As Halpin celebrates our two-year anniversary this week, I thought I’d reflect on the lessons we have learnt from our first two years in business, how we have used these lessons to help our clients, and how they might help you in your work.
Since we set up the business in 2017, our team of Consultants and Consulting Fellows have worked on 60 projects for 35 clients across leadership, strategy, performance, governance, equality, finance, HR, health & safety, programme review, marketing strategy, student experience, fundraising, campaigns and communications.
Throughout our work we have identified a series of factors that lead to a successful project – here are five to get you started. Use them to guide your work internally or to get the best out of consultants who work with you.
1. Fully reasoned shared objectives
When undertaking any project, it’s vital that everyone involved has a shared understanding of what the objectives are and why they are important. So often it’s assumed that everyone is on the same page and that the objectives and why they are required is obvious.
In our work with clients we have learnt that time taken at the start to fully set out objectives is time well spent. The more detailed an understanding we have of the reasoning behind the objectives, the more we can help define them clearly and ensure they will deliver what is required. It enables us to deliver the very best work for our clients at the very best value.
If you are using consultants, spend time at this stage of the project exploring the objectives, developing the reasoning behind them and refining them if required. You should do this even if you have been through a procurement process which set out expectations quite clearly. Often the person who has written the requirements is not the person who commissioned the work. It is only really through frank discussions that your consultant will fully understand what you need and why you need it. They will also help you refine your objectives to ensure they deliver what you really need – use their wisdom and perspective.
This is also an invaluable approach if you are leading a project internally as it enables focused effort and ensures clarity of understanding across a team. It also gives team members the opportunity to ‘own’ the rationale for the work they are undertaking so they can explain it to others.
2. Clearly defined scope and scale
Understanding what is in and out of scope is crucial. Complex projects have fuzzy edges and can extend in scope and scale as they go on - so definition is key. What and who do you need to involve and why? What is open to questioning and change and what is not? How long do you want the project to last and why? When do you need deliverables by and why? It sounds obvious but it can be harder than you think – that is why projects grow and extend (and become more costly). Sometimes an increase in the scope and scale is vital if something is uncovered during early stages, but more often the scope and scale grows incrementally without checking.
If you are working with consultants, ensure that you all agree scope and scale at the start of the project. Agree that if/when the scope is changed you will be informed and told why, so you have an opportunity to sign off anything additional. Internal teams should adopt the same approach; changes in scope and scale should be agreed by the team so the reasons why are understood and clearly communicated. A project manager is a critical resource and can help keep things on track. The more experienced they are, the more they will see issues coming before they present a big problem.
3. Focus on data and evidence
We often have lots of data and evidence, but less often do we take the time to analyse it, benchmark it and explore the story it tells without making assumptions. If you’re working with a consultant, ask them for a list at the outset of all the data and information they think they will need, and share fully so that they can bring value. If you’re leading a project internally it’s vital that at the outset of a project you gather all the information you think you will need, and consult widely to see who is holding relevant information. Read and digest this before you talk to team members – make sure you are fully up to speed and ensure you get best value from your discussions.
4. There is great power in listening
All challenges can be resolved through asking open questions and carefully listening to the answers. Questions such as:
• What are the key issues?
• What could be improved?
• What works well?
• Where does tension lie?
• What are the risks?
As you listen, you need to check you understand:
• What I am hearing is…
• Is that right?
• I think you are saying…
• Have I understood you correctly?
• It sounds like the key point you are making is… do you agree?
If you are enlisting a consultant to review an area of your institution, make sure they have the skills to ask, listen and explore your specific situation - and not make assumptions and bring in a blueprint developed elsewhere. If you are undertaking some kind of review and need to talk to team members, allow plenty of time - nothing is worse than a conversation that’s rushed or curtailed. Leave gaps between meetings so you can digest what you have heard, take notes, and refresh your energy. Make an open invitation to staff/stakeholders to talk to you – you may be surprised that key information lies with people who you might not have included on your ‘list’ of people to talk to.
5. Tell truth with kindness
There is no point in hiding from the truth or sugar-coating it until it is unrecognisable. To bring about change we often have to feel uncomfortable, we may have to admit we got something wrong or something isn’t good enough, or at least that things have changed, and we need to make changes as a result. However, telling truth with kindness is different from sugar-coating it or avoiding it. We can tell the truth about the situation without blaming individuals. We can recognise what has worked alongside what is not working, we can thank people for hard work, we can show them respect, we can let them know we understand it may feel difficult, we can take time to consult, explain, listen.
If you are working with a consultant, find one who can deliver truth with kindness (ask for examples of how they do this), and if you are leading a project internally, set out to tell truth with kindness from the very start of your project – let it guide your work.
Every project is different, but these five core points have been relevant to every project we have undertaken at Halpin, and I suspect they always will be. What would you add to the list of things required to deliver a successful project?
Susie Hills is Joint CEO at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.