I was recently hired by a CIO who had a problem with the organisation sidestepping the IT team to deliver key projects. The business “was going around us for their project delivery,” the CIO told me.

The obvious question in this scenario is “why are they so dissatisfied with the service you provide that they would do this?” The answer, rather disconcertingly on this occasion, was: “They don’t get the way we do projects.”

I spent some time reviewing their project portfolio of which 11 of their 12 projects were considered to be ‘off-track’.

Their measures related to this were aligned to a percentage variation (at a point in time) to the traditional triple constraints triangle of time, cost and quality. One side of the triangle can’t be changed with affecting the others.

I’ve drawn it many times for my project sponsors to illustrate the tensions that are created when each new scope is added to a project. If you add scope, then you need more time and more money. If you reduce the time, it’ll impact scope and will likely cost more money and so on.

When heading up project departments, I’ve always ensured that we have metrics to ensure that projects are delivered on time and on budget. Quality is included almost as an afterthought.

CEOs, CIOs and CFOs often insist that hitting ‘budget and time targets’ is the benchmark for successful project delivery. ‘Traffic light’ reports produced by project managers reflect the status of these measures.

These measures are almost always behind and we use change control as a mechanism to reset the targets so that our report shows a ‘green light’ again.

Simple right? Wrong. If the customer is dissatisfied, then every aspect of your project should be marked with a red light. Scarlett red. Possibly even flashing red to ensure that it isn’t missed by anyone, ever.

But this isn’t a metric that’s assessed or reported on, except of course when it’s too late. Picture this similar scenario. You and your partner decide to go out for a meal. You plan the date, set your budget and research a good place to eat.

When you get to the restaurant, they keep you waiting longer than you should, the food doesn’t taste as nice as you thought and the meal costs more than advertised.

What opinion do you have at the end? You’re annoyed right? You feel a sense of injustice; you tell your friends; you leave an online review (if you haven’t already left it verbally at the restaurant); and never go back again.

And yet with a little more focus on the customer, the experience could have been so much more different. When you arrived, if you had been told that there had been a price increase and that the food may take longer as they were really busy, then immediately your expectations would have changed and you would have a decision to make.

If you decide to eat elsewhere, then you have made that choice based on the information that you have. If you decide to stay, you know more or less what to expect.

Projects, of course, start out with the best of intentions. They are driven by the customer and they are involved at the start when their requirements are being gathered. We include them in the planning and delivery teams and we’re well set up for success. Then for some reason we neglect to check the health of this relationship as the project progresses.

Good project managers will speak with their sponsors and ask the questions directly, such as:

  • Are you comfortable with progress?
  • Are we proceeding as you expected?
  • Is there anything else you’d like me to be doing?
  • Do you have all the information you need?

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Even if this is the case, I’ve seen very few project status reports that record this satisfaction and I think that’s a mistake.

The concept of customer service or advocacy is studied long and hard in product and service-orientated industries.

IT departments also survey customers when they’ve been asked to resolve issues with hardware or software. However in the billion dollar project management industry we shrug our shoulders and look to the triangle.

In 1997, Richard L. Oliver defined customer satisfaction as ‘pleasurable fulfilment’, where the confirmation or disconfirmation of pre-consumption expectations is the essential determinant of satisfaction.

This means that customers have a certain predicted product performance in mind prior to consumption, he said. In other words, this is measurable right from the start.

Face-to-face meetings, customised surveys (given the project layers) — we should use whatever it takes to capture the ‘pulse of the customer’ with regards to the delivery of their project.

In their paper ‘Measuring customer satisfaction in the context of a project-based organisation’, Thomas Ahola and Jaakko Kujala stated: “There is very limited amount of study that focuses on impact of customer satisfaction in project business.

“It can be also argued that in the project business, each customer relationship is specific and involves a very high risk of making wrong conclusions,” they said.

The fact that this is the only paper I can find that relates to measuring customer satisfaction in project management tells you everything you need to know about the importance it is given by suppliers of delivery services (internal or external).

A lack of trust

Let me get back to my earlier example of the CIO who said his organisation doesn’t get the way the IT team does projects. I spent four weeks interviewing customers and project managers across this organisation and found that no trust or respect existed.

But worse than that, neither party had tried to develop a relationship, which led to a sort of project standoff where the customer felt it had no choice but to bring in its own people.

The customer had money and for the most part, the time factor wasn’t critical. They were frustrated by the constant shifting of the goalposts and the fact that the the process employed was getting in the way of progress.

At the end of the engagement, I made a couple of tweaks to the way that the project was initiated and reported, and this completely changed the emphasis of the relationship.

Knowing that the satisfaction of the customer was as important as the time, scope and budget ensured that no activity was undertaken without the collaboration and decision-making input of the customer.

You might argue that all of your projects are set up this way. Then why is it that so many of the world’s IT projects fail? It’s because we’re measuring them the wrong way. If the customer is happy with a project and gets what they need to continually transform their business, then nothing else really matters quite as much.

So do yourself a favour and put the customer at the centre of your triangle. Better still, put them at the centre of your existence, because in our project dominated world, that’s where they should be.

Colin Ellis is a project management expert who believes that strong leadership aligned with sensible approaches are at the heart of successful project management and he is engaged by organisations who want just that. Find out more at his website or follow him on Twitter: @colindellis

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