Benefits realisation: What’s in it for you?

Benefits realisation: What’s in it for you?

We invest money into projects in a bid to increase our business success. But how often do we go live, only to find that we’ve fallen short of delivering all of the promised benefits? How can we ensure that these projects contribute to the business’s success by delivering benefits that you can see and feel? Sheryl Gavin, November's featured speaker at the CIO Leaders' Luncheon, wrote this article for CIO earlier this year.

Benefits realisation is a hot topic in business today, from IT project and programme offices through to the higher ranks of organisations. In a climate of increasing pressure to deliver results that contribute to the success of their business, executives are increasingly expressing concern about the lack of visible return for their investment in projects. We invest money into projects in a bid to increase our business success. But how often do we go live, only to find that we’ve fallen short of delivering all of the promised benefits? How can we ensure that these projects contribute to the business’s success by delivering benefits that you can see and feel?

Examine your own experience by asking yourself:

Do all of my projects deliver the benefits promised in their original business cases?

Do I have my finger on the pulse for my entire portfolio of projects?

Does my portfolio contain only those projects that are likely to deliver the best possible return on investment?

Have we as an organisation been able to qualify the business benefits for all projects in alignment with our strategic vision?

The issue of realising benefits is by no means new to any organisation these days. Nearly every project or programme office with which I have been involved in recent years certainly recognises the need to achieve benefits in alignment with business strategy, but until now few formal approaches that complement traditional methodologies have been available.

Over many years as a project manager I was unable, despite my best efforts, to translate the deliverables of my projects into benefits that enabled the business to achieve its objectives because during that time I didn’t have a framework to operate in. Frustration led me to collaborate with one of my clients to seek out and implement a proven approach that would enable them to deliver transformational change within their organisation. Our experience has had a profound effect on the success of their large initiatives: understanding what they were trying to achieve, and the dimensions of complexity that existed within many of their major projects, enabled them to experience the benefits of “getting it right first time”, without the high cost of trial-and-error implementation.

Many of the projects we embark on today involve significant financial investment and a level of complexity that, if not understood and managed, can derail us, causing us to lose focus and seriously restrict our ability to achieve the results we were expecting. Unfortunately, for most large organisations, managing multiple large projects at any given time creates an even more acute problem. Trying to juggle critical resources, manage the change process, sort out project conflicts and deliver the benefits across a portfolio of projects is challenging.

Addressing the challenges of not only getting benefits from each project, but from an entire portfolio, requires a shift in mind-set starting with getting clear about the reality we face:

Benefits don’t just happen. We have to plan for and work hard to get them, and be realistic about what it will take to achieve the transformation we’re looking for.

Benefits rarely happen according to plan. We have to keep checking interim results along the way, just as we would with a financial investment.

Benefits realisation is too large a subject to cover in detail in one small article, but it is possible to encapsulate the essence with an examination of four key issues.

The benefits

With no clear vision and direction, the delivery of measurable business benefits from a project becomes difficult, if not impossible. We need to spend more time up front understanding what the potential benefits are and how we plan to get them. Getting very clear on what we’re trying to achieve and how we plan to make that vision a reality sets clear expectations that are understood by business and project teams.

Getting value from your portfolio of projects requires a shift in focus from the traditional project “on-time, on-budget” paradigm to the more holistic view – programmes. A programme is best described as a structured grouping of projects designed to produce clearly identified business results.

Programme planning and the discovery of potential benefits requires a systematic approach using a “benefits mapping” technique. This helps set direction and enables understanding of the complexity of the proposed work. Based on simple cause and effect modelling, this technique enables the creation of a programme design -- a logic-based picture of the potential end-benefits and the actions that are necessary to get the desired result.

However, as I mentioned earlier, benefits rarely appear in the way we originally anticipate they will. Initial benefits maps are a reflection of what we think is possible based on what we think we know at the time. Benefits maps become infinitely more powerful when we actively incorporate improved understanding of what we’re doing over time, and become more certain about the likelihood of achieving the result we’re seeking. The process of keeping maps alive ensures that the business gradually gains confidence that its investment in the project will produce the expected results, and keeps project teams aligned with the ultimate goal.

Only at this point can we move on to delivering the programme and its projects, tracking progress and measuring the benefits for all to see. Delivery brings with it a whole new set of challenges. A key issue that restricts our ability to get the planned results is that even the best project management methodologies are not, on their own, enough to guarantee success. While I acknowledge that traditional project management will always remain a critical ingredient in the recipe for success, these practices need to be supplemented by disciplines that require an almost obsessive focus on value and total commitment to achieving results.

An increasingly popular governance model that enables this level of focus stresses the importance of programme management practices that set direction and monitor the achievement of benefits throughout the life of the programme. Within this model, project activities are coordinated and controlled from within the context of the programme and its objectives.

Value assessment

Most businesses have more opportunities than they have financial and human resources available to pursue them. It is critical that limited resources are committed to the initiatives likely to produce the most valuable outcomes. How do you choose which programmes to include in your portfolio? If 20 initiatives are proposed, and you can only realistically do five, which five should you do?

Picking the winners in part depends on your ability to “put a figure” on the value of each and every initiative under consideration. A process within Benefits Realisation known as value assessment examines and scores three dimensions of value: alignment to strategic objectives, financial worth, and the risk of not getting the desired benefits. The use of purpose-built tools that enable each assessment to be carried out in exactly the same way every time is critical to enabling comparison between proposed initiatives and informed decision-making.

Although selection decisions should be based on what is likely to produce the most value, having an enterprise-wide view of all active initiatives and what they are seeking to achieve is also crucial. The implications of lack of visibility are significant and numerous – no understanding of across-the-board resource consumption, no coordinated dependency and risk management, unrecognised opportunities to generate cost and effort efficiencies, just to name a few. Making good portfolio decisions rests not only on how potentially valuable the proposed initiative is, but also on our capability to deliver successfully.

The importance of project management

Within the boundaries of programme-focused delivery, the importance of project management cannot be overlooked, since this is the discipline that creates new capabilities that enable the achievement of the desired outcomes.

Unfortunately in many New Zealand businesses, integrated project culture is not the norm. Over many years as a project manager, I have seen many instances where individuals with little or no formal project management expertise have been expected to manage projects simply because they are subject matter experts, with little consideration given to the constraints on their line position and business-as-usual workload.

The alternative is hiring in the expertise; but good project managers come at a price, and often dilute their effectiveness by expecting them to manage multiple projects in an effort to reduce costs.

Both scenarios inevitably threaten the success of larger projects. More often than not, these projects end up being poorly managed, resulting in budget blowouts, time over-runs, conflicts, scope creep and, in many cases, cancellation.

Since effective and skilled project management expertise is a significant part of the formula for successful delivery of benefits, it makes sense to diligently assign suitably skilled individuals to the role of project manager. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring expensive people for every project. A far better alternative in the long run would be a commitment to establishing a formal project management training programme within your business. This would enable you to up-skill people before they take on this important role, and to continue to mentor them as they manage their project through to delivery.

Business ownership

Benefits cannot be delivered without change, and change cannot be sustained without benefits. In a climate of intense change within organisations, people are becoming change-fatigued. This situation is not likely to diminish -- in fact, the pressure to increase value to stakeholders suggests that change is on the increase.

Change cannot be effected or sustained unless the business itself commits to visibility and persistence in the pursuit of the agreed benefits, actively engaging and encouraging those whose lives will be changed by the programme.

The end result of any programme can be significantly jeopardised at the outset by a lack of business ownership. All too often, sponsors appear to be invisible, steering groups don’t understand their purpose, and programme and project teams don’t receive the direction, guidance and support they need from the business to effect the change that is required to get the benefits.

Now, more than ever, business sponsorship and support must be active, strong and accountable, from concept until delivery of the benefits. Business sponsors must be trained, ready, willing and able to accept accountability for the delivery of benefits. Steering groups, programme managers and others within a programme’s governance structures must clearly understand their roles and be willing to do whatever is necessary to assist the sponsor in the creation of sustainable change. Strong business ownership also provides project teams with the clear direction, guidance and support they need to deliver on expectations.


Benefits realisation is an ongoing process of envisioning results, implementing, checking intermediate results and adjusting to make sure you achieve your target. It is a process that must be managed, just like any other business process.

This is a unique and timely approach that enables our businesses to not only survive the current pressures, but to grow and thrive. Benefits realisation offers you the opportunity to:

Gain a better, shared understanding of the potential benefits of an investment and how to get there.

Achieve measurable value from each and every project by getting it right first time.

Ensure your projects are managed well and delivered on-time, on-budget and within scope.

Ensure that change is achievable, sustainable and measurable.

Maximise the value of your portfolio.

Create comfort that the business is doing the right things for the right reasons.

Sheryl Gavin is an independent business consultant specialising in benefits realisation, with more than 13 years’ experience as an IT project manager and management consultant. She is uniquely experienced in the implementation and application of benefits realisation, numbering Auckland City Council among her recent clients. She can be contacted at Phone 021 979633.

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