Many studies place project failure – to some degree or another and by someone's standards somewhere - at between 56% and 74% of all projects. I have also seen a couple of more optimistic surveys putting the success figure at closer to 54%. Still, none of those figures make any of us feel warm and fuzzy about our chances at project success. We all know that we tend to cut corners or that our methodology or process may not be the best. It is like continuing to eat fried chicken when your doctor tells you to stop for your health. We often still like to stick with what we feel comfortable with even if we know it could have (not definitely will have) negative consequences at some point later than tomorrow or next week.
That said, let's look at five key areas that loosely fall under the logical concept of project management best practices that can, when practiced regularly and thoroughly, logically lead to better project outcomes.
1. Proper Planning
Proper upfront planning is always going to be a critical best practice that leads to project success more often than projects that lack the proper amount of planning. What is the right amount of planning? There is no yardstick for this, but it involves a combination of detailed requirements planning and documentation, setting up a proper way to regularly manage project financials and resource supply, risk and issue management, and of course, a planned and keen oversight of project scope and change control. Communication is the #1 responsibility of the project manager and helps everything else go much more smoothly. That is why I also consider a project communication plan – whether it is a formal project deliverable or just a casual spreadsheet for everyone to review and post on his or her office wall – as something that should be sent out at the beginning of every project. Yes, it is part of the planning process and ensures that everyone on the project knows who is responsible for what communication, how to contact all key stakeholders through just about any means possible, and when, where and how the regularly scheduled project meetings will be happening.
2. Close Budget Oversight
Close budget control is critical, but not practiced nearly enough. Involve the team and ensure the team is accountable for assigned tasks including the estimated effort, actual effort and the effort to finish tasks. If your team knows that you watch and manage the budget closely, then they are going to be more likely to charge their time to correctly to your project when working on multiple projects making it far less likely to charge junk time to your projects.
3. Project Team Ownership of Task
How do you get your project team to “own” their tasks assigned to them? Make them accountable for everything about those tasks. From defining them with you during project schedule planning work to tracking them while the project is in motion to reporting on their status to the project customer during weekly formal project status meetings. The sooner your can get your project team members assigned to their roles on the project, the sooner they can assist in the early project planning activities including the project schedule development and the individual task definitions and scope. Those are the tasks they will be assisting with and owning, and that planning phase helps them to feel and gain ownership of those tasks they will be working on soon and throughout the project engagement. It helps build in automatic ownership and accountability.
4. Error-Free Deliverables
Ok, perfection is not going to happen. However, you can certainly strive for it with your work and your team's work on deliverables that go to the customer. Peer review everything to greatly reduce easily overlooked mistakes in project deliverables going out for customer review and sign off. Trust me – I know from personal experience that sending off the same great functional design document three times with errors still visible – even simply typos – can lead to a significant decline in customer satisfaction and confidence in yours and your teams' ability to deliver quality. I corrected the problem – almost too late for one project – by requiring peer reviews by all project team members of everything that went to the customer. Everything (except for the basic communication emails, of course). Our problem was a problematic free PDF creation program, but it was sloppy for us not to be checking and just sending errors off for the customer to find. That should never happen on a customer deliverable.
5. Solid Customer Engagement
The engaged customer is the one that is available to exchange ideas, supply and receive information, provide critical input on key project decisions that need to be made and can clarify requirements or business processes on the spot when progress requires it. If the project manager can keep the customer focused more on your project than the hundreds of other things that are trying to take up his or her time, then you win that battle in making it easier to get quick info when the situation requires it. You will be able to make sure that the customer is sitting in those weekly project status meetings helping make next step plans when they come up. Win-win.
Summary/Call for Input
I could write on this topic till the end of time and never really pound home any real guarantees of project success – there are no guarantees. In the end, adhering as much as possible to logical best practices, repeatable successful processes, practices and templates, and trying not to just bring a project home on the wings of luck are your best way of ensuring project success.
What are your thoughts on this topic? What works for you? What has failed miserably? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.