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Faculty Insights

One Simple Formula for Project Success

By Wisconsin School of Business

May 28, 2014

First, I need to provide you with full disclosure: in my current role, I participate in and manage project teams, I mentor professionals working on projects, and I teach topics in project and process management. Some call me a project manager or project professional or project instructor, but deep down I’ve always considered myself a technical analyst. I get excited about data, analytic tools, and formulas. Maybe that’s why my early education was in the field of physics and mathematics. For me and many project leaders like me, formulas and analytic tools make us happy.

The hard sciences are ruled by formulas and analytic tools that can be used to model the physical world. E=mc2, F=ma, a2+b2=c2 are examples of analytic tools that help this group every day. In business we also rely on formulas and analytic tools to model the world around us: finance has discounted cash flows, marketing has net promoter scores, operations has Little’s law on throughput, and so on. As I began working in the field of project management and process improvement, I began collecting in my toolkit formulas to help manage projects successfully: PERT estimating, dependency diagrams and Gannt charts, and, for process improvement, basically every statistical test and variation metric out there. I was instructed on how to use those tools and told they would help, but, to be honest, not very many of my projects in the end seemed to be successful. I became frustrated.

Then, through a stroke of good luck, a colleague pointed out another formula that I should consider, one developed by an academic named Maier that was used as a framework for many organizations, most notably GE. But, before he shared it with me, he gave me this blunt advice, “Converse, you spend too much time on technical tasks, not enough time on understanding what’s really needed for positive change. Successful projects are not about flashy solutions—successful projects create positive change.”  Then he laid down the Maier formula.
(Q) x (A) = (E)

In the business world, we often describe positive change as an (E)ffective business result. Whether it’s an improved operational metric, better customer satisfaction score, or completion of deliverables on time and in budget, all are examples of getting a high (E) score in the Maier formula. In order to get high (E), Maier realized that the solutions developed needed to be technically robust. The solutions should be based on sound reasoning and leverage existing technology, data, and proven project methodologies. He called this a (Q)uality solution. My goal as a project manager up to this point was focused solely on getting (Q) as high as possible.

What I missed was the role people have on the (E)ffective business result. A great solution that ignores the most important stakeholders affected by that solution is a waste. Solutions need to consider people and, in particular, stakeholder (A)cceptance of the solution. Many technical analysts like myself focus too much of a project team’s effort on the (Q) part of the equation and short-change the effort needed to increase stakeholder (A)cceptance. Project teams need to be spend equal, if not more, effort on determining what it will take to create high levels of (A). What the Maier formula points out matter-of-factly is (Q) x (A) = (E) is a framework for positive change. Successful projects require a balanced solution that considers the power of organizational change management. Said more simply: people are a critical part of the success equation.

Now when I’m working on a project or teaching a new project concept or tool, I remind those around me of the Maier formula. I ask, “How can this tool or work we’re performing help increase (A)?” If the tool only helps increase (Q) but not (A), I’m probably not going to waste valuable time and resources on that tool. Technical analysis will always be important to project success, but the analysis needs to be balanced with how it can be used to help increase stakeholder acceptance as well. (Q) x (A) = (E) is the simple formula I now use to help manage projects to success.