P2C2 Group Header: Go to Website for Program and Project Consulting including CPIC, OMB 300, Project Management, Strategic Planning, Acquisition, Evaluation


August 2007

Five Critical Factors for Program and Project Success

The P2C2 Group

Home Page

© 2007 P2C2 Group, Inc.

Five Critical Factors for Program and Project Success

There are important analogies between project development and child development. Care during gestation and infancy can minimize the risk of defects, health problems, and developmental delays.

Programs and projects that start out weakly have a grim prognosis. Earned Value Management (EVM) experts often say that a project will seldom recover if costs and schedules are not under control by the time work is 20% complete. Those that begin with negative performance indicators generally end up with cost overruns and completion delays.

Developing strong and healthy projects can avoid or minimize many of the performance problems that typically grow more serious—or even disastrous—later in the project lifecycle.

Based on many years of experience as a management consultant and project manager, I have selected five critical factors that can help your organization develop and nurture better programs and projects. Careful attention to these factors will lead to better outcomes and reduce project risk:

  • Focus on the Right Problem
  • Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open
  • Define and Manage Your Requirements
  • Create the Right Team
  • Foster a Common Understanding

Focus on the Right Problem

Identifying the right problem is not always obvious or straightforward. Indeed, focusing on end-user needs and complaints alone will often lead to band-aid remedies or presumed solutions that are ineffective.

Here is a historic example of chasing the wrong problem: For centuries, the disease malaria was blamed upon bad air associated with swampy environments, and the word malaria comes from the Medieval Italian and means “bad air.” It was not until 1880 that a French army doctor, Laveran, observed parasites inside the red blood cells of people suffering with the disease.

Avoid jumping on a “problem bandwagon” too soon even if most people think the problem is obvious and well known. Vendors may attempt to define the problem to the advantage of their solution. Some ambitious colleagues in your organization may identify a problem that supports their agenda. And some end-users would like a band-aid, even if it doesn’t lead to a strategic solution for the organization.

For contractors, a major risk is to accept the customer’s definition of the problem without detailed investigation and validation. One of the purposes of newer procurement vehicles, like Statements of Objectives (rather than rigid Statements of Work), is to give contractors more flexibility in defining a workable solution.

Our recommended approach for focusing on the right problem is to begin with an enterprise-wide business analysis that provides the framework for defining strategy and the potential scope of the initiative. The basic steps for problem identification are:

  • Organizational Goals and Mission
  • Business Needs Assessment and Performance Review
  • Gap Analysis
  • Strategy
  • Scope of Program and Project(s)

Only then should you focus in detail on user needs and requirements elicitation—within the context of organizational needs and strategy.

Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open

You can avoid a basketful of potential problems by looking closely at the facts and listening to other people who have “been there, done that.” This critical factor is crucial when devising a solution that a program or project will undertake: Management consultants often use the case study method because organizations need more information about the Lessons Learned in other organizations that have attempted similar or alternative solutions.

When we plan a new initiative for a client, we search broadly for solutions that address similar problems. As closely as practical, we seek to match up industry, organizational size, and business environment. Between news, journals, vendor white papers, scholarly articles, and industry associations, there is usually a wealth of information.

Sometimes we develop original case studies, seeking high-level summaries of requirements, solutions, timeframe, scope, cost, benefits, problems, and outcomes. We like to know what went wrong and what the organization would do differently if they could. In government, there is often detailed information because of public budget justifications, Requests for Proposals, histories of contract modifications and costs, and identifiable vendors.

But eyes and ears also need to focus internally within your organization. As Project Management Institute encourages, it is important to maintain an organizational history of major projects. If you do not know the common themes of project histories within the organization, you are doomed to repeat the mistakes—many of which could often be avoided through improved policies and business processes.

Identifying your stakeholders and paying attention to what they are saying is also an overlooked ingredient for success. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Define and Manage Your Requirements

Invest the time and money to develop detailed plans, requirements, and documentation before you develop and implement your solution. Impulses to reduce or eliminate the upfront work almost always lead to cost overruns, delays, and disappointing outcomes. Correcting defects—including errors and omissions—is far more expensive than robust requirements planning.

Let’s use software development as an example of the impact of faulty requirements management through the definition, design, coding testing, and operational phases. It can cost up to 110 times more to correct a requirements defect found after the project is implemented into operational phase than it would have cost during the initial planning and definition phase.  (Effective Requirements Definition and Management. Borland Systems Corporation, 2006.


We have found that requirements are multidimensional. You must deal with both “product” specifications (i.e., characteristics of the deliverables or output that the project will create) and with “project” requirements. The former deals with product standards, characteristics, and test results. The latter deals with time, scheduling, staff resource, cost, change management, and supply-chain issues.

Requirements management is a continuous process. After upfront planning, there are critical issues of change control. Modifying one requirement may have a domino effect on various dependencies within the project or the deliverable products. Software is available to track the relationships between requirements, and this is an invaluable tool for determining the cost and schedule consequences of making changes that, on the surface, appear innocent and small.

Processes for defining requirements and managing their change over time provide an important means to managing costs, schedule, risk, and product quality.

The Right Team

You can have the best plan and strategy in the world, but it will fall apart without the right team. Major projects require an effective team to be successful—not just a good project manager or technical officer.

“When I receive a business plan, I always read the résumé section first,” writes William Sahlman in his article How to Write a Great Business Plan. “Not because the people part of the new venture is the most important, but because without the right team, none of the other parts really matters.” (William A. Sahlman, Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1997.)

The “right team” consists of several parts: the core project staff, the experts who serve as resources, the suppliers, and the Integrated Project Team (organization-wide stakeholders including business, technical, line management, users, and project owner). The team has the skills, experience, communication skills, and commitment to make the program or project work. What’s more, the team members are committed to the group, the collective vision, and the overall success.

The importance of the team is obvious, but programs and projects nonetheless get into trouble because the team is incomplete, some members are inadequate, leadership is inept, or the group dynamics are out of sync. If a project has a high priority, leadership must commit to making the right people and resources available.

Government consultant services, planning, acquisition, financial analysis, OMB 300, project management, management consultant

Foster a Common Understanding

Keep everyone on the same page. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Everyone understands the project, makes the same assumptions, knows the requirements, and shares common expectations.

Before you become too comfortable, consider this story from MITRE Digest, summarizing difficulties in a contract negotiation. MITRE was brought in to help mediate.

“A multimillion-dollar contract negotiation between the Air Force and a major developer had reached an impasse and the clock was ticking. A $2 million gap between the developer's bid and the Air Force's funding—funding that would disappear if the contract was not signed by the end of the budget cycle—blocked the deal. At stake was the Joint Mission Planning System (JMPS) that the Air Force needed to support Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) planning.”

A MITRE representative was preparing for negotiations and recalled that an Integrated Baseline Review (IBR) had been conducted at the contractor’s facility only a few months earlier. An IBR seeks to make sure that the government and the contractor are on the same page regarding requirements.  

Comparing the IBR data to the contractor's bid data, it became obvious that the contractor, under pressure by the approaching budget deadline to draft an offer quickly, had assigned costs to tasks and subtasks without realizing that these same tasks and subtasks were already being performed in other contracted efforts. Once the MITRE representative mapped these overlaps, it became easier for everyone to understand the problem and negotiate a solution. (Precision Negotiating Keeps Mission Planning Program Flying, MITRE Digest. January 2005,


Fostering common understanding among stakeholders is one of the most difficult and important of the five factors discussed in this article. As Plato is reputed to have said, “No law or ordinance is mightier than understanding.”

Wrap Up

The takeaway is to hang onto these ideas diligently and apply them when the going gets rough and distractions arise. It’s easy to forget them when under pressure.


The P2C2 Group is a consulting practice serving governments, companies, nonprofits, and universities. Our focus is planning, development and management analysis of programs and projects that help achieve an organization's goals and objectives.

Drop us an e-mail sometime. Brainstorm. Comment. Chat.


One of my favorite things about the neighborhood where I now live is the wide, grassy median in the middle of the street. It reminds me just a little of Woodruff Place in Indianapolis, one of the neighborhoods where I grew up. Woodruff had remnants of a Victorian legacy, complete with a grassy median (then called an esplanade), large urns for plants, and fountains. For a kid, the fountains were a great place to try a toy sailboat. Or to fill a squirt gun.

Best regards,

Jim Kendrick, PMP
P2C2 Group, Inc.
4101 Denfeld Avenue
Kensington, MD 20895


The P2C2 Group, Inc.
4101 Denfeld Avenue | Kensington, MD 20895
Point of Contact: Jim Kendrick, President
e-mail: kendrick@p2c2group.com
phone: 301-942-7985 | fax: 301-942-7986