How can we stop projects failing?

No project ever begins with the intention that it will fail. However, despite the best intentions, this does sometimes happen (often for a myriad of reasons). We’ll examine why projects fail and what can be done to mitigate this….

Manage expectations

Unmanaged expectations kill projects. Expectations that projects with a complex scope can be delivered in short periods of time or that poorly defined requirements can realise successful outcomes, often lead to extended timelines, costs and, in some cases, failure.

Managing expectations is a core project delivery skill. For example, as a consumer, if you’ve ordered something and are expecting delivery on a certain day – but there’s an issue and the items you’ve ordered can’t be delivered on the agreed date – it’s then reasonable for the reason for this delay to be communicated and a new delivery date communicated. At the very least, you’d expect timely updates until a new date can be set. To be kept waiting for a delivery is poor expectation management.

The power of good communication

Good communication in business is a must. Projects commonly fail due to poor communication between project teams and business managers. This can happen for a multitude of reasons, from not understanding terms and acronyms used in the relevant work areas, to assumptions that other parties will always understand key pieces of information.

There are numerous techniques that can aid communication. Adopting a clearly defined comms plan, utilising a RACI or RASCI matrix, or using applications such as Slack or MS Teams can ensure that lines of communication are always open.

Clearly define requirements

Not fully understanding project requirements from the off is a major reason for projects failing to reach the finish line. Requirements aren’t always clear, whether they’re the requirements of the business or things that rely on dependencies or projects being delivered in order for the benefits to then be released and consumed. The accuracy of the requirements must first be determined, i.e., are the requirements addressing a real need or are they trying to resolve symptoms caused by issues elsewhere (if so, is this the right project?)?

Accurately estimate time needed

Project planning is not an exact science. It is, at best, a series of time estimates for tasks, based on experience. This means that estimates that represent a ‘happy path’, where you expect everything to go perfectly, more often than not set you up for disappointment. Additionally, estimates that make the project plan seem achievable, but that aren’t based in reality and don’t consider the variables and dependencies associated with the project, ultimately only serve to set everyone up for disappointment.

Correctly assign resources

So, you know what the requirements are, you understand the dependencies and what’s required to deliver. But, this can all be moot if you don’t have the right resources in place or lack the resources to deliver. You wouldn’t ask a front-end developer to undertake tasks you’d expect a back-end developer to deliver, for example. Additionally, whilst project teams may have junior members assigned, having the right mix of experience and youth not only helps junior members of the team gain valuable experience and insight, it will also help to ensure that tasks are delivered to the agreed timescales and with the right quality.

Establish efficient conflict resolution

It’s not unknown for conflicts to develop within project teams, or with vendors and clients. Often, this is down to expectations not being managed correctly or not being met. Sometimes it can just be down to a clash of personalities. Allowed to fester though, this can impact on the delivery of a project. Ensuring that conflicts are dealt with in a timely manner and that the parties involved have had the opportunity to be heard and their issues addressed can only aid a project.

Use experienced project managers

Project managers all have to start somewhere, and the only way a PM can learn effectively is by doing the job. Irrespective of the qualifications they may have in the subject, only by doing the job can these skills be put into action, refined, new skills be learnt and progress made. However, you don’t want an inexperienced project manager to be assigned to a complex or challenging piece of work that has multiple stakeholders, all with their own differing expectations as to what the final outcomes should be.

Value stakeholder management

Managing stakeholders is critical in any business. It’s always worth remembering that stakeholders can be both positively and negatively affected by a project. Understanding who your stakeholders are, who has an interest in your project, and how they’re affected by the project, is critical to outcomes. You need to establish who has authority over your project, and if there are any stakeholders who might want your project to fail, for example (as well as which stakeholders want the project to be successful).

Time invested understanding your stakeholders, what their roles and responsibilities are, what their requirements are, and what their expectations are, can help to define effective engagement strategies and communications channels. This information can then be collated into a communications plan that can be executed throughout the project lifecycle.

Create a positive project culture

A project culture spans several elements. On one hand, it’s made up of the values, success criteria, expectations and personalities of the project stakeholders. On the other, it’s made up of the members of the project team, their behavioural patterns and their ability to communicate (project tools also form part of the culture).

Defining values, standards, and the means of communication is critical to a project’s success. It’s vital to establish and clearly communicate roles and responsibilities and outline the expectations placed on all those involved.

Conclusion

All of the above are things that any good project and programme manager should consider. There are many tools and techniques that can be employed to establish the correct thinking and considerations early on in a project, and to ensure that the potential issues outlined don’t become a problem.

Think -> Review -> Do

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