Project Approval Lifecycle
Lessons from the California Department of Technology
Do you want to have better success implementing project deliverables? Do you think you know how to solve a business problem but not sure how to initiate a project?
The CA Department of Technology (CDT) offers an excellent set of tools and techniques, that with practice, a dedicated project team and a deliberate effort will get you on your way to initiating and planning a successful project.
The tools I am referring to are the Project Approval Lifecycle (PAL) stage gate templates and instructions. The techniques include focus groups and meetings with subject matter experts, key stakeholders and managers, depicting As-Is business processes using conceptual and process flow diagrams, and developing business narratives of the business problems and opportunities.
The PAL process defines the stages (stage gates), which if followed closely will help to move your project from just an idea at initiation to a formal plan for procurement, and the knowledge to support a successful project execution phase. The goal for all projects is to have the foundation of the project so well defined, documented and understood that the execution phase will be in the best shape to handle technical complexities and unanticipated issues as they arise.
The PAL process employs four templates, which are named Stage 1 – Business Analysis, Stage 2 – Alternatives Analysis, Stage 3 – Solution Development and Stage 4 – Project Readiness and Approval. The names themselves provide a high-level overview of the activities the project team will complete. But don’t let the name fool you, there are many aspects that the project team must confront to produce quality analyses and acceptable documentation.
The first template,
– Business Analysis will have you focus on defining the project team, business background, stakeholders, business problems and/or opportunities and measurable objectives. This seems like a simple list of items to tackle, but it’s not. The first step in defining the project team is to identify staff who have the business knowledge and the willingness to take precious time out of their day to support a new effort which will not see benefits for some time. These staff members must represent the entire process which will be affected by the eventual solution and be willing to work together to describe the current activities no matter how poorly each is executed. The goal is to describe the current situation well enough that there is context for the team who will eventually help develop a solution. If your audience does not understand the context no matter how bad the situation is, they will not be able to help solve the business problems and will not know how to help meet the business objectives. This means that all staff who play a role in the business process will need to be represented to know you have captured the context fully. When the project team does not know how to describe the context of the current situation the staff that is later employed to help solve the business problems will be in no place to help. Estrada Consulting has been involved in many application development projects and can identify those organizations who have prepared themselves to tackle the difficult challenges of implementing a solution that hits the mark. It takes the experience of senior business analysts to be able to coax the information from the project team and develop the project artifacts that go into the Stage 1 documentation.
For example, imagine you receive a business problem that states, “The business is not meeting its goal to complete customer requests within 4 business days”. The corresponding objective may be: “Reduce the number of requests that are delayed due to missed communication by 20% within 6 months of solution implementation”. This appears to be complete from a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Based) perspective, but there is not enough context for someone on the outside to understand how to help solve the business problem nor satisfy the objective. The reader does not really understand why requests are being delayed. The objective provides some insight that communications are being missed. This seems simple to address by not missing any future communications. We know that it is never this simple and if we had more context, we would know why these are missed and how to help. If the business background description were complete we may find that the reason for missed communication is that the current process relies on email alone to communicate activities performed to complete a customer request. Now the project team or an outside resource can begin to understand that the staff who manage customer requests are overwhelmed with email, which can be solved in a number of ways. By knowing the context we can begin to determine if we have seen this problem before and what approaches were successful in similar situations in the past. I may not have the right solution, but the community you rely on to provide solution alternatives will be able to provide a meaningful solution.
For mature organizations that have well-stated policies and procedures the answer to why the delay is occurring may be more easily determined by an outside person by performing a document review. However, most organizations are facing new business problems and do not have these tools at their disposal. As a departure from the CDT formula to define the As-IS Business process at the later Stage 2 – Alternatives Analysis, Estrada recommends for less mature organizations or those facing a new business problem, your organization analyze the business process fully before even documenting the business problems and objectives. If the project team members can’t describe why they believe the problem exists and is not confident enough to put it in writing for the entire project team to see, we contend that the business problems are not completely known and the objectives when met will not have satisfied the needs of the organization. It is easy to think you know why the business is encountering a problem, but without knowledge of all the actors and steps to complete the process, you will reliably miss important issues that will reduce the affects of the solution.
It is likely the project team will spend more time than expected to define the business background since it is extremely challenging to describe something that one does every day. This is an iterative process to describe every step of the process and make sure the project team’s and stakeholder’s input is considered. This is when an experienced business analyst can provide the most value to ensure that when conversations stall, the right probing questions are asked to keep the discussion moving along. An additional benefit of doing the As-Is Business analysis at Stage 1 is that your team will learn the “hows and whys” each member does their work. You will also find situations where you can make immediate process improvements that take little effort and will contribute to the success of the project. This can create a synergy among the team where members will look to help each other and understand the trials of their co-workers. The Stage 1 – Business Analysis along with the Stage 2 – Alternatives Analysis can often take the most time to complete within the PAL process, which it should. Estrada Consulting recommends an organization spend 3 months at a minimum to complete the Stage 1 documentation. For more mature organizations, that have documented the policies and procedures that describe the business background and context, this may only take weeks to complete.
focuses on the alternatives analysis and analyzing those against the current IT environment from the technical and financial perspectives. Depending on the size and nature of the project and the number of stakeholders the S2AA can take as little as 3 to 6 months and as much as 6 to 12 months to complete.
The S2AA begins with defining the mid-level business requirements that can be derived from analyzing the AS-Is business process flows and narratives, and drive the market research. Having a clear understanding of the business background, problems and mid-level business requirements is paramount to conducting quality market research. This knowledge will allow the organization to clearly describe to your audience what the business needs are and how you plan to measure success through SMART objectives. No matter the type of research the organization plans to conduct from research on the Internet to a formal Request for Information (RFI), the research analysis and assessment team will have the criteria to evaluate proposed alternative solutions. One of the biggest returns on the market research investment will be quality analysis of the advantages/disadvantages of each alternative, which will be based on well-defined evaluation criteria. The market research will also help the project team understand what is available out in the market and the cost of each alternative. This knowledge can often translate into more meaningful requirements that can be prioritized. The requirements become more meaningful since they can be evaluated and categorized more easily as mandatory versus optional and based on the market alternatives, the most important requirements begin to surface among the team as it argues for the features in each solution.
Another important aspect of the S2AA is to document the financial impact of the current environment and associate a value to the products and services provided by the organization. The financial analysis will allow the project team to document the added costs (if applicable) to determine if the benefits in implementing the solution can be justified in efficiencies gained or when business growth can be better managed. For government projects the goal isn’t typically to reduce costs associated with staffing levels, rather to improve efficiencies to address growing demand. Therefore, the Financial Analysis should not focus for government organizations on reducing costs as the primary focus, rather to better understand what the new normal will cost against current expenditures to provide the costs that are associated with growth in the business when constituents ask how money is being spent and why. Information technology projects can be expensive and typically cost more than what has been planned when the work to complete these two stages is not done properly. Most projects that look to implement an electronic solution for a paper-based, manual process that can no longer sustain the business needs will likely increase operational costs and total cost of ownership but will ensure the likelihood of efficiencies as the business continues to grow. When the organization can rely on the cost estimates at this stage, it will be better prepared to adjust to the new costs and will not be surprised with an out of control budget as the project progresses through the execution phase.
Once the organization has completed the S2AA and has determined final requirements, calculated a budget and identified a recommended alternative solution, the difficult work to define detailed solution requirements comes into play. This is the Stage 3 – Solution Development work, in which the detailed requirements are derived from the mid-level business requirements and the project team decides on the approach and methodologies to procure goods and services. Depending on the estimated costs for the project the organization may need to also prepare a Budget Change Proposal to acquire additional funding. In any project that is estimated to surpass the organizations delegated purchasing authority and/or requires a BCP, there are additional forms and oversight that CDT will require while completing the Stage 3 and 4 documents and on into the execution phase of the project. CDT offers an extensive resource to draft the procurement vehicle which describes each section that should be considered based on experience from previous implementation work, and an explanation that describes the content that should be included. During Stage 3 most time will be spent defining detailed solution requirements