisations successful. This year’s report identifies 5 critical success factors for project, programme and portfolio management. They are:

  • Staffing
  • Realistic planning
  • Top-level support
  • Defining benefits
  • Managing change

Let’s look at each of those in turn.

Staffing the team with appropriately skilled people

Skilling up the team was considered a key success factor for projects. The Pulse of the Profession survey shows that nearly 70% of organisations have a career path for those working in project-related jobs. This is great. There is no standard career path for project professionals, as people become project managers at various stages in their careers and move on from project management into a number of different roles. A project co-ordinator may not develop into a project manager, and a project manager may not grow into a programme manager. But at least if there is a recognised path for progression, project managers have options.

Taking the time to create a realistic implementation plan

Having a realistic plan for project implementation was another critical success factor. Apparently we are getting better at drawing up plans. According to the survey, project managers are getting better at organisational project management. One in five respondents described themselves as having “high” organisational project management maturity. This is an increase of 9% since 2006, but it is self-reported data. You do have to question whether people now consider themselves to be better at producing realistic plans – it would be good to be able to show an improvement somehow.

Ensuring top-level management support for the project

Unsurprisingly, having top-level management support for projects is a big contributing factor to project success. Organisations that have active sponsors on at least 75% of their projects have a success rate of 74%. On the other hand, companies that report less active sponsor involvement report an average success rate of 63%.

Check your sponsor is doing what you need them to do – they are critical for your success. Do they attend meetings? Are they prepared? Are they helping you by asking the right questions and championing your project at the executive level in the company? If not, you may have to train your project sponsor.

Clearly defining the expected benefits from the project

Projects contribute to outcomes. If you don’t work out what benefits you expect to see from a project and how these contribute to the future success of the organisation through the delivery of benefits, then you could end up working on the wrong project.

The Pulse survey reports that despite difficult economic conditions, enterprises will continue to focus on benefits realisation as a measure of project and programme success. I should hope so too.

Who is responsible for benefits identification in your company? In many cases, the project manager completes the project, hands over the project deliverables to the business as a usual team and then moves on to the next project. The operational team has to track benefits, and given the constraints of their existing roles, in many cases, I imagine this doesn’t get done. You can help prove the effectiveness of your project by ensuring there is a benefit tracking mechanism in place.

Effectively managing change associated with the project

It’s great to be able to deliver something, but if the change you implement with your project doesn’t ‘stick’ then it’s pretty much worthless. What’s the point of working to deliver something if the recipients of the project deliverables go back to what they were doing six months down the line?

According to the Pulse research, more than 70% of survey respondents always or often use change management and risk management techniques. This is good, but again it doesn’t tell us how successful they are. Unfortunately, you can regularly use change management and risk management techniques but still make a bad job of them.

The survey is interesting, and it flags a couple of trends to watch, which I’ll talk about next week. Mark A. Langley, president, and CEO of PMI, sums up the research. “Our research indicates that organisations that keep a sharp focus on fundamental project management practices are realising huge results,” he says. “By optimising strengths and improving on weaknesses in the core project management practices, an organisation puts far fewer dollars at risk for each project.”