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Skumolski, G. y Hartman, F. ( diciembre, 2000 ) . The project achilles heel : misalignment . Cost Engineering, 42 (12) pp. 33-37.


The Project Achilles Heel: Misalignment

Gregory J. Skulmoski and Dr. Francis T. Hartman, P.Eng.

KEY WORDS: project success, alignment, tools and techniques, SMART project management (strategically managed, aligned, regenerative teams in a transitional environment)

n most projects, success means different things to different people. For example, a pipeline project might be considered to be a success if the engineering is completed on time and is technically "tight." A pipeline could be a success because it was completed as scheduled during three construction seasons, or because it operates as designed, or if its maintenance procedures can be executed easily and effectively. These are four different definitions of project success from four different stakeholders. Should the project fail in any one of these success conditions, it could be considered a failure in the eyes of the concerned stakeholder. Even though the engineering is technically well done and the construction finished as scheduled, the operations staff may be dissatisfied with the pipeline if it is cumbersome to operate and maintain. How does one satisfy all of the key stakeholders? Aligning their measures of success and managing their expectations are the keys to project alignment. What if the schedules, budgets, and baseline plans we develop are not important to the people working on the project? Other success criteria may be more important. Cost engineers need to meet the

needs of their clients by choosing the most appropriate tools and procedures. Project alignment and symptoms of misalignment are presented in this article, and two tools that can help to achieve alignment in projects are presented . Without project alignment, a project is a failing endeavor even before significant work begins.

When one considers the symptoms of project misalignment, it appears to be a common problem. There are many symptoms of misalignment [ 3] . A common feature of projects that lack alignment is that project definition seems to continue throughout the project. New project team members try to change the project. Project rules continue to change, or the project direction appears to drift. Cost overruns, schedule problems, disputes, massive scope creep, and rework also are symptoms of misalignment. Misalignment costs money, time, and reputations. Achieving alignment requires project participants to take time at the start of the project to define project success, determine exactly when the project is finished , identify the key stakeholders, and clarify which project
Cost Engineering Vol. 42/No. 12 DECEMBER 2000

constraints are most important. The degree of proj ect success is often determined by how early in the project these elements are considered and agreed upon, and how early expectations are managed [6]. Project alignment begins by selecting projects that support the corporate direction [3]. Project alignment involves processes to ensure that key stakeholders share a common understanding of the project's mission, goals, objectives, tactics, and plans. The key stakeholders' expectations and objectives need to be considered, documented, and prioritized. Alignment is not so much an objective to be achieved as much as it is a process. Alignment is more likely to occur if a methodical process is followed . Throughout a project, new team members are added, and these people need to be oriented to the project. They need to have the same (and accurate) understanding of the project's mission, goals, objectives, taches, and plans. lndeed, their competencies need to be aligned with the requirements necessary to complete the project [9]. As a project progresses, those involved need to continue to share the same vision of success and project completion. Project alignment is therefore like navigation: the required destination remains the same throughout the journey even if travelers are knocked off course from time to time. Project participants need to keep central to their duties the project's mission, goals, objectives, taches, and plans so that if they are knocked off course or have difficulties along the way, they will always know the destination called project success.

The Benefits of Project Alignment Alignment is critica! for organizations. Without alignment, organizations will flounder [7], will beco me less competitive [ 1], and a culture of stress and conflict can result [8]. Project alignment drives the behavior of project participants. When a project is truly aligned, many extraordinary things happen. Human nature being what it is, people are often interested in personal success, which can be a powerful motivator if personal success is achieved at the same time as project success. Misalignment occurs if one stakeholder's strategy is attained at the expense

of another. A win-win attitucle must clrive behavior if true alignmcnt is to be achievecl. Project participants who work to achieve objectives they are responsible for, while keeping the "big picture" in mind , are alignccl. Stakeholders' expectations are managecl on al ignecl projects. Key stakeholclers are involvecl in project planning. Their needs, expectations, fears, ancl frustrations are all heard ancl unclerstood by the other key stakeholclers. lt may turn out that some of their requirements will not be met; however, since they have been consultecl ancl their expectations were considered, and because they know why some of thei r requirements are not a part of the project, they are more likely to buy into the project. "Unreasonable" expectations ancl/or scope creep are reduced. One important byproduct of alignment is that there will be synergy of planning. Stakeholclers might use their collective competencies to clevelop a better plan at the beginning of the project. Better plans help to reduce quality problems ancl rework and to meet buclget and schedule objectives. Problem-solving is also improved since the stakeholclers share a common unclerstancling of project success and are committecl to achieving that success. In such a project environment, conflict is recluced. Once again, alignment brings its participants together to work toward project success.

\Vho: who gets to vote on the first two questions? \Von: what is success for this project? Done: when is the project finished?

Their timing of completion does not necessarily need to coincide.

Achieving Alignment Project alignment cloes not just happen: it needs to be pLumee!, communicatecl, monitorecl, and controlled [2]. Like other project management processes, project alignment ncccls to be evaluated throughout thc 1ife cycle of the project ancl correctivc action taken, if necessary. Two tools can be used to facilitate project alignment- the priori ty triangle and the three key questions too! [3 ). In real projects, these two tools are easily understood and used by project stakeholclers.


The primary stakeholclers need to be asked three key questions in arder to establish and maintain projcct alignment.

Statecl another way, who-won-clone need to be askecl at the start of a project. The first question is based on who gets to vote on answering the next two questions. That is, who are the primary stakeholders? Primary stakeholclers are those who are significantly affectecl by the project or who can significantly affect the project [3 , 5]. These stakeholclers neecl to become involved early in the project ancl should be asked the next two questions. The who-won-clone questions help to delineate success and are critica] for project alignment. Determining exactly what success looks like is the focus of the seconcl question. Depencling u pon the type of project, clelineating success may be clifficult for sorne stakeholders to express. "lmprovecl maintenance" does not offer much guiclance . However, should measurable ancl objective metrics be included, such as "maintenance is completed 30 percent faster," then success becomes more objectively measured ancl evaluated. Engineering may have multiple measures of success, such as a specific number of iterations the clrawings ancl specifications must go through in order to receive client approval. For engineering, a low number of iterations are desirable. Engineering ancl maintenance can work together using the principies of value engineering to improve maintenance time and reduce the number of iterations the plans ancl specifications must go through to receive approval by the project sponsor. Finally, when the project is consiclerecl completed neecls to be identifiecl. With the pipeline project example, we see that the different stakeholclers have clifferent perspectives regarcling when the project is complete. For example, the engineering team's involvement may be finishecl when the client formally approves engineering clrawings ancl specifications. 1-Iowever, the operations tearn may consicler the pipeline finishecl when the first majar maintenance is successfully performecl. We have two very clifferent ancl valid completion criteria. The critica] dynarnic that needs to occur is engineering and operations collaborating to ensure that both finish conditions are achieved.
Cost Engineering Vol. 42/No. 12 DECE!viBER 2000

lmplementation It is often beneficia! for an externa! facilitator to concluct the three key questions exercise. When a third party facilitates this exercise, it reduces the probability of a key stakeholcler clominating and forcing the results that he or she desires. The project sponsor and obvious key stakeholders identify who gets to vote on the subsequent two questions (clone and won). Determining who gets to vote neecls to be established early in the project. Next, the key stakeholclers are assembled to answer the two cuestions. Befare the two questions are answered, the facilitator should explain the importance of alignment ancl how the three key cuestions can be used to create alignment. The facilitator also rnay ask if any key stakeholders have been erroneously omitted. Ideally, all key stakeholclers, rather than all stakeholclers, should be present. If all key stakeholclers are present, the exercise proceeds, and the group answers the two questions. If key stakeholclers are absent, the meeting should be rescheduled if those present cannot accurately represent their interests. Whi]e there may be many ways to concluct the three key questions exercise, using yellow sticky notes has been very effective. The exercise begins by cletermining what constitutes project success. This encompasses what the "won" is for the project. Those present write their answers on the notes ancl place them on a wall to be seen by the group. When no new answers are placee! on the board, clarification may be asked for, if necessary. Clarificaban ancl justification are useful because they promote cliscussion ancl understancling. These conclitions of success can be grouped into similar categories. lt is important to clocument the rationale for why the condition is important to the key stakeholders. Understanding the rationale will improve overall unclerstanding ancl facilitate alignment. Different stakeholclers often iclentify similar success conditions. For example, engineering, operations, and maintenance personnel al! might iclentify simplicity as a success conclition. How exactly is simplicity defined, and how is it measured? The con di tions for success should be translated into measurable and objective deliverables. Simplicity for


maintcnance pcrsonnel may mean that a specific maintenance procedure is capable of being completed in l day by one person. This might be an improvement over an old procedure that required a team to complete over severa! days. However, much more complex engineering might be needed to create this condition. Once al! of the conditions for success have been identified and grouped, they need to be prioritized. This is a critica! step in this exercise. One way to prioritize the success conditions is to group them according to "must have," "should have," and "would be nce." Such a categorization brings clarity to which success conditions need to be achieved and allows for degrees of project success. All conditions for success are considered, and debated if necessary. Any conflicting conditions are considered and discussed-if one condition is ranked as a "must have" by its owner, while another stakeholder ranks it as a "would be nice" condition, discussion is necessary. The key stakeholder whose success condition received a low ranking by the group should have an opportunity to present his or her case and to try to understand why this condition was ranked low. If success criteria are in conflict, this needs to be resolved. Which condition is more important to the project and the business it supports? The project charter should include the ranked success conditions and their rationales, as well as which key stakeholder(s) are championing each one. Finally, the key stakeholders are asked when they consider the project to be completed. Again, a similar process is followed using the yellow sticky notes. Repeating the process speeds up the exercise, since the key stakeholders now are familiar with the process and outcomes. Sometimes different finish dates or conditions can be grouped for clarity, and the completion parameters of the project can be identified. Usually, there are different conditions and end dates that are important for each of the key stakeholders. The group or project sponsor needs to determine the official or approved finish dates and/or conditions for the project. The three key questions too! can be used throughout the project life cycle to take the "pulse" of the project. The project team will be able to determine if the conditions for project success have changed, requiring a change in the project plan.

Benefits There are many benefits to using the three key questions. Honesty, open communication, and trust are promoted. The seeds for effective teams are sown [4] . When the questions are fully answered by the stakeholders, misconceptions about the project are minimized. If certain stakeholders' wishes cannot be met, they know why at the beginning of the project rather than at the en d. A discussion of the reasons brings to the surface differences of opinion and conflict early in the project. It is easier to address differences early rather than later. An open and inclusive discussion reduces the risk of future repercussions that unilateral decisions often invite. The conditions for success and completion become measurable and objective. When the key stakeholders have a shared understanding of when the project is finished and what a successful project looks like, they can move forward together toward well-defined project goals. A shared vision can unite the team and foster collaboration and commitment: project alignment occurs.


Time Performance

Figure 1-Project Constraints the project constraints diagram and asked to identify which constraint is most important. When tradeoffs are required, the project manager and team know which constraints can be sacrificed and which cannot. However, it has been our experience that most project sponsors will indicate their preference with an "X" in the middle of the diagrarn. This indicates to the project team that all constraints are equally important. Unfortunately, this does not provide clear direction. The priority triangle is an improvement upon the project constraints too] in a number of ways (figure 2). The priority triangle is easier to understand. It is inverted so that cost appears on the bottom, which is consistent with the desire to minimize or to force costs clown. Time is to the left, which is consistent with a horizontal time continuum where time is shown from left to right. We often want to minimize the time it takes to complete a project so that we can work on other projects; therefore, the time dimension is shown to the left in the priority triangle . The quality/scope dimension is on the remaining right comer, since we often wish to maximize quality and/or scope for the amount of resources allocated to the projTime Performance


The priority triangle can help to address the problem of determining which project constraints-cost, time, and performance (quality/scope) -are most critica! to project success. We live in an environment of change: "change is certain in everything except for vending machines." During the course of a project, changes often occur that require decisions regarding project constraints. For example, if the project is running late, the project manager needs to decide if extra resources should be used to bring the project back on schedule or if the quality/scope can be reduced. Extra resources will increase the project cost. The project manager needs to decide whether it is better to be late or over budget. This is the tradeoff between time and cost. However, the project manager needs to know which is more critica] to the project sponsor: being on time or on budget. The priority triangle helps to clarify the time, cost, and performance priorities from the sponsor's perspective. The priority triangle is based on an adaptation of a classic too] (figure l) used to identify the priority of project constraints. Project sponsors are often shown
Cost Engineering Vol. 42/No. 12 DECEMBER 2000


"No Go"Zone

Figure 2-Priority Triangle


ect. Positioning and explaining the constraints in this manner aids in understandmg. A more significant improvement is the addition of "no-go" zones. These force the stakeholders to emphasize a single constraint, which is important for project success. No longer can stakeholders remain imparta!; they are required to choose the main constraint to guide the project team. In addition to the "no-go" zones, the priority triangle has been quartered so that the project constraints are prioritized. In figure 2, the stakeholder has clearly indicated that cost is the main project constraint. Should decisions be required regarding time, cost, and quality/scope, the project team knows that cost targets need to be achieved, followed by meeting the schedule. Quality and scope can be sacrificed to meet the other two constraints. Placement of the "X" within each of the quadrants indicates the degree of criticality for each constraint. In this example, meeting cost targets is critica!, but time is also somewhat important because the "X" has not been placed as far to the bottom of the priority triangle as possible.

ty because a higher quality product results in fewer returns or ease of maintenance. Different stakeholders have different perspectives about the importance of the project constraints to the success of the project. The facilitator needs to elicit the rationale behind the stakeholders' selection. This discussion is critica!, sin ce it can lead to an improved understanding of key stakeholders' perspectives by those involved. Understanding facilitates alignment. The exercise ends with the principal stakeholder, often the sponsor, determining the ranking of the project constraints. This decision is documented in the project charter. On sorne projects, the priorities change with time. Sometimes, quality takes precedence at the beginning of a project, but as the project progresses, cost often becomes most important if actual costs begin to exceed the original estimates. Finally, as the project nears completion, there is often a desire to complete the project as soon as possible, so time becomes the priority. The priority triangle can assist the project team track these changes throughout the project's life cycle.

"No Go" Zone

~ "Customer Satisfaction" Zone

Figure 3- Priority Triangle With Customer Satisfaction Zone cess in other terms in addition to the project constraints. For customer satisfaction, other factors related to the project constraints need to be delivered. For example, success factors such as ease of operations and maintenance may be more critica! for customer satisfaction than finishing a project on budget.

lmplementation The priority triangle can quickly help to align a project team regarding the project constraints and is most effective when key stakeholders can jointly prioritize the constraints for the project in the early stages of the planning phase. The exercise begins with an explanation of the importance of alignment and the tradeoff among constraints. How the priority triangle works also is explained. N ext, the stakeholders are instructed to draw the priority triangle on a piece of paper and to place an "X" in the quadrant that is most important for them. The facilitator then elicits their responses. lnevitably, the "X" is placed in different quadrants, depending upon the stakeholder's function. For example, a person from finance/accounting may place her "X" in one of the cost quadrants to indicate that meeting cost objectives is most important for the project. Someone from marketing may differ and place his "X" in a quadrant to show that meeting schedule objectives is critica!; the time to market is critica! and any delay will cost the company market share. Operations or repair personnel may favor quali36

Benefits There are many benefits from using the priority triangle. Perhaps the most important is that the project team and stakeholders have a shared understanding of the project constraints' ranking. With an understanding of which constraint is the priority, a team member can make better decisions independently or on the team and be assured that the decision regarding the constraints is correct and aligned with the project objectives. Such an understanding reduces conflict. The team has a shared understanding of which constraint is supreme, and even if the members do not agree with the ranking, they can be expected to carry out their responsibilities in a manner that is aligned with the project's objectives. A common understanding can unite the team and promote collaboration and commitment. Project alignment is fostered. Like most tools, the priority triangle is a single-purpose too! that works very well for what it was intended to do: prioritize the traditional constraints facing a project. It does not identify other factors that may contribute to project success (figure 3). Often, the customer defines project sucCost Engineering Vol. 42/No. 12 DECEMBER 2000

lignment is necessary for project success. As alignment slips, success also becomes more elusive: the project may become late, go over budget, or have quality problems. Misalignment is a project's Achilles heel and can quickly lead to project failure. Alignment needs to be planned and managed from the very beginning. Alignment is a process that must be monitored and controlled throughout the project, just like other cost engineering processes su eh as schedule or risk management. The three key questions contribute to alignment by defining what a successful project looks like and when it is finished for the project's key stakeholders, while the priority triangle further helps to prioritize which constraints are most important for success. These tools are easy to use and are valuable additions to a cost engineer's too! kit.

REFERENCES l. Cabrera, Elizabeth F., and Jaime Bonache. An Expert HR System for Algning Organizational Culture and


Strategy. Human Resource Planning 22 (l): 1999. Griffith, A., and E. Gibson. Project Communication and Alignment Durng the Pre-Project Plannng . Proceed-

ings of the 26th Annual Project Management lnstitute Seminars & Syrnposium. Upper Darby, PA: Project Management lnstitute, 1995. 3. Hartman, Francis. Don't Park Your Brain Outside: A Practica} Cuide to lmproving Shareholder Value With SMART Management. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management lnstitute, 2000. 4. Hartman, Francis, and Greg Skulmoski. The Quest for Team Competence. Project Management 5 (1): 1999. 5. Jergeas, George , Erin Williamson, Greg Skulmoski, and Janice Thomas.

Stakeholder Management on Constructon Projects. 2000 AACE lnternational Transactions. Morgantown, WV: AACE International, 2000 . Kirk, Dorothy. Managing Expectations. PM Network (August 2000) . Labovitz, George, and Vctor Rosansky. The Power of Alignment: How Great Companies Stay Centered and Accomplish Extraordinary Things. New York: John Wiley and Sons, lnc., 1997. Semler, Steven W. Systematic Agreement: A Theory o{ Organizatonal Algnment. Human Resource Development Quarterly 8 ( l): 1997. Skulmoski, Greg. Crtica[ Performance Competencies for Cost Engineers. 2000 AACE lnternational Transactions. Morgantown, WV: AACE lnternational, 2000.

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Gregory J. Skulmoski is a member o{ the Chinook-Calgary Section o{ AACE lnternational. Greg has project experience in government, health care, retail, and the oil and gas sectors. He has functional and project experience in information systems and finance and is studying under the direction o{ Dr. Francis T. Hartman, P.Eng., in the Project Management Specalization Programme at the University o{ Calgary. Hs Ph.D. research is about project participant competency. He has taught project management at the University o{ Calgary while completing his studies. Greg regularly publishes his research in joumals and presents at conferences, including those o{ AACE lntemational, the Project Management lnstitute, the Association {or Project Management, the International Project Management Association, and the lntemational Research Network on Organizing by Projects.

Dr. Francis T. Hartman, P.Eng., has over 28 years o{ industrial experience in the management o{ projects and related fields . He gained experence on over $6-billon worth of projects in Canada , the US, and overseas. In 1991, he joined the University o{ Calgary as the director of the project management specialzation. Serving as the chair in project management has led to the development o{ a research program that is based on project management priorities established by an industry advisory group. Dr. Hartman is involved in consulting activities including improving project management, dispute avoidance, and management of technology projects (software). His professional activities include active membership or support o{ a number of professional associations.+


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Cost Engineering Vol. 42/No. 12 DECEMBER 2000