It happens to the best of us. You have a firm grip on the reins of a project at the beginning, and at some point, it just starts to slip out of your control and you are facing project failure.
The budget might begin to inflate beyond expectations, delivery dates slip, or one department falls behind and leads to others falling behind, just like dominos.
Despite our best efforts, the reality is that project failure can happen. But, why does it occur?
Every failure or mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow. Fortunately for you, we here at Velociteach have a team of experienced project manager professionals with years of lessons under their belts looking to share what they’ve learned.
So let’s talk about project failure and what you can do to avoid it.
We can find ourselves facing project failure for a number of reasons. See if you can relate to a few examples.
Sometimes failure is out of our control, but more often, there was something that we overlooked that made matters worse. Perhaps it was a misstep in communication between teams, lack of preparation and planning, or weak governance.
Project failure doesn’t mean that you are a bad project manager. It just means that you have room to improve and lessons to learn. We all do, and we assume that if you’re here reading this that you have the intention to do just that.
Author Neal Whitten wrote and recorded a self-paced course with us on this topic – it’s called 17 Top Reasons Why Projects Fail And What You Can Do To Avoid Failure. We recommend this highly-rated course for anyone who wants to understand the root causes of project failure and how to avoid it.
The first step is acknowledging where things went wrong. Learning from your mistakes is essential, and learning from the mistakes of others can be beneficial as well.
That’s why we have professional project managers walk through their experiences on our podcast, Manage This. Many of the podcasts focus on a specific project, and in those episodes, our hosts ask project managers about their experience. What went well? What surprised you? And what do you wish you could go back and do over? Questions like that bring a lot of helpful information to the listeners.
You never know when one of their experiences is going to directly relate to what’s in front of you at the moment, such as an issue with a contractor, team member, or a demanding customer.
Let’s consider a few tips that can keep your project sailing smoothly and help you avoid project failure.
There are several different project management methodologies that you can use for your project, from Agile to Waterfall approaches, or any one of their offspring methods, such as Lean or Scrum.
It’s important to remember: one size does not fit all. The project manager should analyze the new project and determine which method is going to work the best, given the current conditions. There are many factors to consider, and we’ve written separate posts on that topic.
If you don’t choose an approach, you will set your team up for trouble. So, analyze the project factors, talk to your team and peers, and choose the best approach for this project right from the start. Figure out what steps and processes are truly helping the team achieve the project goals, and get rid of those practices that don’t add value.
One of the leading causes of project failure is undefined or ill-defined scope. The project manager must work closely with the customer or sponsor and the team to nail the requirements. If your team is handed a fuzzy target, you won’t know if you are headed down the right path. A poorly-defined scope is incredibly frustrating – the team is unsure of their workflow and deliverables. And, with bad or incomplete requirements, the team has no reliable way of gauging progress or success.
Our instructor-led Scope & Requirements Management course is an excellent way to equip your team with the knowledge and best-practices necessary to better define and manage these areas of your projects. If you prefer to study at your own pace, check out this self-paced online course to learn how to master scope and requirements. We also offer a shorter course on Collecting Customer Requirements.
As the project leader, you can step up in this area and insist on well-defined, complete requirements. It’s ok if some of the future requirements are unclear today – those can come later. However, the near-term scope must be understood by the team and key stakeholders.
Pick the best approach, and nail the scope. Those first two steps lead right into this next one.
The best way to reach those project goals is to plan and prepare right from the start.
Strong requirements give the team a place to focus. Now, you and the team have what you need to plan in earnest. Clear scope leads to informed planning and preparation in other areas, such as estimating resources needed to get the job done, determining milestones and setting the schedule, crafting a budget, managing risks, and many other areas.
Know the skills and strengths of your team members, internal departments, and contractors inside and out. Understand the project expectations, break those goals into smaller chunks of work, and set a timeline that is risk-adjusted and achievable. No matter what methodology you use for your project, they all require this type of analysis and planning by you and the team. Check out our online Project Planning Series that includes 5 short courses that each provide a step-by-step guide to a major component of the Project Plan.
Some like to say that a cluttered desk is a sign of genius. Maybe that applies to mad scientists and cutting-edge artists, but not so much for project managers! Sponsors, customers, and even project team members feel much more confident in the ability of the project manager if they observe a leader who is disciplined and efficient. Being well-organized is vital for the project leader – too many important details can get lost in the mire of that cluttered desk.
Maintain and share a resource calendar with departments and the team, so that each department knows where the others are and can track their project work flow.
Organize communications, whether digital or in-person, to avoid misunderstandings within teams and ensure that everyone is on the same page.
A savvy project manager knows the answers, or knows who has the answers, to those common project questions. In order to reach that level of competency, you need to have a solid approach and system for organizing project data.
Fortunately, you’ve got a lot of options today to improve your ability to manage project data, from scheduling tools, to resource trackers, and so many online solutions. Don’t worry; we’ll still think you’re a genius even if you have a clean and tidy desk space.
Are you struggling to learn how to use Microsoft Project? We can relate – that powerful tool has a lot of options. We offer an instructor-led course on Microsoft Project to boost your abilities with this tool.
We want to make a note here: We think there’s a difference between communication and healthy communication.
Here are a couple of tips to help you establish and maintain healthy communication practices. First, set proper expectations with the team by creating a team charter. Bring the project team together as early as possible in the project, and dedicate time to collaborating on this team charter.
The team charter defines the ground rules and sets expectations for team behavior. Team members help build this, so facilitate a discussion where all participate. Elicit their expectations – what works for them, and what is counter-productive. The session should result in a team charter that spells out expected communication cycles, frequency, methods, and other details. For example, the team may agree that all members should meet weekly, and subgroups may meet more often. Or, an agile team may select 9 a.m. each morning as the time for the daily standup meeting.
The charter spells out expected behaviors and communication protocols within the team and with external stakeholders. Because the team comes together to create it, the charter has built-in ownership and accountability.
Poor communication is often cited as a key reason for project failure. Build on this team charter with a second document – the communication plan. This communication plan addresses the who, what, how, and how often of project communication for those beyond the team – other key stakeholders. This plan sets expectations for stakeholders, and the project team agrees to carry it out.
These two documents are easy to understand, can be created quickly, and pave the way for clear communication on the project.
One of the best ways to avoid project failure is to be learning and gaining new experiences consistently, and Velociteach is here to share information and experience with you.
Whether you’re fresh to the world of project management or a seasoned PM, we offer plenty of helpful materials for project managers of all experience levels on velociteach.com.
Velociteach has a wide range of instructor-led courses, online materials, and self-study resources. And any good project manager will tell you that even after you earn your PMP, you always have room to expand your knowledge.
Ultimately, the project manager is expected to guide the project team from start to finish successfully. It hurts when a project fails, and we often look back on those experiences wondering where we went wrong.
How can you avoid failure? An excellent first step is to study those causes that lead to failure, such as these Top 17 Reasons. You can also follow the steps described above, including picking the best approach for the project, nailing the scope, planning adequately, staying well-organized, and fostering healthy team communication.
There are situations where project failure is unavoidable due to circumstances outside of your control. Look at the silver lining: project failure always offers an opportunity to learn.