Why are some projects successful while others fail?

I am always being asked why our projects are successful when all you ever hear about are failures, cost overruns, projects that don’t seem to have an endpoint and overall disappointment in the process. 

To me it’s always like running a family in that first and foremost you need a leader who facilitates all of the communication. As a kid every night we would sit at the dinner table and discuss our problems, achievements and future plans. It always started with my father asking us what we completed today. These regular meetings are crucial to maintain continuity in the family process as it is to maintain continuity during a project. Meetings typically should be to decide issues not discuss them. In the case of a project they may entail both; ideas on direction and future path as well as corrections that need to be made and opinions from others in terms of approach, direction and problem solving. 

A good Project Manager knows the details of the project he is running. In many instances project managers aren’t knowledgeable concerning the subject matter they are managing which renders them weak in terms of how they are viewed by the team and the level of respect they receive. If the project manager doesn’t add value to the project because they don’t understand the core deliverable and how to achieve it under budget, on time and with the proper resources they are heading towards disaster. 

I learned early on that people really don’t understand how long a task takes and all of the interdependencies that exist with other tasks. If I don’t understand it then the risk of failure grows significantly. The times I have had issues are usually when a key milestone is underestimated because the only person who has an idea is a lousy manager of their own time and even fail to consider they have other commitments they are already behind on. So no matter how hard it seems I make sure I budget enough time to gain a true grasp of all of the necessary tasks and timeframes even if means getting to a technical level of competency where I can run with the big dogs. My learning curve is the only competitive advantage I have. I can learn things quicker than anyone. This is my secret sauce in being a successful project manager – know the subject well! 

The other crucial factor is once you know the needed level of effort and understand it well is to make sure you are holding the task owners accountable. This is the major job of being a project manager. It starts with establishing clear “rules of engagement”. This is our way of establishing the ground rules of how we operate in this role. Expectations of each participant are clearly spelled out and senior managers are carbon copied on the important emails. As you know many projects fail due to buy in from the users and from senior management. All of our projects have a “speak now or forever hold your peace” approach. Once we pass through a critical task or milestone we rarely go back and prefer to treat it as a change order. If it is something that is missed or overlooked during design we will send communication to all parties looking for agreement and once it is we create a new release of the project plan with a revision number. This way senior managers and owners can see how we arrived at the changes and why the scope, timeframe and budget may have changed. 

When we build out the project plan we clearly define the tasks and confirm the level of effort and timeframe with the task owner. We learned that when a General makes plans for battle without telling the privates there are a lot of dead soldiers on the battlefield. We go through a rationalization process with task owner asking several questions that confirm understanding of the task, timeframe and resources needed. 

A few other things we have learned over the years include centralization of all communication, correspondence and project documentation. Many times we have found the islands of data exist in terms of the revision levels and information being used during the project. By using tools such as central Desktop or Dropbox can centralize things to a common area helping to manage the changes that occur with every project.  

It’s also important to have good written visuals depicting the projects process. We use report cards, project plans and status reports. Simple one pagers that have color coding for Green, Yellow and Red making it easy to spot areas of risk or concern. This also allows for identification of any action need by the Steering Committee or key stakeholders. Failure to provide visibility or to have quick turnaround time can greatly impact the on time performance of any project and waiting sometimes is the reason why timeframes slip. 

Lastly, it is important to call out problems often and early. Being honest with bad news is important. Noise is important because it brings attention which is what needed when something isn’t going right. Too many Project managers are afraid to call people out in fear of paralyzing team members. When done correctly shows that issues will arise and problems will occur but together as team they can build confidence in that honesty is always appreciated. While it may cause attention that may result in a delay it’s always better than saying nothing and having the project fail in the end.