Fail Fast, Succeed Faster: Fuelling Project Success with a Flexible Approach

“I have decided to deliberately introduce inefficiency into this project in order for a better outcome to be achieved,” is not a sentence that I have ever uttered. And whilst it can obviously not be proven, I don’t expect any project manager to have said it, anywhere, ever.

While this idea may sound unconventional, seasoned project managers in asset management are increasingly recognising that a rigid approach can have the opposite of its intended effect, and a flexible, less methodical approach can lead to downstream efficiencies. Drawing on my 25 years of successfully leading transformation programs, I have come to embrace unconventional strategies. It is from this vantage point that I invite you to explore a paradigm shift: the deliberate cultivation of adaptability in project lifecycles, even at the expense of following a well-worn script.

Strategic Inefficiency: A Project Manager's Guide

1. Foster freedom for a high-performing team

Embracing flexibility can provide project teams with the valuable freedom to experiment and explore new ideas. When team members are liberated from the constraints of rigid processes and tight deadlines, they gain the space to consider a problem from all angles. This freedom often results in the production of shrewd and innovative solutions.

Of course, there is always the risk that individual or group contributors to projects apply bias and pursue outcomes that might benefit the individual not the whole. Aligning personal and project objectives is a good way to mitigate this. Yet on balance, this environment becomes a breeding ground for innovation, fostering solutions that not only address immediate challenges but also pave the way for long-term success. 

2. Welcome course corrections and adaptive-decision making

In investment management change projects, strategic decision-making is key. My mantra is simple: “make decisions, and if they prove to be wrong, make another one.”* Throughout a project’s lifecycle, project sponsors make numerous decisions that get documented, signed off, and become a part of the project’s auditable history. No one ever tries to make the wrong decision. However, ‘stuff happens’ and when something new comes to light that negates or means that the previous decision was wrong, then it’s okay to make a new decision.

Too often I have seen projects that have become entrenched in adhering to past decisions, trying to adapt a project scope, timeline or benefit to meet a required outcome recorded in the project’s auditable history. It’s my view that embracing a ‘fail fast’ mentality, whilst potentially more inefficient due to revisiting decisions, ultimately leads to better outcomes through frequent course corrections.

*Exceptions exist for this approach, especially in matters of health and safety or regulatory compliance, where a more cautious approach to decision-making is of course necessary.

3. Prioritise progress over process

We’re all aware that a PMO’s main role is to establish and maintain project management standards, processes, and best practices to ensure efficient project execution. The PMO carries additional responsibilities, primarily enabling optimal utilisation of resources, aiding a business in achieving strategic objectives, and safeguarding against market volatility. Despite these critical functions, there are times when the PMO, in its pursuit of ‘efficiency,’ inadvertently hampers progress—especially where officious project governance is found.

But let’s be honest—no SteerCo report, flashy project dashboard, or detailed workstream update has ever delivered a project. It is the hard work of those engaged on the project that do. They’re the real driving force. So, to counteract the tendency to prioritise process over progress, it’s time for a rightsizing approach to project governance. I believe we should focus on the essentials, ensuring that our efforts align with the overarching goal of meaningful progress.

4. Establish flexible frameworks

In the pursuit of efficiency, teams’ responses to tasks—large or small—can lead to rigidity. It’s neat to have insert any example of when due process is followed. But when teams become too focused on achieving this state, there is often a failure to flex when required.

Take the instance of a project plan matrix across a client, a software vendor, and a consultant tasked with implementation. If the client demands a certain format, which the vendor translates to their internal format—then the consultant transposes to their project view—it creates three touchpoints that need to be manually aggregated for every update and report. How much time is wasted in the upkeep of this one process which individual aspects were initially designed to aid efficiency?

But if we adopt the alternative and seek to work within established frameworks but with flexibility—the opposite of strictly adhering to “efficient” processes—we open the door to adaptability. Adaptability, coupled with freedom (point 1), allows teams to adopt a culture that values creative problem solving over rigid adherence to predefined procedures.

5. Encourage collaborative efforts 

While it may be straightforward to assign tasks to individuals to deliver within set timeframes, as a project manager you should place emphasis on fostering collaboration and leveraging collective strengths. Deliberately consider team dynamics, clearly define what success looks like by reiterating core objectives, and witness your teams’ yield high-performing outcomes. 

6. Personalise stakeholder management 

I’ve left one of the most important aspects of a project until last: stakeholder management. While its significance may not be immediately obvious or provide immediate project benefits, taking stakeholders along for the whole journey is powerful. Scheduled communications with stakeholders is perceptibly the most efficient approach, but the added value of ad-hoc, unscheduled, or casual interactions beyond formal project governance should not be underestimated. Formal or hurried interactions may not lead to the most insightful feedback or appropriate remedies. Investing in a personalised approach to stakeholder relationships, such as delaying project activities to allow for influential interactions, pays dividends in the long term.

Embracing strategic inefficiency can revolutionise project management. By prioritising creativity, adaptability, and stakeholder engagement, teams can navigate challenges more effectively. In confronting the conventional pursuit of streamlined processes, in the nuance of project lifecycles, the purposeful cultivation of inefficiency could be the catalyst for innovation and achievement. Sometimes, it’s in the deliberate slowing down that projects find their most extraordinary pace.