by Nora Harris, senior consultant
Projects are all about delivering benefits. If what you’re doing isn’t going to improve your organisation, what’s the point of the project in the first place? However, the benefits driving a project are all too often lost in translation. In my experience, this is generally because people don’t go far enough in interrogating their requirements and capturing the tangible improvements they seek.
The first step in understanding benefits, and planning for their realisation, is to understand what category they fit into. Benefits can be broadly broken down into one of two criteria:
- Financial – Making or saving money is an obvious aim and usually easy to quantify.
- Non-financial – Saving time or increasing productivity is equally laudable, but more difficult to quantify, and often confused with project outcomes.
It is these qualitative, non-financial, benefits that typically cause issues. However, if we keep asking ‘so what?’, it is possible to place a value on them.
Now, let’s take an example project. Let’s say that a company has decided to replace its old service desk software and has identified the non-financial benefit of “giving staff a better experience.” This is a desirable aim, but as anyone familiar with Axelos’ benefits pyramid will know, “a better staff experience” is not a benefit, but an outcome. The difference? Benefits can be measured.
These measurements are often overlooked, especially where there are no immediate financial benefits to be had. In these cases, you need to drill down through the details of the outputs and outcomes to articulate why they benefit the organisation and reach a measurable attribute.
So, what are the benefits to the organisation of staff having a better experience? To understand this we need to employ the five whys interrogation technique to get to the root benefit. From asking these questions we can reach the following benefits:
- Positive experience of the workplace is known to improve staff productivity. There are numerous studies to support this, including this one from Harvard Business Review.
- Better experience of the tool means more high-volume tasks/activities can be completed in the same amount of time as before.
- Better experience of the tool means lower-volume but arduous tasks take less time to do, giving staff more time to carry out other work of higher value/utility
- Positive experience of the workplace means staff are less likely to leave. This saves time and money associated with recruiting and training new staff. This also means that institutional knowledge is retained in the workplace, meaning time is not spend solving already-solved problems.
These are all largely non-financial benefits as they have the effect of causing the organisation to achieve more in the same or less time (improved productivity), and of avoiding the organisation spending its limited time and resource on unproductive activities (arduous tasks, recruitment and solving already-solved problems).
But how do we measure better staff experience? Obviously, staff surveys are a valuable tool for taking soundings and measuring sentiment, but that doesn’t measure the benefit of the project.
Instead of trying to measure the outcome directly (how highly do staff rate their experience at work) – which can be tricky and subjective – benefits need to be measured more directly.
- Are tasks taking less time to do?
- Are we doing more tasks with the same amount of time and resource?
- What is the staff retention rate?
- How much time and money do hiring managers spend recruiting and training new staff?
These benefits, arrived at by employing the five whys, are much more straightforward to quantify.
You can apply this same technique to most non-financial, qualitative benefits. Once you’ve identified the time-saving, manpower-saving, or productivity improvement you expect to achieve, you will be able to quantify its indicators more easily. This makes a much better case in benefits realisation activities once the project’s outputs are in use.
This is not to say that measuring is always easy. These parameters may not be currently measured, making baselining challenging, but you can start collecting this data once the project kicks off. As long as you persist, you’ll have the measurements required to assess if your benefits have been realised.
Through continuing to gather data on these more qualitative aspects, it will eventually be possible to turn some of these benefits from non-financial to financial. It’s not easy embedding any benefits management methodology, especially in organisations that don’t practice it well. However, the benefit of benefits is gathering momentum. Adopting a process doesn’t mean your project is a success. Neither does implementing new software, organisational restructure or a multitude of other reasons companies undertake a project.
Realising the whys of the project: That is your proof. That’s how you understand your failures, find the reasons to amend your practices, and demonstrate your successes.