Projects fail for a number of reasons: while it’s dependent on the industries you are working in, there are some reasons that are more prolific than others. For example:
- Unclear scope and success criteria
- Lack of buy-in and engagement
- Lack of change management skills
Unclear scope and success criteria
It’s relatively obvious why unclear scope and success criteria leads to project failure; if what you are delivering hasn’t been agreed upfront, then you have a very slim chance of getting it right. Too often project teams think they know what’s being delivered when they’ve yet to discuss what the customer wants from the product.
If you assume you know what the customer wants you will be setting yourself up for failure – you mustn’t be afraid to ask the customer to break down exactly what they want and exactly what they don’t want. To understand what your customers want you need to talk to them about the future – in detail, what does success look like at the end of the project? This helps prevent “scope creep” too – where additional elements are added along the way from both customer and the team. Scope creep makes planning difficult and can cause teams to panic and rush towards the end of a stage or the end of the project.
Another way of ensuring you have clear scope is to have a collaborative workshop. All the key players need to come together – the analyst team, the decision-makers, business managers and end users. Get the customer to start with what they want, then the end user needs to explain what they want the product to do. One by one you can truly define what the deliverables are. Project Managers typically feel they can’t ask the obvious questions, but if you’re not clear, how are you going to get it right? You cannot be expected to know your customer’s business in detail, so asking questions is key.
Scope can obviously still change; we don’t live and work in a static world but if the deliverables are clearly defined from the start then scope will change only for the right reasons and not because something was omitted.
Lack of buy-in and engagement
Lack of buy-in and engagement from the project team and sponsors is another major reason why projects often fail. When the team is disengaged it can be the result of the Project Manager giving too much direction and not listening. You can’t expect people to buy in to what they’re doing if they are only being told X is being done by Z and you haven’t explained why.
Project Managers often take on the task of planning alone which also causes disengagement. Sometimes, traditional project management best practices imply planning is solely the responsibility of the Project Manager, but with newer approaches, like agile, we’re seeing more collaborative planning that does involve the team. The Project Manager oversees the planning process but everyone is engaged in the process. Involving the team and senior stakeholders gives everyone an opportunity to partake and understand the project; decide the tasks and responsibilities, and select the best approaches to carry out the project.
The most basic way you can engage people is to ask questions: what issues do you have? What is working for you? How would you like me to communicate with you? Too often project managers turn to standard written reports to inform stakeholders instead of tailoring their information or meeting them face-to-face. It’s important to meet stakeholders in person, have a dialogue to understand what is going on for them and making sure that they feel involved and included.
Lack of change management skills
Not all projects are about change management but for those that do have a change element, project managers typically have a very transactional approach. There is sometimes little interaction with the end users during the project, which can result in end users finding that the product doesn’t work for them or doesn’t meet their needs. A successful project is not just about delivering an output to scope, budget and time. It’s making sure that the project works for the customer too and that it adds value.
Change management skills are important to understanding what the end users need the new change to deliver. They are also important when it comes to overcoming resistance to change. In particular, it’s the people skills that make all the difference. It’s human nature to resist change and it’s down to the project manager to understand the reasons behind the resistance. People are often more emotional than rational, which is why it’s so crucial that project managers understand human behaviour. To do that they must get better at listening, engaging and understanding people. It’s when we address people’s fears and concerns that resistance disappears.
The underlying reason for a large part of project management failure is lack of people skills. As Project Managers, we are generally too task-oriented and transactional and have lost the ability to build strong interpersonal relationships at work: developing relationships is key to project success.
See our PRINCE2® section for more information about project management and visit Susanne's website at www.susannemadsen.co.uk to learn about her work developing project leaders.
Have you faced the issues Suzanne outlines above when managing projects or have other factors affected your project management work? How did you meet these challenges? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments box below.