What makes a good benefits analyst?

Some years ago we published the results of a survey on what were the key skills and competencies of a portfolio business analyst.  Even then we struggled to find a suitable and commonly used job title for those analysts involved in supporting the development of business cases and benefits management plans.  We have come across so many names – business case analyst, benefits analyst…

Five years later and benefits management remains an aspiration rather than a reality in most organisations.   Heather van Wyk presented on her experiences in benefits management at the EMEA PMI Congress in Berlin earlier this year.  She relates how, when she quizzed the audience, only a handful of participants felt that businesses were successful in implementing effective benefits processes.

Earlier this month, I was part of a ‘conversation’ with Heather, a specialist in benefits analysis, and with the PMO manager and a senior business analyst from a major South African Retail group.  The topic of this conversation was benefits realisation, and in particular:

  • What the barriers are to implementing benefits realisation
  • The stakeholders that matter when considering the delivery of outcomes
  • The characteristics of a good benefits analyst

Here are just some of the insights.

On the challenges of using benefits as an input to project justification

There was enthusiastic agreement with the suggestion made by Heather that a good benefits categorisation scheme is necessary when comparing projects for inclusion in a project portfolio. There needs to be some way to rank projects that claim to deliver to such widely different outcomes as making a company easier to do business with or shaving two minutes off every internal ordering transaction.

There was also a sharing of experiences about the game-playing and over-claiming of benefits that seem to be the natural result of using benefit schemes to justify a project.  One conversationalist wondered out loud whether the use of benefits was a hindrance rather an aid to selecting a project.

Why, another wondered, was it necessary or even useful to use the same way of valuing a project when considering justifying a project and when choosing between projects?

This proved a good trigger. Heather described her experiences of using a mapping technique called BIP (this maps benefits to impacts to products).

BIP model example


The focus of interest by the business sponsors of the project is really in the impacts – or as she calls them – improvement areas. She sees her main role as facilitating the elicitation of these improvement areas and aiding the business come up with performance indicators to measure the outcomes. The immediacy of the outcomes and that they are directly understandable in terms of operational changes to the managers made them much more useful in helping decide whether the project was valuable – to them.

So the conversation turned to measurement and how to value differences.

On the importance of measurement systems and KPIs

Performance indicators for changes in performance are universally agreed to be a critical part of both change and the benefits management process.  But developing good measures was often much trickier than it appeared.  Some of the group related how unanticipated and unwanted effects arose from what turned out to be inappropriate measures.

The development of ‘measurement systems’ was seen as a very important part of the benefits analyst role.  Indeed when discussing which training experiences were most relevant to the role it was Six Sigma that was regarded as more relevant than analysis courses or indeed the commonly available benefits management courses!

Six Sigma training was regarded as more relevant than analysis courses

The identification of good measures which relate to business outcomes and are cheap and easy to collect is a significant challenge.  We discussed the distinction between signpost KPIs and business KPIs (see breakout).  Signpost KPIs are easier to collect.

They include such measures as usage of the new system and how many individuals access the new functionality.  As the name implies, they don’t show that the business outcome has been achieved, but they are a sign the business is changing practices in the right direction.


Some signpost KPIs can be generally applied to portfolios of similar projects, which is always a good thing.  But, as Heather pointed out, signpost KPIs must be supported by KPIs that measure the delivery of the required outcomes.  If you don’t, you can end up an ‘A’ for effort, and an ‘E’ for achievement.

It turns out that very often there are two ‘bits’ of management needed. The first is to bring out the change in the improvement area. The second is to ensure that the improvement results, where it is claimed it should, into the benefit. We’ve all heard the one about the operation being a complete success, but the patient died!

On the importance of using the language that suits the business

It’s more important that the project’s justification is presented in business relatable terms – the changes in people, processes, and practices –than that it is read back in benefit categorisation language. For very necessary reasons benefits tend to be couched in abstract generic terms that fail to engage.

All the participants in the conversation emphasised the importance of using business language.  The business must be able to hear their voice in the benefits case.  As one jokingly commented, a good benefits analyst will always ensure the business hear their words being read back to them – even when they aren’t!

In fact, Heather told of how in her organisation the business was weary and wary of ‘change management’ vocabulary, and she has taken to using terms from business leadership. Her project sponsors found this much more acceptable and understandable.  This led to a short digression on the use of Agile and its impact on the project-sponsor link.

On links to Agile

The group wanted to share their experiences of how Agile changed the dynamic around the delivery of value – an expressed aim of the Agile framework.  The common experience was that this generally appeared to focus on the value of features and functionality, not so much on business outcomes.

The questions came in a flurry. Who carries the ‘business case memory’? Who ensures the bridge between the strategically-valuable outcomes and the products delivered was maintained? Was such a concern even relevant in an Agile environment?  Should the product owner attempt to adopt the role of the sponsor?  How could the crucial interventions by programme manager and benefits analyst be incorporated into an Agile environment?

In projects of any significance (and many Agile initiatives do not fall into this category), the business case or the project charter defines the desired project outcomes – Why we are doing this, and who wants it?  What return on investment is targeted?  These are the absolutes.  Change these, you change the project.

How to deliver the products or outcomes? How to ensure adoption?  These are much more volatile.  This is where product development life cycles such as Agile can add so much. As one of the group observed, perhaps one major intervention the sponsor (or project manager) could have is to make sure that the Agile-inspired look-back sessions focus on seeing whether the effort expended was actually connected to the business case.

Agile inspired look-back sessions should cover whether the effort expended remains connected back to the business case. But do they?

The fear the conversationalists had was this was not happening very often, if at all.

On skills and competencies

The PMO  manager believed that while her department has a good robust benefits categorisation process, its use was not driving appropriate behaviours in projects.  She is determined that this should be one of their early improvement areas. She believes that the introduction of a benefits analyst capability would be instrumental in making this happen.  Such a person would have these characteristics:

  • Individual style and gravitas. The test should be “Could I put this person in front of my CEO?” A business analyst needs presence and business empathy as well as good commercial awareness.  Such a person is likely to have had first-hand knowledge of business leadership.
  • Breadth of experience. All the individuals who had successfully filled the role had worked in multiple and varied operational areas.  They were not IT and were not perceived as such.
  • Fluent in business language. The ability to work using business vocabularies and more interested in re-validating understanding than applying deep analysis.
  • Able to create measurement systems. They need to be at least reasonably numerate, with perhaps a level of understanding of statistics and error rates needed to complete a Six Sigma course.
  • Design thinking. Though being able to dwell in the problem space is important, design and developing solutions are possibly more important. Part of this is the competence often described as critical appraisal, which has proved to be a difficult skill to pin down.
  • Resilience. The experience of failure and learning from it to build resilience and consolidate understanding of what works and when is really valuable. The role is not an easy one!
  • Curiosity. Being naturally curious with a real desire to understand the business position is essential and hard to fake.

The idea of this conversation came from the PMO manager at the retail group.  It is a great format and worked for these reasons:

  • All the participants had a desire and need to improve organisational practices in this area
  • All had experience in attempting approaches and were prepared to share
  • Everyone’s contribution was equal. There was no leader, no expert. It was an informal non-facilitated session
  • The group was small enough to ensure a genuine conversation round the table
  • Two uninterrupted hours were set aside – this is necessary for a conversation to take place

My thanks to all of the participants for taking part and for allowing me to share our insights.

If you are interested in community of practice conversations then you can find more about the approach here.  If you have any ideas for future conversations contact Louise Worsley.

Heather van Wyk will be speaking on the subject of Benefits & Stakeholder Management at Project Management South Africa National Conference in November. (Link)



Is Agile a planning-free approach?

The introduction of Agile as a software product development approach is having a significant and positive impact upon the way IT projects are delivered. However, in our coaching interventions, we are finding some confusion among project managers. Some experienced project managers quickly learn how to adapt and integrate Agile practices into their toolset. It is just another approach, which used appropriately in the right projects increases their ability to deliver. Others move straight to denial; change-weary, they avoid or downplay the usefulness of the Agile framework– “It’s nothing new.” That is their loss! Of greater concern are the more junior project managers who, faced with Agilists, lose their bearings. “What is my role in this?” “How does the governance work?” “How do I plan?” And most worrying–“Do I need a plan?”.

Continue reading “Is Agile a planning-free approach?”

When failure is not an option

When fix-on-failure is not an option

There are projects in which some, maybe even most, of the possible outcomes are so threatening that their occurrence cannot be tolerated. Should something go wrong–should it not go to plan–there is no mitigation available. If you are driving a car and the engine malfunctions, it can be annoying, even frightening, but it’ll be a whole lot more final if the engine malfunctioning is in a spacecraft!

There are degrees of criticality, ranging from safety-critical performance in a nuclear power station to life-and-death rescue missions, to correct compliance to regulations set out in legislation–and in each case project failure always incurs severe penalties.

In these projects, the avoidance of risk drives the planning. This forces a modification to the usual planning process. The focus is to avoid the possibility of events occurring that cannot be managed; it is on the use of processes where the known performance indicates very high levels of reliability with no surprises.

Continue reading “When failure is not an option”

Are projects the right vehicles for innovation?

One of the most interesting changes is the growing involvement of project management with the delivery of innovation. It’s not that innovation within projects is new. Far from it! What is becoming more prevalent is the deliberate use of projects to create and manage innovation.

Continue reading “Are projects the right vehicles for innovation?”

Stop looking for a superhero project manager

I have a memory passed down via family members that as a 9-year old when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded that I wanted to be an expert!   I’m sure my parents find it a very irritating response and would have preferred an answer like doctor or engineer or lawyer!

Whatever I meant at that time, I am pretty clear now, that this is just not possible. Today there is so much information, so many insights and experiences that we need access to as project managers–this cannot possibly dwell in the body and spirit of one person. Karen Stephenson captures it perfectly in her phrase,“I store my [know-how] knowledge in my friends”.

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Are PMOs killing the role of the project manager?

With the Future PMO Conference coming up in London, I think it is worth considering just how far the role of the PMO should go.  I have been involved in the PMO competency development work with the Flashmob team and at times it concerned me that we were in danger of defining the PMO as a monster which inappropriately seizes responsibilities from the project manager.

As Collin Ellis, remarked in his great article on Agile PMOs “The fact of the matter is, if you need a central ‘unit’ to tell a project manager to follow a process to build a plan to deliver a project, then you’ve already failed.”

The PMO must be an empowering influence in the project community, not a disempowering one.  Earlier this year Richard Hendrickse talked on “Developing PMO Servant Leaders”.  Surely this is the style and culture that the PMO must seize if project management and project managers are to remain relevant in our organisations?

Continue reading “Are PMOs killing the role of the project manager?”

Renewing your PMO

If you are lucky enough to have attended the PMO conference in London on 13th June 2018 then you may be already be reflecting on:  How could the PMO improve?  How can we increase the value of our PMO?  What kind of PMO should we be?

A view that PMOs should not be permanent structures has gained ground recently.  Todd Williams, in his insightful book on “Filling Executive Gaps”, suggests that PMOs are perceived as essentially bureaucratic and they all tend to outlive their usefulness.  The need to re-invent and re-align the PMO every few years to remain valuable has almost become a mantra in PMO circles.

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When the budget really matters: A church restoration with lottery funding

When Ian Cribbes, took over the project management of the St Edburg’s church conservation work in Bicester he had not quite realized how different it would be from the projects and programmes he had managed for over 30 years for BAE Systems.    The project had a £205,500 budget – somewhat smaller than the multi-million-pound projects he had been involved in his professional career.  This budget came in two phases; phase 1 was for £19,500 and was allocated for the carrying out of development work (the production of plans and reports); phase 2 was for £186,000 and was allocated to the actual works to be carried out.  But, as he is the first to admit, this project proves the point that being small does not necessarily make it simple.  Sometimes tight constraints demand higher levels of capability and attention to detail from the project manager.

The St Edburg’s work was a conservation project to restore its Grade 1 listed building, parts of which date back 900 years and was funded by the Heritage Lottery.  (In the UK work on a Grade 1 Listed Building is categorized as ‘conservation work’ when its purpose is to retain what is there for future generations.  Renovation and restoration, on the other hand, is when work is carried out to take things back to what they were.)

Ian is an experienced project manager and knew he had things to learn as the construction domain, and in particular heritage conservation, was new to him.  What he hadn’t foreseen was how the difference in the funding and the stipulated budgetary control processes would affect the planning and every aspect of the execution of the project.  The budget constraint was absolute – it was this amount and not a penny more!  While the control of spending on commercial projects is important, with most, especially larger, budgets there are usually opportunities for virement – moving costs between account categories.  It is also often the case that there isn’t an absolute cost: when push comes to shove – more money can be found.  This was very much not the case on this project.

Continue reading “When the budget really matters: A church restoration with lottery funding”

Culling projects: A critical portfolio process

With most organisations reporting more projects that they can resource, stopping projects which are addressing yesterday’s problems may be even more important than not starting those projects designed to address today’s.

In a 2011 review of 15 client portfolios, the UK project consultancy group, CITI reported that in annual portfolio prioritisation more than one third of the projects and programmes approved were carried forwarded from previous years, with 20% having survived two annual review processes.  The question perhaps to ask is – does this reflect a real need for long-term projects or is it that management decision making around stopping something is just so much harder than approving a project to start?

Significant portfolio management attention has been paid over the last few years to developing improved governance processes around the front-end selection and prioritisation of projects.  But portfolio monitoring and control is a much greyer area and often confusion arises between the governance responsibilities at the portfolio and project sponsorship levels. Continue reading “Culling projects: A critical portfolio process”

Top tip for 2018: Be a Modern Professional Learner

How to make this year successful

Late in 2017, Elizabeth Harrin, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, asked me to contribute to her Top Tips for 2018 blog.  These blogs are available in an e-book on Elizabeth’s site.   Here is the long version of my thoughts.  Many thanks to Elizabeth for inspiring me to take out the time to reflect and gather my thoughts.

As a project coach, I get many opportunities to ask the question,” What did you learn from most over the last few years?”                 So far no one has ever answered; “There was this great course” or even, sadly; “There was this great presentation you did on…”.

Most adult learning comes from relevant experience: challenges faced on a project, interactions with peers, or opportunities which force reflection upon and make sense of our experience.

Continue reading “Top tip for 2018: Be a Modern Professional Learner”

The myths of stakeholder management

Project stakeholder management has borrowed many of its concepts from other discipline areas. This cross-usage of wisdom is helpful but its application in projects is still to be proven and bedded-in to the way we do things.  After all, it’s only in the last few years that stakeholder management has been recognised in project management bodies of knowledge.  In the meantime trial and error application has resulted in a number of myths about its application to projects.

Continue reading “The myths of stakeholder management”