BEAM Me Up for Better Projects

Paul Barshop

Having run several BEAMs recently for clients, the phrase “beam me up” is in my thoughts. The phrase comes from the original Star Trek, a 1960s American television series, and was used when someone asked to teleport back to the Starship Enterprise. The kind of BEAM I do for my IPA clients is a Business and Engineering Alignment Meeting. BEAM is a workshop held near the start of FEL 2 at hand-off from the group that led the FEL 1 phase, usually a conceptual study team or strategic planning group, to the team scoping and readying a project for execution.

BEAM Is a Best Practice

IPA research certified BEAM as a Best Practice in 2015, showing that projects using the practice had significantly better cost and schedule predictability than projects that did not. Every project manager should do a BEAM even if their company does not already mandate the practice. Every BEAM I facilitate reminds me of how much value is created with a fairly straightforward exercise.

BEAM Helps Keep Projects From Going in the Wrong Direction

Projects can easily go off in the wrong direction at the start FEL 2, resulting in wasted effort, rework, and enormous frustration for everyone involved when they do.

The wrong direction can reveal itself in many ways. For example, sometimes the project team cannot get the project sponsor to decide on the preferred option because the decision criteria were never made clear. In this case, the project team may get to the FEL 2 gate with open scope. Open scope in turn results in late changes and adds to estimate uncertainty, making the project less predictable.

Another indication that project went on the wrong direction is when someone on the investment committee at the FEL 2 gate tells the team to “go back and evaluate this option.” The range of options defined at the start of the phase should be comprehensive and have the buy-in of the key stakeholders.

A BEAM maps out the right direction with a clear statement of business goals, critical success factors, and priorities. It establishes the contours of what success looks like so that the team can gather data, firm up options, and do the technical and economic studies to identify the preferred combination of scope and strategy, yielding an economic project with an acceptable risk profile.

Starting in the right direction usually means FEL 2 proceeds as expected. Of course, sometimes there is no scope and strategy that satisfies all objectives. A project still maybe cancelled or recycled, but at least wasted time and resources are minimized.

Here is a good example of starting in the right direction from a BEAM. The project is schedule-driven to meet a critical business need. Sound familiar? At the start of the workshop, the project sponsor explained the business justification for project’s schedule goal. The project manager, who was recently on boarded, had already outlined an acceleration strategy. He described the potential trade-offs and risks of the schedule strategy. The project sponsor understood the risks and agreed to pursue the strategy. Everyone in the room aligned on the objective, understood the work to develop the strategy, and agreed to their responsibilities.

The Project Charter Provides the Basis for a BEAM

Many readers already recognize that the BEAM’s content comes from the project charter, a standard FEL 1 gate deliverable for most project delivery systems. The project charter defines objectives, business justification, priorities, givens, assumptions, and boundary conditions. It outlines the base case and alternatives examined in FEL 2.

In theory, a project team taking over could just read the project charter and know what to do. In reality, even a well-developed charter does not capture every nuance of the business case. Besides, nobody reads anymore!

BEAM Starts an Important Dialog

Critically, the BEAM starts a dialog among the project sponsor, key stakeholders, and the project team. The project sponsor explains things like how big the facility should be, what it must produce, how much it should cost, and when it should finish. The team gets clarity on what is more important (e.g., cost or schedule) if the objectives conflict. Stakeholders such as operations provide input on their requirements.

BEAM dialog typically produces at least two or three big “aha” moments. For example, in one BEAM, the participants realized that the project would come online at nearly the same time as several other unrelated projects. Early attention to operations readiness was noted as an important action item.

BEAM Must-Haves

A BEAM must follow a standardized, repeatable process including preparation, agendas, templates, and required deliverables. It must be facilitated by someone external to the project team. Most importantly, a BEAM is a waste of time if decision-makers do not attend, especially the business function. Little will get resolved and most of the workshop’s action items will include “ask the project sponsor.”

A Broken BEAM Is Better Than None

Before closing, I want to circle back to the point that the project’s charter is the source of the BEAM’s content. Unfortunately, for many companies, the project charter is not done well, not enough rigor is applied, and assurance at the early gate is not thorough. Even with a weak charter, I would still insist on a BEAM if I were a project manager. BEAM quickly exposes project weaknesses as workshop questions reveal confusion over goals, undefined boundary conditions, or open decisions. The BEAM might be false start—dare I say a broken beam—but there is a much better chance of going in the right direction at the restart.