Four Solutions to Prevent Project Failure

While there is no magic formula to ensure a project’s success, our four recommendations can help you address the common project issues with a combination of people, processes, and tools.

by Cynthia K. West, Ph.D.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) holds that all organizations perform two kinds of work: operational work and projects. Due to the repetitive nature of operational work, it is easier to systematize processes. However, because projects have finite start and end dates, are unique in nature, and involve mixed-team players, they are more difficult to systematize and to develop sound methodologies and processes for.

Most organizations have run projects that did not end on time, were over budget, or changed scope. There are many pitfalls that can sink a project. We focus on four basic reasons why projects fail. Because most project teams are comprised of at least three sets of players (executive management, project managers, and team members or resources) we will take examine each issue from all three vantage points, and provide suggested solutions.

Challenge #1: Lack of Visibility of all Projects

Many projects fail when one or more participating groups does not have access to the right level of information at the right time.

Executives often complain that they do not have visibility into all current enterprise projects. They often do not have access to the project schedules in real-time. Sometimes project managers present the plan at the outset of the project, then become gatekeepers of the schedule, explaining to executives that the schedule has not been updated recently and is not ready to be shared. The sponsors and company executives do not have access to a schedule or to reports until it is too late to either re-direct the effort or cancel the project.

Project managers often put together a plan and associated schedule at the outset of a project. The project managers are often so preoccupied with managing issues and re-organizing resources that they do not have time to update the tasks on the schedule and review their impacts.

In fast-paced environments, project managers are asked to work on several projects at one time. Many project managers attempt to keep pace with the task updates on their project schedules. Those that do end up acting as glorified administrators, spending considerable time asking resources about task progress.

Project managers often lack visibility into all the projects their resources are working on. Many times they share team members with other project managers, so they may not know exactly what tasks the resource is working on that day.

The most frequently heard complaint from team members is that they lack visibility on a day–to-day basis about the scheduled tasks. If they are working on multiple projects, they may be confused about task priority.

  Solution #1: Publish Projects to a Visible Location

The best solution combines tools, processes, and people-based changes. The tool portion of this solution provides the team with a centralized location for publishing all project schedules. The simplest way to share project schedules is to post project files in a network folder, setting access rights using Windows folder and group permissions.

A better solution is to push project information to SharePoint or to another intranet or extranet solution with the proper access rights. The best tool for the job provides a complete enterprise project management solution where all projects are centralized in one database. If the team uses a Web-based system, project information may be accessed remotely if team members travel, work outside the office, or need to update information from client offices.

The solution must empower team members to update their own tasks in the centralized system. Obviously there are some serious limitations if the team is simply posting information on the network; versioning is a leading issue. However, if an enterprise, Web-based project management solution is used, team members may update their own tasks and the information will be available in real time. This relieves the project manager from getting task updates from team members. It also pushes the work to the appropriate level—that is, to the person actually performing the work. In addition, the executive management team has real-time visibility into all projects, including percent complete, hours spent, and the projected costs.

Executive management is critical to the solution’s success. Executives must communicate to all team members the importance of updating tasks and projects daily. Leadership cannot be minimized. In Project Insight implementations, we have found that the most successful teams are those whose leadership has reinforced the request for team member and project manager updates by incorporating the behavior change in performance evaluations, MBOs, and other measurement drivers. If the executive leadership is lacking, any attempt to change behavior through process changes and software solutions will ultimately fail.

Challenge #2: Unclear Project Objectives

Most organizations have more project initiatives than they can ever hope to complete. Many companies begin more initiatives than they probably should, resulting in over-worked and often-unhappy team members.

Executives play a key role. If top management is not clear on project priorities, the entire organization will be unclear about which projects are the most important. Many organizations get so busy that they forget a key component of success is taking the time to meet and discuss strategies to reach these goals. Once these elements are outlined, many projects that do not match the organization’s goals are eliminated.

Many times, project managers are given so many projects that they cannot realistically complete them on time and within budget. More experienced project managers may push back, telling management that all efforts cannot be achieved. However, many project managers do not, either for fear of losing their jobs or because they do not want to “rock the boat.” The lack of vision and leadership at the top of the organization flows downward, so project managers must manage more projects than they can handle.

  Solution #2: Rank Project Initiatives

Executive management’s role is to determine the organization’s long-term goals and strategies. Once these goals are clearly defined, then project initiatives may be weighed against these goals. If a project initiative does not fit the long- or short-term goals of an organization, it should not be initiated, and remaining projects may be ranked by priority.

Some of the largest and most sophisticated corporations have risk assessment departments whose sole role is to evaluate all the possible opportunities of the organization and determine which initiatives have the greatest revenue potential. Mid-market players do not have these separate risk organizations. Therefore, it is even more important that executives step up to evaluate and rank project priorities and clearly communicate these priorities to project managers and team members.

Project managers should be consulted when weighing initiatives, as they have insight into the risks involved with different projects. This is particularly important for mid-market companies that do not have separate risk assessment managers.

At a minimum, the project priorities must be communicated in status meetings and reiterated frequently. If a project management solution is utilized, the project priority should also be reiterated to all team members.

Challenge #3: No Visibility into Resource Workload

The lack of project prioritization often leads to overloaded resources. That is, because executive management lacks visibility into all active projects and tasks, they often believe the organization can achieve more than its resources can actually support.

Executive managers often delegate the assignment or allocation of resources to resource managers and project managers. If project priorities are not clearly established, it is highly likely that the organization will embark upon too many projects at one time. The result: team members will be overscheduled.

Project managers often claim that executive management has no idea how much work their resources actually have assigned to them. Unless the project managers are willing to stand up to executive management, or have a way to show that their resources are overloaded, they are in trouble.

Such lack of visibility has the great impact on team members—he or she is asked to work extended hours to attempt to fulfill the many projects, tasks, and objectives. However, the result is an over-worked, burned-out employee that may ultimately look for work elsewhere.

  Solution #3: Create a Resource Management Grid

The Project Management Institute (PMI) holds that if an employee works an eight hour work day, the resource should not be assigned more than six hours of work. This allows the employee two hours for the administrative aspects of his or her position. The first part of the solution has to be an education of executive management about this concept and a commitment to build a corporate culture of planning and managing resources effectively. If the organization is simply committed to “working on whatever is on fire,” then nothing will change.

There are many ways to uncover what resources are working on at any time. The simplest tool is to use a white board with a daily grid displaying the task being performed and the team member working on that task. For some fast-paced environments, this solution may work well. Of course, there has to be a point person to manage the white board.

Many project teams use Excel spreadsheets to outline the tasks and the team members assigned to them. Again, usually there is one point person, as Excel is not a collaborative solution and needs an owner. This can be cumbersome for organizations with multiple projects.

More sophisticated teams benefit from using a centralized resource management and allocation software solution. These solutions allow projects, tasks, and resources to be input while in the planning stage. Then the workload of each resource may be viewed in a graphical report, letting resource managers, project managers, and executives see the total workload. Once the total workload is assessed, choices can be made (e.g., assigning additional resources or selecting which projects to delay).

Challenge #4: Communication Gaps

Once a project is in full swing, a common issue is communication. Most project teams use e-mail to communicate the status of their projects and tasks. One of the biggest complaints with using e-mail is that project communication resides in each individual’s inbox. If a new resource joins the project, there is no centralized view of the project history.

Executive managers usually rely on weekly or monthly status reports from project managers for project status. This leaves the information about the projects in the hands of the project manager. Some executives have complained that project managers hold the communication “hostage.” As project sponsors, there is no reason why executives should not have access to the project dialogue.

The use of groups in e-mail is very common. Project managers may e-mail an entire group about a project. However when it comes to responses, some team members forget to click on ‘reply to all’ and some team members do not receive the e-mail, yet the assumption is that all team members have been informed.

Team members complain about the volume of e-mails they receive and the burden of finding those that are most relevant to them. Instead of spending time working on tasks, many team members are wasting time sifting through e-mail messages.

  Solution #4: Provide a Centralized Location for Communication

At a bare minimum, communication should be posted in a centralized location, typically on the organization’s network. If new resources join the effort midstream, a centralized location for communication helps new resources get up to speed rapidly by reviewing the entire project history. This is best addressed by Web-based collaborative and project systems that post all relevant project information in one place.

For project teams with client facing projects, centralized communication helps to resolve questions and issues that arise on projects and tasks. The communication may be referred to for clarification of scope, goals, and other key decisions made during the project. For teams that must comply with regulatory bodies, maintaining all of the project communication in one place is imperative.

Summary

While there is no magic formula to guarantee a project’s success, the solutions we offer combine people, processes, and tools to help you overcome the most common project hurdles. Good processes should be implemented that are customized for the business. Outside consultants may be needed to help define these processes. Software solutions that support these processes may need to be used and supported by top management.

For projects to succeed, executive management must show leadership by spending time to plan, set goals, and pick strategies prior to starting projects. Project managers must be bold enough to give feedback when executives’ expectations are unrealistic. Team members must begin work once task assignments have been communicated.

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Cynthia K. West, Ph.D. is vice president of Project Insight. You can reach the author at cynthia.west@metafuse.com.