Is now the time to cancel your projects?

By Katie Lynch | 01 July 2020

As we move into the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, councils may be left facing financial shortfalls, scarce resource and conflicting priorities, which will require them to make difficult decisions about whether to proceed with their planned projects. Time and cost already invested, resident expectations and commitments made to members, can make it challenging for councils to reach the right conclusion in a short space of time.

In this article I explore how councils can assess projects to make this decision. Projects need to be assessed objectively on their own merits, in a structured and consistent manner and ideally with the support of experienced project professionals. Assessments should consider the wider strategic context in which projects operate, the pandemic will have meant a change to council’s immediate priorities, changes which could easily mean in-flight projects need to be expedited, paused or even stopped and replaced by more pressing endeavours.

Three key ways to determine whether a project should proceed

  1. Business Case

A decision about a project’s future cannot be made without first giving strong consideration to the reasons a project started in the first place. Where resources are scarce and priorities conflicting, a sound case for change is crucial. One way for councils to determine viability would be to review projects against a set of relevant criteria and for projects without a robust business case to be stopped and the scarce resources reallocated. For example, the HM Treasury’s Business Case guidance recommends considering viability against five distinct, yet interconnected dimensions. This would enable Councils to ascertain whether potential projects:

  • are supported by a robust case for change – the Strategic Case;
  • optimise value for money – the Economic Case;
  • are commercially viable – the Commercial Case;
  • are financially affordable – the Financial Case; and,
  • can be delivered successfully – the Management Case.

All of these dimensions are important; their weight however will likely vary depending upon individual Councils current circumstances and the nature or complexity of specific projects.

  1. Risk Profile

In times of uncertainty and change it is important for project Sponsors to re-review projects risk profile’s, which may have changed. Sponsors should consider risks on two levels, the individual project risks and the overall project risk. These two levels can be distinguished as the risks in the project, for example missed milestones or cost overruns and the risk of the project, which could for example negatively impact on the Council’s reputation or resident’s lives. 

When considering whether or not to proceed with multiple projects, one way to objectively assess them would be to conduct a series of risk workshops (virtually if required) to ensure that the full risk profile of all major projects are consistently understood in order for Council leaders to determine which projects can proceed.

  1. Delivery Performance

Even during normal times, project delivery can present a challenge and its reported that more than half of projects fail to fully meet their objectives or deliver on time and on budget. In the midst of delivery those working directly within the project are often too close to the work and can miss early warning signs of problems. Add to that a work from home mandate, potential illness or self-isolation and even previously high-performing projects could struggle.

It is crucial for leaders to have visibility over their projects, one way to achieve this is through project assessments or audits, which provide an objective independent perspective on performance. Alternatively, leaders could consider implementing consistent highlight reporting, requiring all projects to report their current status against a set of key metrics that allow them to make an informed decision about a project’s future.

Conclusion

Projects are never undertaken lightly and weighing the risks and costs associated with continuing, pausing or stopping a project can be difficult. However, using a structured, objective and consistent framework to support these decisions can turn a highly emotive situation into a well-considered and defendable process. As a result, Councils are far more likely to make the right choice, which helps them to respond to the changing demands and ensure success during this most challenging time.

Katie Lynch is managing director and programme assurance lead for One Eighty Advisory

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