Project Success Comes from All Directions

Project Success Comes from All Directions

I’ve been working in the consulting business for about 9 years, working with and learning from smart, creative and innovative clients. While there are a million factors that can impact the success of a project, the most successful shared some common elements. Here are examples of what my clients have done to ensure project success. If you’ve read “Switch” by the Heath Brothers, I’ve picked out some of the “bright spots.”

A Project Manager – Paying Attention to the Right Things

Early in my consulting career, we did not work with many organizations that had a dedicated project manager on staff, or even individuals that had any training or experience in project management. Then I had the privilege to work with ‘the unicorn’: a nonprofit who employed a project manager. We were implementing a streamlining project and the organization assigned a project manager that was from the Finance department. She didn’t have a ton of knowledge around the implementation, but she knew how to run a project. Her focus on the budget, scope and timeline kept her team on task and on time. It was great to have someone who was not caught up in the content details, and could push deadlines along.

When working on a streamlining project, many clients focus on their strategy and want to answer big picture questions about the goals. Everyone wants to make the “right” decision, and “analysis paralysis” is common. This is where a project manager that is not engaged in those big picture conversations can help their peers stay focused, move things forward, and make sure we are all working towards a project with both a start and a finish.

Project managers often see themselves filling multiple roles. When this happens and the project manager starts participating in the content, it often helps to ask another team member to keep an eye on the ‘”project management”’ stuff and vice versa.

The best advice I can give you: understand what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then surround yourself with resources and people to help fill the gaps.

Project Communication – Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Consulting with nonprofit organizations often means working with staff members that are located in various time zones. While working on moving from a legacy fundraising system to a new CRM system, I worked with a nonprofit that implemented a creative communication solution. In order to keep everyone on the same page, this organization created a shared internal space that included a wiki, discussion board, calendar, and more. This shared space kept communication streamlined and gave every employee a place to visit when they had questions or wanted to check the progress of the project.

The other great thing this internal site facilitated was conversation. People would add comments, discuss any challenges that arose and also share positive outcomes of the project. Gathering feedback was easy, and it also generated excitement from stakeholders throughout the organization as they saw the progress.

Another organization I had the pleasure of working with had a robust communications plan. Beyond the scheduled communications, they employed a staff member who had her ear to the ground to ensure communications were effective. If not, she would figure out other creative ways to ensure the message got across. Sometimes these additional communications were as simple as a face to face conversation, or involved a creative contest to generate excitement during a staff newsletter or meeting.

You can have the most sophisticated plan, but you have to be ready to adapt and be flexible with your plan. It is almost a guarantee that at some point, communication will break down, and you’ve got to be on your feet and think about what to do in this scenario.

Training – Making it Memorable and Fun

Training is an integral part of many of these consultations. Sometimes these would occur near the end of the project in in a large classroom. During this training, we would either introduce a brand new shiny system to the client or re-introduce a cleaner version of the existing system. Training is not only a place where people get excited and ‘”end”’ the project, it’s a wonderful way to begin the process of eliciting feedback from your users.

One of my clients took a lot of time and energy to create a very fun and interactive training environment. They wanted to make sure we were doing everything we could do ‘”close”’ off the project and get people excited. This two day training took place in an off-site facility with over 50 attendees! To keep everyone energized during these long days, there were treats, prizes, and even a mini contest in between training sessions. The prizes were not anything big or expensive and some were even handmade, but this added personal touch showed the trainees that everyone in this organization was taking the training (and project) seriously.

Executive Sponsorship – Empowering your Team

Typically when working with organizations, we start our conversations with someone at the C-level who works with us to figure out what they need, but then they sign the contract and we work with a different group of people to implement the project. While working with a small hospital on their fundraising efforts, I had a different experience. Their Executive Director not only participated in the initial project calls, but she continued to engage showing that she was committed to this project and learning the system.

Another reason this project was a success was that they made sure every team member was involved with the strategy. By having the Events manager and the Gifts entry staff member in the same room discussing gift codes, it exposed the events manager to some of the details and challenges the organization was experiencing during the process.

The Executive Director in this organization employed the right balance of active involvement and trust with her team members. She was able to empower her team in their jobs and encourage a proactive approach to solving problems for the organization.

On the other end of the spectrum, I worked on a project with a large organization that was made up from twenty small organizations. The leadership on this project could not do the same things as the Executive Director in the earlier example, but I was impressed how they engaged everyone. The Executive Sponsor was visible, visited every small organization, lead the large meetings, but also participated in the smaller meetings.

When the project started, he scheduled an information gathering session to introduce the idea of a possible project which included a discussion to solicit feedback from the team. This was a powerful way of engaging and getting people involved in the process. While this is how the project started, this is also how it continued. This is another example of how the Executive Sponsor understood his role and what kind of impact he could have on the success of a project.

These are only a scattering of examples of ‘what went well’ on a project. There are a number of smaller things you can do to impact your project in a very positive way. I’d love to hear some of the things you’ve done on your end! What has helped your projects be successful?

About Smita Vadakekalam

Smita has been working in the nonprofit sector since 1998. Prior to joining Heller Consulting, she worked in a variety of positions at nonprofits ranging from front-line fundraising, database management, and operations streamlining. Some of the organizations she's worked with are the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, City Harvest and Art21. As the VP of Professional Services at Heller Consulting, Smita oversees the work they do to implement technology solutions and strong business practices across a wide range of nonprofits. She loves working with project teams to ensure that the right resources and skills are brought to bear on any initiative. Smita has a PMP certification from the Project Management Institute and holds a Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and a Master’s degree in Philanthropic Studies from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.


  1. Thanks for the post, Smita. I think it speaks well to a larger point that project success is rarely simply a matter of picking the right technology. The “how” of a project might even be more important than the “what.” – BJ

  2. Something I’ve see assist in the success of a project is the ability for the internal client project team to reach consensus on a topic before we get into the room, so that the time we spent was utilized more fully. There are often many challenging inernal decisions to be made on project topics, from how an existing business process is carried forward (or not!), to how a field in a data map should be handled in the new system (or not!!. A consulting team can offer expert advice, but some of the conversations can and should happen before they get into the room. 🙂

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