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Why Do So Many Projects Go Awry?

anderson Sept18I’ve yet to partner with a client who didn’t have several projects going on at any one time but few achieve the intended results on the expected timeline. Why do so many projects go awry? Since one of the reasons my clients hire me is to make sure “results occur”, I pay close attention to what derails projects. I’ve summarized the last 12 months of project derailment causes and found that the 80/20 rules applies. 80% are due to communication type issues, and 20% are due to technical issues. If we can determine how to avoid these pitfalls, we’ll have a much greater chance at increasing revenues and profits – certainly seems worth our while!

Keeping to the causes of project derailment which occur most frequently, let’s start with the “communication” related causes:

  1. Executive support: I rarely see this issue anymore because I know it is a top cause of failure; however, unfortunately, it still pops up from time to time – especially when the executive is concerned about the risk associated with making key decisions. I’ve seen this recently occur, and it creates havoc! Not only does the project not progress as it should, it typically regresses if the project team does not see visible executive support. Words are not enough! Actions must line up with words. Do everything possible to avoid this pitfall. In today’s environment, you might not just deter progress but you’ll likely also lose key project team members. Talk with the executive upfront about any significant pitfalls. Summarize the issues and solutions.
  2. Not listening: A common cause of not just project failure but also life failures. Remind the project team project manager and project sponsors to listen carefully. Often times, the most critical information is discovered by listening to what might seem unimportant. Do not assume what the other person will say; instead, make a conscious effort to hear what’s being said.
  3. Miscommunication: Have you ever played the game of telephone? What seems so clear gets jumbled by the 5th person in the telephone line – or even sooner. Miscommunication and the lack of clarity are significant causes to project failure. Instead of falling in this trap, think about what you’d like to communicate before you open your mouth. Who is best to communicate it? How should you communicate it? For example, in words? On the board? Via Power Point? With a story? In what environment? At what time? It’s easy to overlook these essentials; however your success rate will go up tremendously if you think first and act second.
  4. Conflicting goals: Can one member of your project team succeed while another fails? If so, you have a classic case of conflicting goals. Fix it. Can the project team fail but the project sponsor succeed? Which goal will the sponsor support if the rubber meets the road? Think through these scenarios upfront.
  5. Lack of accountability: Unfortunately, one of the most common causes of failure is due to the lack of accountability. How often is the project manager, project sponsor, or manager in charge willing to make the tough decision to enforce accountability? What happens if half of the people are held accountable while the other half isn’t? This is a frequent occurrence as project teams are cross-functional in nature and so often the folks working together report to different people. In these cases, at a minimum, it is not a straight line to success – at worst the project fails.

The 20% component relates to what is often times the priority – technical expertise. Do the project team members understand and are expert in the key concepts related to the project? For example, if you are implementing an ERP system, does the project team need to have technical expertise in the specific ERP system? I rarely find that to be required as these skills can be brought into the project as required. The same holds true for R&D projects, Sales & Operations Planning projects, Lean projects etc. Of course, the project leader needs to be conversant in the topic and be able to ask the right questions and bring in the right resources; however, he/she does not have to be a technical expert. 

In every client situation I’ve seen, project results are critical to the company’s success. If a project team is formed and resources are committed, it is important for success to follow. Not only are resources limited but it is getting harder to keep vital skills Thus, thinking through the typical reasons projects go awry and how you can avoid them can be essential to achieving project results on-time, on-budget and with a committed and engaged project team.

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