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What I learned during my MBA on essentials for successful projects

What impressed me most during my MBA was the way the school put us together as teams for the different projects. The goal was to unite as many different characters, experiences and working styles as possible in one team. What seemed challenging at the beginning of the teamwork turned out to be its greatest strength. Through this I learned a lot about what the most essential factors are for a successful project.

When starting a project, most teams want to dive right into finding a solution to the problem at hand and solving it. For these very diverse teams at business school this often meant, that everybody would be speeding off in different directions. Since we were mostly under time pressure, we quickly learned that we needed to agree first on the problem we were trying to solve, why we needed to find a solution and how we would go about doing the work. I see this as a sort of contract between the team members outlining the What, the Why and the How of the project. This contract could then be used as a reference throughout the project.

The What

Firstly, we needed to describe and understand which problem wer were trying to solve. It is important that all team members share a common understanding of what exactly the issue is. In this context, the scope is essential: which topics will be included in the project and which will be left out. We also often identify other topics that might have an overlap or dependencies.

The Why

Secondly, we needed to be clear on what would be the benefits this project should bring - the business case. As a starting point, we measured the current situation, such as the actual cost incurred by the problem we were trying to solve. We also defined the goals (measurable!) we wanted to achieve and the deliverables. These can be cost reduction goals, but also efficiency gains or quality improvements. The decisive factor is the added value for the customer - i.e., what the customer is willing to pay for (of course this would be an imaginary customer at business school).

The How

And finally, we defined our delivery strategy - how the project goal can be achieved efficiently and effectively, based on the context and the chosen project methodology. Roles and responsibilities were defined and together with the governance structure provide clarity throughout the project on who makes decisions and who is responsible for which activities. A project plan helps to structure the work and to have a clear sequencing of activities, the frequency of project events and milestones set the rhythm of the project. Financial control and transparent communication are equally important. All this enables the project team to successfully achieve the project objectives within time, budget, and quality expectations.

Let the project roll

All these learnings can obviously be applied to “real” business life in companies or organizations. Personally, I would recommend to anyone whether at the start of a new initiative or even if it is already underway, to make sure, that a formal project charter is established and approved by the stakeholders. Once the project is up and running, there are invariably challenges: deadlines cannot be met, a proposed solution does not work, disputes between team members, ... always something unexpected.

The project manager and the sponsor must react flexibly to all these challenges to keep the project on track. The Project Charter provides the necessary framework for this and is your license to run the project requesting other people’s time and resources.

In summary, I would say that the courses at a business school are one part, but a large part of the actual learning takes place outside the classroom - and it is fun too!

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