What comes first: benefits or projects?

Simply put, the realisation of benefits is the reason why investments are made. Let it sink in. Sounds obvious, right? Yet, for many organisations, benefits realisation management and how it relates to projects is a dark art and/or a discipline that is still seen as a low priority in the grand scheme of things. Can your organisation afford not to be doing benefits realisation management right though?

Let’s go back to basics and break down that first sentence into smaller pieces to understand its implications of it. I assure you it contains key ingredients not to be neglected.

Benefits realisation or Projects – what comes first?

  • First: what is meant by “benefits”? Benefits refer to the impact of change and something that is understood as an advantage by someone. Think, for instance, in sales increase, reduced costs, of efficiency gains.
  • Then: “realisation of”; that means that it is not enough to simply identify the benefits we are after; we need to ensure that they materialise, hence, require measurement and tracking, with a target, a baseline, and a due date.
  • Next: “reason”; for me, this is the keyword that can drive a mindset shift from business-as-usual to value-as-usual. By reason, we are referring to the cause, drive, motivation, whatever your preferred word choice, but, ultimately, the “why” that leads to what happens next. Now, let’s go back to the real world: how many times have your projects been initiated without clear identification and mapping of benefits and where you then have that tiresome and creative exercise of trying to find some nice list of benefits to put in the business case in an attempt to justify the project? Exactly.
  • Finally: “investments”; sometimes we are so entangled in the day-to-day of projects, that it’s easy to forget that they are much more than a schedule, status reports and progress meetings every Friday, and risks to be maintained in a risk register. Pay attention now: they are investments. Every time an organization decide to do a project and not another, they are investing their money, people, and time on it. It has an inherent cost but also an often-hidden opportunity cost. Surely, similar to organisations, if you would put your money on something, you’d be planning to get something of value from it. And that, my friend, is what we call benefits.

A lot could be said and written about benefits realisation management, why it fails and how to make it succeed, however, for today, I’d like you to focus and reflect on that first and single sentence. It may look simple, however, trust me, what it really means can be revolutionary to most!

Have you written it down as your new mantra for the new year already? Good, let’s now see how to bring it to life.

  1. Make it a principle – principles refer to the pillars of what someone believes to be a truth. In my case, being Portuguese, that would easily translate to the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player in the world. No doubt about it. Principles guide your behaviours (e.g. the CR7 tattoo in my back – just kidding, but no judgment if you have it too!) and are the basis for organisational (and project) culture. They are more important than any of the pretty benefit trackers you can put together; if people don’t acknowledge or believe in the “why”, the “what” quickly becomes a routine, tick-the-box activity that people don’t find any value in. Instead, when it becomes a principle, that means that benefits drive the selection of projects, not the other way around.
  2. Make it stick – never lose an opportunity to position your project management culture as a benefits-led one. That means more than just printing some pretty posters and putting them on a wall or delivering a thorough course on the theory and practice of benefits realisation management. Use what is already at your disposal to build the new mindset, from making benefits a standard topic at meetings, to identifying champions in the different departments, to ensure that there are governance, assurance, and reporting mechanisms in place to drive transparency and accountability. The culture should allow for honest conversations to happen about benefits, while, at the same time, enabling capabilities geared towards the management of benefits. Start with “why” and the rest will follow.
  3. Make it a priority – quick question: what percentage of your portfolio of projects has realised their intended benefits? Ah, not so quick response, after all! In fact, many organisations have no clue about what they are getting from their investments and end up just throwing money down the drain. One may even think that perhaps they have unlimited resources and very deep pockets! Not really, I know. Sometimes people just start to pay attention if you put pressure where it hurts – sure, stories (and lessons) are important but numbers do create an impact in decision-makers when you translate it to £ wasted (yes, that’s the right word) or at risk (if you don’t make benefits realisation a concern at the top of your list). Make no mistake: if you frame it right, it will be impossible not to make it a priority.

Now… why did your organisation make that investment after all? It’s time to remind ourselves of that fundamental reason: yes, once again, benefits!

Are your projects not realising their full benefit potential? Speak to us and we’ll be happy to help!

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By: Marisa Silva (The Lucky PM)

Marisa Silva (The Lucky PM)
PPM specialist with extensive experience in industry with a focus on collaboration, PMO conception & strategy, method and capability development. Marisa also retains depth expertise in Microsoft PPM having led a large number of client deployments.

Published: 31 January 2022

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