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Project Management: Why Projects Fail

~ By Zern Liew

White king stands next to defeated black king in a game of chess

As soloists, our work is often project-based. Have you ever wondered why some projects go smoothly and others seem plagued with problems? Here are five reasons why projects can fail and how with good project management these problems can be avoided.

1. Lack of Stakeholder Buy-in

There are two types of stakeholder buy-in. Firstly commitment from a top-level executive authorised to make decisions and spend money. By a top-level executive I mean one person - I have made it a rule to avoid projects that are directly accountable to a committee.

Secondly, you need support from all project participants. Sometimes, project managers make the mistake of pandering to the needs of their employer at the expense of relationships with other stakeholders, or the "little people" and this can have a negative impact on teamwork and cooperation.

2. Hidden Agendas Can Compromise Progress

This is a particularly difficult problem to identify and overcome. We all have unexpressed thoughts and concerns. We all have egos to protect. A good project manager with a high level of emotional intelligence will use their intuition to identify any unsaid needs and draw out any hidden agendas without alienating or threatening anyone.

Good project management also involves actively encouraging open dialogue with all stakeholders in the project, including arranging one-on-one time with those individuals who are uncomfortable voicing their opinions publicly.

A good project manager needs to be clear about their intentions. I once had a project manager who was primarily there to secure her position with the client. The project only succeeded because we ended up managing her and building a barrier to protect ourselves from her interference.

3. Unmanaged Expectations

Every stakeholder in a project will have their own expectations. If not managed carefully, this can lead to chaos, confusion and frustration all round.

It pays to establish as much clarity up-front as you can by clearly defining the project parameters such as aims, inputs, outcomes, influence, boundaries, roles and responsibilities. Every time a change occurs, it needs to be evaluated against these parameters. A change could be as simple as a stakeholder changing their mind about something.

Role confusion is a classic problem. Rather than assuming everyone has the same expectations of their roles and the roles of others, spell it out. Kick the project off by getting everyone to set down their expectations and priorities on paper. You'd be surprised how much these vary - the finance exec may well put more priority on quality over price.

4. Ineffective Communication

Email is probably the most prevalent form of project communication. A great strategy I have learnt is to discuss only one subject per email and to use a succinct subject line. This helps the recipient to quickly determine an email's relevance and urgency. It also makes it easy to work with each email as a clear to-do task. This approach is essential to effectively leverage project management tools like Basecamp.

Good documentation is also important, but it must be accessible and relevant. Needlessly complex documentation or the production of documentation for its own sake just gets in the way.

In the throes of telling people what they need to do, it is easy to forgo the respect you can afford someone by genuinely listening to them. All too often, we listen so as to compose our response. The ability to just listen is a rare skill.

5. Insufficient Planning

There is a great temptation to not think too much and just dive into the doing. Looking productive and busy is good. The problem is, by foregoing careful planning, you often end up being busy for longer than you need to. An extra hour of planning could save you weeks of fire-fighting.

Not allowing sufficiently for contingencies is a common problem. This means making allowances for unexpected variances within the project, such as delays in approvals or resource shortages. If you think you can deliver by January, promise it for February.

You also need to plan for contingencies across projects. Build in slack to allow yourself to do the admin stuff, to chase future projects and to just rest. It can be difficult to get a sense of how long a project could take. Be careful about being too optimistic with timelines!

By following these project management tips you will enhance your project's chance of success. Do you have any other project management tips or pitfalls to add to this list?



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