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How to Avoid Project Failure

Projects are the mechanism to realize business strategy, create competitive advantage and achieve organizational transformation. Important stuff, but most often, projects must be done in addition to ongoing business operations. Therefore success is dependent on getting what’s needed, spending your budget wisely and keeping people focused and motivated to execute.

Look for the Warning Signs

Warning signs of project failure include things like missed deadlines, confusion over who is doing what, lack of clarity on what should be done, conflict over decisions or control, and churning over issues with no decisions being made to move things forward.

Effective project managers look for these early warning signs of failure so they can take corrective actions, but more importantly, they proactively work to avoid them. They do this by employing three critical ingredients for project success:

  1. ensuring organizational support;
  2. instituting a suitable process to run the project; and
  3. cultivating solid relationships to engage and motivate people.
Ensuring Organizational Support

Research has shown that projects fail to achieve organizational support when they lack clear business objectives and executive involvement. A project charter is one of the earliest deliverables that helps a project start off on the right foot by validating its organizational commitment. A charter states the business objectives, defines success measures, links a project to corporate strategy, identifies key milestones and stakeholder groups, recognizes the budget, and most importantly, names the project sponsor. When there is a clear vision for the project, a budget, and a business executive responsible to champion it, then you know the project is ready for prime time.

Smart project managers align themselves closely with the project champion so the unification of strategy to execution is clear. They often partner on the creation of the charter too, and make it the center piece of executive review boards, and the project stakeholder kickoff. The charter brings together on paper the organizational commitment to getting the project done. This organizational commitment will be tested as business priorities shift or stress levels rise. This is why, in addition to a charter, project managers and business sponsors engage an executive-level project steering committee to help guide the project along and maintain its visibility within the highest levels of the organization.

Instituting a Suitable Process

The partnership between the project manager and project sponsor help to ensure commitment and focus, but it is the use of suitable process that helps to ensure clarity and proper controls. The experienced project manager knows how to set up a project framework to engage people and produce deliverables. At the bare minimum, a project framework includes phases to plan, execute, deliver and operationalize the end result of the project. It is clear when we start and when we end each phase. In each phase it is clear what is being delivered and who is responsible for delivering it. There is a communications plan that identifies what will be communicated, when, by who and how often. At the heart of the project is the core process for developing the end result, whether a software application, a new manufacturing process or a new product. The decisions for how the product of the project will be constructed will help to inform the overarching project framework. Project managers are also very well versed in how the organization procures things, secures conference rooms, on boards consultants, etc. Knowing how the organization works is valuable and another way to keep the project from getting stuck.

Cultivating Solid Relationships

Even with organizational support and good process, teams get stressed. Successful project managers work hard to establish and optimize relationships and create a safe environment for the team to function. The larger the project, the more critical it is to have a stakeholder management plan. This plan answers questions like who needs to be involved in the project, what is their interest in the project, what influence do they have in the project, what must be communicated to this person? Educated project managers understand that teams go through growing pains from storming, to forming, to norming to performing.

The project manager’s role in each phase is critical, from directive to facilitative. The end game is an accountable, motivated team that relies on the project manager to ensure the network of project support remains intact, the lines of communication remain open and the risks are properly managed, as the project moves through its phases. A project manager must have strong relationships with the team and with organizational influencers to be able to ensure this level of support is sustained. Project managers with strong external connections help their projects by providing options to supplement the team or expertise to help with decision making. Project managers who cultivate high-performing teams always seem to find ways to get their projects unstuck.

It is important to know the signs of project failure, but even more important to proactively avoid it by ensuring your project has organizational support, a suitable process, and a motivated team.


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