A lot of training is invested in project managers and project management offices (PMOs), nowadays.
And there’s an increased awareness of the pitfalls in managing projects.
Yet 40% of projects fail to deliver on their objectives.
And some just fail to deliver. Period.
The past 25 years of my career has been spent delivering and advising on all manner of projects:
From technology infrastructure to strategic organisational change programs.
From $100k projects through to $3b transformation portfolios.
From bureaucratic cultures to federated models.
I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
And in all that time, across all of those projects, I’ve found there to be three predominant reasons for project failure.
1. Poor project controls
This is often made worse by a weak project manager and a well-intentioned executive.
In reality, it’s more complex than that.
Project managers and PMOs need to have strong controls, particularly change control, version control, issue management, risk management, timeline management and cost management.
The level of control in place generally is related to the maturity of the PMO and the experience of the project manager.
A project manager who doesn’t maintain good controls, combined with a well-intentioned executive make a volatile combination. The result is that scope can quickly and substantially depart from the agreed baseline.
2. Poor project establishment
From my experience, this is by far the main reason projects fail.
People inherently suffer from ready-aim-fire syndrome.
When defining the requirements, they often don’t capture all of them. They’re too eager to get into solution mode before they’ve fully defined and confirmed the problem.
A good checklist for how comprehensive you’ve been is whether you have identified all of the physical, financial, timing and emotional requirements, as well as KPIs, KRAs and applicable constraints.
Without a strong baseline of requirements, it’s no wonder that many project teams fail to meet expectations – since no one has taken the time to agree what those expectations are!
In organisations with a strong silo mentality, getting agreement and signoff of these requirements requires an effective and properly constituted governance structure.
Phrases such as ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’ are well known to many, yet history continues to repeat itself.
3. Inexperienced project managers
I have a saying: ‘Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgment.’
Project management is experiential. No amount of training in project management theory can substitute for real, hands-on experience.
And, as is the case for practitioners in most disciplines, project managers reach a level of competence which should define the nature and size of projects they’re capable of managing.
So how do you prevent these 3 common causes of project failure?
Assembling experienced teams who have demonstrable track records in the type of project being undertaken and who ensure proper project establishment significantly reduces the risk of project failure.
The project or program manager is the key to leading an effective team.
When choosing the right project or program manager for the job, look for someone who:
- has the requisite experience
- ensures effective project establishment, with comprehensive requirements
- implements strong project controls
- fosters an effective and empowered governance structure
- maintains very good visibility of progress versus plan, because the earlier you detect any departure from the plan, the sooner you can apply corrective action and the more effective it can be
- has the right ‘style’ to be effective within the organisations, at the level required for the project to be successful.
All too often executives assemble teams which are inexperienced in the type of project that the team is being tasked with.
Inexperienced teams repeatedly fall for the pitfalls above, as well as other pitfalls.
The results are predictable, and project rescue is the only recourse.
How do you fix a broken project?
I’ve been called in to several ‘project rescues’, where projects were either off the rails or failing to meet sponsors’ expectations.
This is where the experience of successful project and program delivery is essential — to diagnose where projects have departed from expectations and how to remediate them.
If the project is off the rails and clearly not meeting its objectives, it’s possible to avoid a train-wreck.
You need to call on a project or program manager who’s experienced in project remediation.
The earlier this call is made, the more chance there is to get the project back on track .
But prevention is better than remediation.
Be sure your projects are well controlled, that you’re following and managing a comprehensive list of requirements, and that you have the right team for the job.
Then your projects have a better chance of being successfully delivered and of meeting everyone’s expectations.