The silver lining in this cloud is that these days, more organisations are embracing failure and using it as a learning tool. And, if we can get to the bottom of why one project failed, we can find ways to avoid subsequent failure, maybe even improve our project performance.
There are as many definitions of project failure as there are of reasons why projects fail. Should project failure be defined by late delivery, poor delivery or no delivery at all? Or are failed projects those that fail to deliver on all three constraints; the agreed quality, schedule and cost?
Yet another definition of failure can be found in the Standish Group's Chaos Manifesto, which says “a failed project is either cancelled before it is finished, or delivered and never used by the recipient.”
On the other hand, project failures can be linked to a number of causes, which stem from these four core problems:
- Poorly defined project scope
- Poor allocation of project resources
- Ineffective communication among stakeholders
- No / poor risk management strategies
Whether the failure is due to cost and time overruns, individual frustration, or change in business environment, we can all agree that the effect on the organisation can be costly.
To quote Murphy's Law, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. This is especially true in project management, but by learning what causes projects to fail, we can identify common issues and take steps to prevent them from happening. Use the following guidelines, preferably at the onset of the project, to assess and fortify your project against failure.
1) Set realistic expectationsIf you plan to avoid failed projects, make the phrase “a stitch in time saves nine” your new watchword. Setting unrealistic expectations just to please a customer, or so that the project falls within a certain budget, will cause problems when the project kicks off.
You also need to make sure to set realistic expectations for your team by assigning them tasks based on their abilities and skill set. Discuss all potential risks, threats and issues that may arise and develop appropriate contingency plans. You can avoid a black swan project by using the project plan to set quality, cost, and time expectations.
2) Properly initiate the projectNever start a project early just so that you can finish it early. Without proper initiation, rushing to kick off will only backfire on you and your team. Proper project initiation requires discussion, seeking agreement, and documenting the expectations of all the stakeholders.
When key stakeholders know what they are getting (and they agree to it), everyone knows exactly what is expected of them to complete the project. Poor initiation, on the other hand, will lead to rework, errors and omissions unnecessarily extending the project.
3) Check your resourcesDo your team members have the expertise required for the project tasks? Starting a project with a team filled with the wrong skill mix or wrong number of people, will only lead to failure. Limited staff and other resource constraints will result in missed milestones and deadlines, throwing any estimated completion date into jeopardy.
To avoid project failure due to lack of resources, make sure to check the availability of the required resources before the project kicks off.
4) Keep clear channels of communicationA breakdown in communications is another common cause of project failure that can be easily avoided. Project managers cannot operate in a vacuum, they need to be accessible to all stakeholders. If your project team members feel they are being ignored, it can lead to resentment and poor performance.
When a project schedule is created, a preferred form of communication should be agreed on by everyone involved, and you need to decide if you want to have check-ins weekly or monthly.
5) Be open to alternative solutionsThe point of having a team is to take advantage of a diverse set of skills and experiences. As the project manager, you may think you have the most efficient solutions to any problems that arise, but don’t forget to seek input from members of your project team.
Listen to their contribution, discuss viable options and agree on the best solution. Remember that the more invested the stakeholders are, the greater the likelihood of success.
The key to avoiding project failure is to plan well, execute this plan well, and evaluate your actions. Sure, there's Murphy's Law, but the most successful project managers always plan ahead to avoid grappling with vague project scope, resource shortages, and people problems.
How do you prepare for your projects? What signs tip you off that a project is about to fail?