Why Projects Fail. At the end, look at the beginning

16 January

As the project manager you are accountable for delivering a successful project.  Sure you have a team to work with but ultimately the buck stops with you. At the end if the project fails all eyes look to you. When analyzing why a project failed you need to reflect to the beginning of the project to understand why you didn’t succeed. Typically project managers encounter challenges in the areas of planning, communicating, reporting, measuring and documenting.  Some of the following may seem pretty basic but I stumble across these crucial mistakes all the time when mentoring project managers who are wondering why their projects went south.

Business case, project charter or project scope document
Call it any name you want but make sure you have a document that identifies what’s in and out of scope, the major objectives and expected benefits to be realized, assumptions, constraints and risks. This is the document that all stakeholders can use as an anchor to transform them from current to future state and the reason why the project is being initiated. This document establishes the boundaries of the project and is used to avoid scope creep. Oh yeah make sure to get all stakeholders to sign off on the document.

Quantify the expected results
Implementing projects is not like sports where you measure success by wins or losses. You need to engage stakeholders to quantify the benefits they want to achieve so you can use those metrics to measure success. Reducing administrative costs by the end of the fourth quarter is not measurable. Reducing administrative costs by 25% by the end of the year is. Vince Lombardi once said ‘winning is not everything, it’s the only thing.’ As you proceed with your project make sure all activities are focused on achieving the expected benefits, the only thing that matters, and don’t get sidetracked with tasks that do not deliver to the expected benefits.

Planning
I know everyone wants to start building the house before the blueprint is completed but you know the cliché ‘fail to plan, plan to fail.’ Team members need a roadmap outlining in sufficient detail how they will get from point A to point B. Planning is an iterative team process so you can plan while concurrently performing some of the work of the project. A good plan includes:

  • Well documented tasks indicating who is accountable for task completion with start and end dates
  • A list of milestones and deliverables that are clearly communicated to all stakeholders
  • Critical dependencies that could cause project slippage if due dates are missed
  • Time required by assigned resources to focus on tasks and deliver them within established time frames
  • Sufficient status meetings to report progress, slippage and risks.

Status reporting
Status reports must provide an honest perspective of project progress, slippage and risks that may jeopardize the project delivery date. Project slippage must be supported with reasons for slippage and what actions are being taken to recover lost time and prevent reoccurrence. Project risks are all about looking ahead and working with key stakeholders to mitigate risks before they occur. If you are in a corporate culture that can’t handle the truth meet with key stakeholders and make them aware that reporting a red flag is a call for support from management and not a reflection that the project manager or team is doing a poor job. The key is honest communication. Bad news only gets worse the longer you fail to communicate it.

Team members are set up to fail
Make sure you meet with each team member assigned to your project and understand what’s on their plate in addition to the project you are managing. Find out how much time they have available to give to your project and avoid the ‘Are You Serious Syndrome.’ This is exactly what team members say when they are tasked with yet another project to implement with no relief from their day-to-day responsibilities. Be an advocate for your team and meet with key stakeholders to resolve resource overload issues. Organizations that prioritize effectively and are serious about hitting established deadlines relieve team members of at least 40 to 50 % of their daily job functions.

Celebrate success along the way
So many organizations rarely say thank you to their employees so developing a rewards structure to motivate team members is a differentiator that can contribute to the success of any project. Meet with project sponsors at the outset of the project and agree to low cost and non-monetary rewards when important milestones are achieved. Project success is not solely the task of the team. Executive and senior leader involvement is required and getting them engaged is part of the role of being an effective project manager.

So there are a few blunders that you can avoid. Some of these will be out of your control and it may be someone higher up the organization chart that is derailing your project. If that’s the case share this information with them. Put your heads together to find solutions. It’s better than the alternative. With awareness and diligence you can avoid most common mistakes.

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